Naser Kamali: a lifelong exile

Swiss Cottage coffee kiosk operator writes book about his life in Iran

Monday, 7th February — By John Gulliver

Nasser Kamali Starbucks coffee

Naser Kamali at his Red Star Box Coffee in Swiss Cottage

NESTLED in front of the ruins of the demolished 100 Avenue Road building with a harsh view of the Swiss Cottage gyratory, is a comrade from the Iran revolution who considers himself a lifelong exile.

Naser Kamali has run the Red Star Box Coffee, formerly Star Box Coffee, for more than 30 years since he came to this country as a political refugee.

He has used the Covid lockdowns to write his memoir, Love, Justice and Freedom, which tells the story of his radical awakening and the heavy price he paid for it.

It is a detailed account of his life at the heart of the left-wing movement in Iran and the brutal conditions and torture he experienced in various prisons in the 1970s and 1980.

There are two long lists of the names of fellow political prisoners he met and those who died at the hands of the regime he opposed.

The book is laced with personal details about his Persian roots in Lar, a city literally divided in two by a historic earthquake, and its mountainous regions where limestone, gypsum and salt are mined.

Mr Kamali’s grandfather ran a pastry shop and changed his surname to Ghanadzade, which means confectioner. His father was a political dissident who was found killed, aged just 41, in the mountains in suspicious circumstances, not long after he had criticised government-sanctioned drug smuggling in a left-wing paper.

At high school in Amirkabir, he became politicised by a teacher whose classes became “more than about studying”.

He learned about injustices in South Africa, Palestine and Vietnam – but also how his homeland was riven by divisions between the rich and the poor.

It was not long before he was out with a group daubing anti-Shah slogans on city walls: “Viva Communist! Viva Castro!”

The schoolboy was slung in jail for two and a half years – beaten and humiliated, he was made to hear fake executions by guards.

Despite only being allowed out in the yard one hour a day and to take a shower once a week, he “learned about human relationships” inside the prison walls and met activists from political and guerrilla movements.

He writes about how he discovered that “outside the prison some books of Marx-Lenin could be found” as “the cries, screams, and curses of the interrogators filled the air”.

Broken glass from rioting would be mended and facilities refurbished ahead of inspections by Amnesty International.

After being released, he continued to distribute political pamphlets, door to door and at football matches, often with the help of his fiancée, Maryam.

As the revolt against the Shah intensified, Mr Kamali writes about the “initiation of armed operations” by his Communist group, and how this led to “a mass shakedown of Leftists’ homes”.

His time in prison took a deep psychological toll of prison was immense and he found himself spending all his time in a cemetery.

He writes: “In the morning, I would go to the place where they would wash the dead bodies before burying them. I would stand and look at them for hours while they were washing corpses. Sometimes I would help.

“I was in the cemetery all the time. Some nights, I would sleep there [in graves].”

Mr Kamali was featured on the front page of the New Journal in 2017 after Starbucks sent him a legal letter insisting his Star Box Coffee business could be in breach of trademark laws.

He rebranded to Red Star Box rather than face litigation with the global chain that went on to open an outlet directly opposite him in Finchley Road.

To his delight, his business outlived Starbucks, which closed the branch after just four years.  He told me it was having his story featured in the New Journal, and the response from supportive residents around Swiss Cottage, that inspired him to finally write his memoirs.

To a backdrop of executions of political prisoners, Mr Kamali said he knew he was “ready to leave Iran”.

He secured a passport and evaded the intelligence services by boarding a night ship to Kuwait.

“As I went upstairs I looked at my family, who were looking at me anxiously,” he writes. “I waved to them; everything was over. An unknown fate awaited me. I went to the deck to look at Bushehr for the last time. I kept telling myself that I was born in exile, I was brought up in exile, and now I had to start a new life in exile.”

The book is available in Persian and English and can be brought direct from Mr Kamali at Red Star Box, next to Swiss Cottage Tube
station Avenue Road entrance, and also at bookshops including Waterstones.

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