The ‘lion-faced’ Iranian cafes of Karachi
How can we preserve their space and culture
Marvi Mazhar & Associates
There is a secret reason why Irani cafes tend to be located at the corners of streets in Saddar in Karachi. Think of Cafe Khairabad at II Chundrigar Road or Cafe Darakshan and Cafe Pehlevi on Zaibunissa street and M. A. Jinnah Road.
In Bombay, Hindu cultural beliefs divided the front of a store into two categories: lion-faced and cow-faced. This is why Hindu cafe owners favoured locations with wide interiors and narrower fronts (cow-faced properties). Irani migrants to the Indian Subcontinent, on the other hand, preferred ‘lion-faced’ properties with large interior spaces that were in prime locations on the corners of intersections. This is why many of Karachi’s pre-Partition Irani cafes are located on the corner plots at the junction of two busy streets. As these spaces are open from two sides, they are well lit and ventilated and customers come in and out with ease. This was the secret to attracting customers.
Homi Gadially, a senior Parsi resident of Karachi, remembers popping in to Jehangir Cafe, an Irani restaurant at the intersection of Clarke Street and Dr Daudpota Road near his home. The old heritage building had two floors with the cafe on the ground floor. This was the 1960s in Karachi when Saddar was more of a residential neighbourhood. A lot of Christians lived there to be able to walk to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Parsis had a few compounds in the area because of the Parsi Dar-e-Mehr or fire temple next door. It did not get more central than this with a main tram line passing on its way to Empress Market from Cantonment Station and Bohri Bazaar next door.
Jehangir Cafe was just one of the many names on the Karachi Irani cafe scene which had first started to emerge in the early 1900s. This was when migrants who had left Iran in favour of the Subcontinent stopped over in Karachi. The city proved inviting enough to some of them that they ended their journey here and set up shop. The cafes introduced new and innovative service standards and offered an inclusive space where anyone from shopkeepers to students, newspaper editors to office workers, Marxists and poets could talk over Persian food or a cup of chai.
With fewer than ten Irani cafes left from what used to be at least a hundred in their heyday, the need to document these spaces has never been more pressing. This apparent demise of the Irani cafe culture can be blamed on many culprits—from the death and departure of successive owners and visitor generations to ever-rising running costs, the price of real estate in the Old Town and the extortionist bhatta networks in their neighbourhoods. Karachi’s population has also swelled and been overrun by consumerism so people now prefer vacuous malls and fast food joints. Yet the resilience of stalwarts such as Khairabad Tea Shop show us how this culture could be preserved or even injected with new life.
Map: Uzayr Usman Agha
Any good history of Iran in the twentieth century would convey a time of great turmoil and upheaval; world wars, famine and drought, a coup and a revolution all created an unstable environment from which significant numbers of Iranians migrated to seek a brighter future. The blossoming of Irani cafe culture in the Subcontinent can be attributed to these successive 20th-century migrations.
Farsheed Roohani, the principal of New Day Secondary School in Karachi’s Garden East, is an Irani migrant of the Baha’i faith. His father migrated to Karachi when the economy was not faring well. Mr Roohani’s father, who was not formally educated and could only speak Persian and French, set up a cafe in the Old Town called Cafe India (after Partition it came to be known as Cafe Eros). There were multiple cafes on his strip and every owner would help people moving to Karachi start their own cafe as well.
As the elder Mr Roohani’s children grew up, he would never let them get involved in the business as he wanted them to study and branch off into a different profession. Hence, as a child, Farsheed was never allowed to sit at the counter of Cafe Eros. It closed in 2016 so that Farsheed could spend more time as a principal of the school he helped establish.
Like Farsheed’s father, many migrants leaving Iran for greener pastures were attracted to the port cities of Karachi and Bombay for their reputations as glittering jewels of the Raj. Southern Iran was already under British influence, so travel to Karachi by land or sea was a logical route in the passage to India. Many of the earliest Irani cafes in Karachi and Bombay were set up during this time by low-income Irani migrants who found a niche within the restaurant cultures of those cities. Many of them were equipped with an express service for passersby who needed to stop for a quick cup of tea and these spaces quickly became centres of communal activities with their distinct spatial qualities.
The owner of Khairabad Tea Shop tells the story of his grandfather settling in Karachi. “My grandfather was very religious, and when he came to Pakistan, he saw mosques and heard the azaan everywhere,” says Mr Abbas. “He decided to settle down here, but Bombay also has a lot of Iranians, and they are accommodated well.”
Many of the stories suggest that these cafes were the latest iteration of Irani eating places that were historically situated at important trade points along the Silk Road. However, this seems unlikely due to the geographical and historical distance between these times and places. The origins of several Irani cafe-owning families in Karachi can be traced to places in eastern and central Iran such as Yazd, Kerman, and Sistan. Here geography is critical; eastern Iran, mostly desert, shares numerous land routes with the Subcontinent. Poor migrants leaving these regions after drought or famine had two options: they could head west to the greener Persian heartlands, or they could head east to what is modern Pakistan and India.
