The owner, Ebrahim Mahmoudi, poured espressos, barely flinching when the call to afternoon prayer blared over the mall's loudspeaker. He had named his shop the Free Speech Cafe, but its decidedly secular vibe did not deter customers in the "city of mullahs."
On a recent day, a middle-aged mullah in a robe and turban came into the cafe and struck up such an intimate conversation that he left behind a pipe and tobacco flakes as gifts, Mahmoudi said.
The man was considering sending his 21-year-old daughter to study in Germany, but had to grapple with leaving her on her own in the dissolute West.
"He knew she would be exposed to things," Mahmoudi said. "He told her: 'If you have sex, it does not mean you are a sinner.'
"I was surprised," the cafe owner said. "It was a very progressive way for a mullah to talk."
Others too were adapting their faith.
Marzieh Taheri, a woman from the southern port city of Bushehr, said she and her husband no longer sought out local clerics for guidance on personal matters.
But she noted that she was making her 16th pilgrimage to the shrine in the last 12 years.
"It doesn't mean people are less Muslim," Taheri said.
"There is some disenchantment with the system. But we still have Islam in our hearts."
(Mostaghim is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)
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