At 25, she is the first female coffee roaster in Iran, although her journey towards this accomplishment started inside laboratories.
Shayli Mosalli was born and raised in Qazvin, a city near Tehran with a population of roughly 400,000 people. Her mother was a nurse; her dad, an exterior painter. Growing up, Shayli was a shy and diffident kid. At age 13, she lost her dad to cardiac arrest — an incident that left her rattled for quite some time. In the years that followed, Shayli’s mom believed she had to keep her two daughters safe from what she understood as the dog-eat-dog world. In doing so, she imparted the habit of staying home to Shayli and her sister Shima. This, among other things, fueled Shayli’s firing desire to lead an independent.
When Shayli turned eighteen, thanks to the nationwide university entrance exam, she had the perfect opportunity to materialize her wish: “I didn’t want to attend just any college. My goal was to get accepted to a school in Tehran.” Shayli had even found her go-to song, a famous earworm called Tehran is Mine, made by the Iranian rap band Z Baazi; Shayli would listen to it throughout one particular winter walking in the streets of Qazvin in bone-chilling cold. Eventually, she got admitted into one of the finest schools in Tehran to pursue a degree in Laboratory Sciences. Now, Qazvin struck Shayli as too small a city for her ambitions. Almost two years into her undergrad, Shayli lost her young aunt who had died along with her two kids — one being a-year-old, the other being five — in a boat crash. As a result, Shayli struggled with a debilitating depression during which she would cry, without hyperbole, almost all day long. Meanwhile, she became a regular to SAM Cafe, a thriving coffee shop chain in Tehran. Funny enough, though, she would never drink coffee at a place best known for its cappuccinos and lattes. Instead, coming from a tea-loving background, she mostly ordered tea while peeking at what people were doing behind the coffee machines. This became a routine for quite some time, so much so that Shayli grew keen on becoming a barista herself. The problem, however, was that she had never held a job at a coffee shop, and SAM Cafe was no place for a rookie.
Her lucky break came when SAM Cafe announced, via their Instagram page, an opening for a would-be permanent barista. For her inexperience, Shayli had no confidence in getting the job, but she was willing to give it her best shot: “I love doing things that are not girly. Being a barista is mostly considered a man’s job in Iran, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” Shayli was accepted for an internship position, and became a barista a few months later. Soon, she found out that she didn’t quite fit into the female barista stereotype either. Most of the female baristas, she says, feel the urge to etch tattoos all over their bodies or use foul language just so they can sound like their male counterparts. In Shayli’s case, she has always remained gentle as a person while toughening up in her work. She loved her major, but she felt like something was missing: “When I learned about making coffee, I found the missing link. I found a lot of artistry in making coffee.” Her immense aptitude in making coffee was only surpassed by her professional attitude. She would make, on average, eight kilograms of coffee a day, a feat requiring prime perseverance: “Coffee work is seen as a cushy job, but it can consume you.” Her greatest challenge, says Shayli, was keeping different types of customers happy. The customers included some finicky ones with a wide range of demands regarding temperature, taste or texture: “When I used to work as barista, what I loved was knowing the range of people who came to the cafe and make what they loved, however they wanted it.”
Shayli’s work in the field of laboratory sciences gave her a unique insight into the world of coffee — one that was deeper than that of most of her colleagues. While many of them obsessed over creating art patterns on the surface of a latte or cappuccino, Shayli researched exhaustively about the nuances of roasting and preparing coffee: “Knowledge makes me feel better about myself and boosts my self-esteem.” Her blend of passion and knowledge soon made her one of the only female head baristas at SAM Cafe: “I was juggling different tasks: working as a barista all day, placing orders for raw materials, and training the new staff.” Despite her day-to-day success, Shayli’s mom asked her, once every few months, if she was soon quitting the coffee shop work, believing such a job should be treated as a pastime activity: “My mom kept telling me I should go back to the laboratory and become a doctor.”
In January 2019, Sam Cafe owners paid for Shayli and a few of her colleagues to go to Turkey for a crash course in coffee roasting. This was the first time Shayli was traveling overseas, and without her family — with no one to look after her, help her with her bags, or remind her about possibly having left something behind. “I once took a stroll near Isteqlal Street, and it felt slightly haunting,” says Shayli. “I tasted what it was like to feel lonely, even despite the fact that I speak fluent Turkish.” This was also the first time Shayli was able to compare her knowledge against other international coffee connoisseurs. This changed her vision drastically. Besides, she was living her dream the whole time. The course taught participants how to work with certain computer applications, many of which are quite costly and unavailable to Iranian coffee roasters. When Shayli returned home, she had to readjust herself to the limiting circumstances in Iran; everything felt like a burden at first. And regardless of the insight she had gained during the course in Turkey, the trial-and-error process proved to be disappointing for a while: “I was telling myself maybe I wasn’t going to be able to handle it and the occasionally harsh feedback didn’t help.” All the while, Shayli’s colleagues were comparing the new Shayli against the previous one who used to make coffee behind the espresso machine. The first delightful sparkles eventually came about when Shayli decided to work on a Honduras coffee in spite of her colleagues’ skepticism. In the end, however, she received positive feedback for her choice.
Today, Shayli is more driven than she has ever been. She takes her work as seriously as an engineer or doctor would. Every morning, she is one of the first people showing up at work, switching on the giant coffee roasting machine. She examines, smells, and touches every coffee bean as if carrying out a scientific experiment. And she does everything without seeking attention. Admittedly, though, she occasionally longs for her barista work: “Seeing a customer smiling upon drinking their coffee is something that I really miss.” Presently, Shayli’s biggest dream is to pursue a degree in the United States. She believes her tenacity and dedication will get her through the tumults of life, like they have always had. Her source of inspiration is none other than her mom, whom she looks up to in many ways — a woman who, in the midst of Iran’s Cultural Revolution in 1979, was unable to pursue higher education but refused to give up on her dream of attaining university credentials; a woman whose fragile side comes across only when watching a romantic drama; a woman who, according to Shayli, is the heart and soul of the family — their sole source of strength. “The only time I saw my mom crying out of despair was probably at my dad’s funeral,” says Shayli. “I ought to take a page out of her book.”
This article was originally published by Siavash Saadlou with Medium on May 12, 2019. Siavash is a freelance writer based in Tehran, Iran, writing about politics, culture, art, and sports.