“In 1910 and 1912 oil and gas reserves had not yet been discovered in Iran,” journalist Akhtar Balouch notes in an interview with a former Irani cafe owner. “Therefore many people left Iran to settle in the Indian city of Bombay as they thought it was a more prosperous city to live [in]. It was during this travel route that some decided to stop in Karachi, which was on the way to Bombay.”
Following the tumultuous Anglo-Indian invasion of Iran in 1941, Iranian power structures were severely undermined and destabilized. Then, in 1953, Iran’s nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in an Anglo-American coup that reinforced the Shah. The Shah’s years in power featured a brutal crackdown on dissent, and at this time Iran’s economy was also in a poor state. It was during this period that many more Iranian migrants arrived in the Subcontinent, and cafe culture grew in post-Partition India and Pakistan.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah and Iran’s subsequent rise as an Islamic Republic, many more iconic cafes were born in both Bombay and Karachi as Iranians of minority faiths such as Baha’is and Zoroastrians escaped the new government in their home country. Karachi’s cafe culture and the popularity of these Irani restaurants reached their apex in the 1980s.
Karachi has always been a migrant city, and its vast growth post-Partition is largely attributed to the arrival of displaced Muslims from India as well as the rural-urban migration of Sindhis, Baloch, and Pakhtun/Pashtun. But even before this, its melting pot mythos was exemplified by the thriving presence of Hindu and Parsi merchants. The cafe just became a natural space to attract the city’s diverse groups.
Karachi and Bombay had large Parsi populations who had been settled for several hundreds of years (some as early as the 11th century). While the 20th Century cafes were in no way purely Parsi spaces—as they were set up by Iranians of different religions—young Parsi men flocked to them as they were great hangout spots. “As kids, we all used to visit cafes because we knew the owner, and they were all our family friends,” says a senior Parsi philanthropist. Lyric Cafe in Saddar, in particular, was a favorite for its central location, proximity to Parsi Colony, and for the fact that families knew the owner.
The cafe proprietors came from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, but as Karachi grew more and more intolerant, so did their reticence to talk openly. You can, however, still find certain physical elements in the cafes that reflect their beliefs. One cafe owned by a Baha’i businessman still displays the sign, “Ya Baha Ul Abha,” meaning “O Thou The Glory of the Most Glorious!” Journalist Akhtar Balouch writes in his article and interview with Farsheed Roohani that cafe owners placed this sign above reception counters for good luck and the business to prosper. “When Karachi was a city of lights, people belonging to different faiths were not only doing business with great affection but also living happy lives,” according to Mr Roohani. “At that time, the number of Baha’i hotels in Karachi was around one hundred.”
The Baha’i are a tiny religious minority in Pakistan, but they have existed in the region since pre-Partition times. The founder of the Baha’i faith, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, once urged followers to move here and, in the 1920s, the Baha’is of Karachi elected their first Local Spiritual Assembly, a chosen group of councils that govern the faith on a local level. Today, the Baha’is maintain a place of worship in a historic bungalow, and there are several other temples located across Sindh.
From the cafes we documented, a few owners who identify as a part of the Ahle Tasheeh or Shia community requested to be kept anonymous. They suggested that a general atmosphere of intolerance had led to a decline in the once-thriving cafe culture.
Karachi experienced cultural growth as cinemas, cafes, and restaurants provided venues for entertainment and a nightlife. At some cafes, families would gather and meet and so ‘family rooms’ were common to encourage a mix of customers. At others, the clientele was primarily men, and it could occasionally get rowdy. Regular patrons had favourite tables and often knew the owners. They met for teatime after sports matches or work, or to hang out before or after going to the nearby cinemas.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Bun Maska reigned supreme. Biscuits were also well-loved, and many cafes had bakeries next door. Some of them have outlived the cafes themselves, such as Parisian Bakery that sat next to Parisian Cafe. Homi Ghadially recalls that people didn’t go just for the food as there was a wide variety of teatime snacks, patties or sandwiches. Irani food is a relatively recent addition to the menu. Mr Ghadially attributes this to the revamp of Cafe Subhani into Chullu Kabab Sistani, which highlighted their signature Irani dishes.
This was a time when Saddar was studded with cinemas and discotheques and liquor was available at small bars near the cafes. Often this alcohol was locally brewed and unregulated, therefore not of high quality. It was neither sold nor allowed in the cafes, but this didn’t stop some customers from stopping in for a bite to eat while inebriated. This ended in the 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later Zia-ul Haq introduced prohibition. By comparison, Bombay began offering liquor licenses which some Irani cafes acquired to improve business. Irani cafes were also great places to bet on horse racing. Bookies would take bets and people would travel from the cafes to the Old Race Course grounds to see who won. Similarly, the cafes hosted marijuana sales for their informal and leisurely atmosphere.
As Saddar was home to many newspaper offices journalists often grabbed lunch in Irani cafes as, according to Mr Ghadially, there were no press clubs in those days. This meant that intellectuals, the middle class and neighbourhood locals freely mixed.
As migrants from Iran settled in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) during the same time, Irani hotels thrived there as well. In fact, many cafes here possess furniture and spatial qualities similar to those found in Karachi.
Historians, journalists and enthusiasts are trying to preserve their culture, which is slowly fading from their landscape as well.
According to many online sources and blogs, cafes such as Britannia & Co. Restaurant, Kayani & Co. have the same European-style furniture, high ceilings, and tiled floors. But as a New York Times article on Kayani & Co. put it, there has been a slow but steady decline in Mumbai as well. “Irani cafes once numbered in the hundreds and were an integral part of city life… now only a few dozen exist.”
Beyond India, however, in places such as London, international restaurants such as Dishoom opened (2010) and adopted the visual aesthetic of the Irani cafes with their bentwood chairs, round marble tables and stained wall mirrors. One of the owners of Dishoom, Shamil Tharkar, says, “Dishoom cannot be an Iranian café as we are not Iranians and this is not the 1930s of Bombay. But what we are saying through Dishoom is that the cafés of Bombay are beautiful spaces that follow important philosophies. Dishoom is a tribute to that.”
Map: Uzayr Usman Agha
When asked why they thought Irani cafe culture had declined, another senior Parsi gentleman said that times had simply changed. “There were very few avenues for entertainment [in those days],” he says. “There was no television and we didn’t have anything to do in the evenings.” The Parsi philanthropist said that after some time, the cafe standards also came down as “the owners died, and their children would not continue the same legacy”. Favorite dishes like Bun Maska disappeared from the menus as well.
Mr Ghadially puts this down partly to the sudden influx of people to Karachi, in particular, the Pakhtun migrating in the 1970s and 1980s. They started opening smaller tea stalls that were cheaper and more accessible to lower-income groups. Also, wealthier families began moving out of Saddar, and the cafes could no longer compete with the low prices of fast-food restaurants. The city’s geographical expansion and the creation of newer, more scattered urban nexuses transformed the formerly centralized urban fabric of Karachi’s Old Town. This led to the loss of heritage buildings as well and the end of bars and cinemas.
The heritage colonial architecture of these cafes, combined with their unique interiors and decor, led to a rare amalgamation of aesthetics that gave them their special atmosphere and ambiance. The iconic Irani bentwood chair featured in almost all of the Irani cafes is a local interpretation of a European technique of bending wood through a process of heating and steaming. German-Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet first popularised this practice. These chairs were trendy, and the craftsmen who made them were known simply by their first names. One only had to specify the number of chairs needed, and the furniture makers would soon provide them.
The cafes are also famous for their thick cool white marble tabletops, sometimes square and at other times hexagonal, set on wooden legs. It was from these tables and the dark interiors of the cafes that customers would gaze out on to the bright sun-sharpened streets. The cafes provided that small pause from the urban chaos of Karachi and a break from the quotidien. For the daily workers who would lunch there or the students who would meet there after school, few substitutes for the Irani cafe exist today.
A study of the small but significant details is necessary to move forward with the idea of revitalizing these experiences. Instead of superficially reviving these spaces in mainstream restaurant cultures, it is essential to archive or document why these spaces mattered in the first place and how they can exist sustainably in the future.
Cafe Pehelvi was the first to fall victim to such ‘modernisation’ trends. Porcelain tiles, false gypsum ceilings, and metal chairs replaced and removed the iconic patterned tiles and bentwood furniture that characterize these spaces. The only significant spatial element that remains is its location on a corner plot open on both sides, with high ceilings and a mezzanine floor.
Fortunately, Cafe Darakshan right next to Cafe Pehelvi, retains its old furniture and typical mosaic flooring. It still has its original double-sided door and family dining hall on the mezzanine floor. The reception counter and the kitchen are situated on the ground floor. This kind of spatial distribution is responsive to our South Asian cultural considerations.
Many believe that the Irani cafes subverted traditional social barriers and religious taboos to become an essential part of the city’s public life. Today they are shutting down because of the deteriorating infrastructure of the Old Town, the lack of comprehensive preservation laws, and increasing demand for fast-food restaurants. Many of the original cafes have changed their décor and menus to serve a more extensive customer base. Therefore, to preserve Karachi’s gastronomical and cultural past, we must take steps to record oral histories and document the iconic spatial design and culinary tradition of migrant communities in Pakistan. This can be curated in the form of an informal ‘museum’—one that is not concerned with artifacts or objects but one that attempts to preserve a cultural tradition with honesty and sensitivity.
Far from objectifying the nostalgia of these heritage spaces, it may be worthwhile to use this museum to expand public notions of intangible heritage and the importance of public spaces, especially at a time when they are under higher pressures to become commercialized.
Karachi has a rich history, but without signifying the importance of such areas, future generations may never know just how multi-faith and diverse their city used to be.
The article was co-authored by Marvi Mazhar, Uzayr Agha, Mirra Saigol and Ghania Khan