Alcohol is flowing again in Baghdad

July 1, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Iraqis no longer have to settle just for thick Turkish coffee, cardamom-laced tea, strawberry-flavored milk or bottled water to quench their summertime thirst. Beer and alcoholic beverages are readily available once again.

There are no bars outside the American-controlled Green Zone and parts of Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, for booze is sold retail only. But more shop owners are reopening behind iron gates.

Take Saif. At 19, he's barely old enough to buy liquor in Iraq; the law says 18. But the improbably young entrepreneur's family owns four liquor stores in Baghdad, and business, after years of literally being blown out from under them, is becoming brisk.

Saif, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, represents an unusual resurgence. Iraq is a deeply Muslim nation that allows its citizens the right to consume alcohol. During the era of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, drinking was common. After the U.S.-led invasion, however, violence and Islamic extremists forced most liquor shops to close for a while.

Today, Saif's family stores are running full tilt after years of off and on business. Self-service, it isn't. To buy a bottle of Scotch, a customer confronts an iron gate that keeps him 3 feet away from Saif. By vaulting two steps back, Saif can hide behind the wall where he displays bottles of liquor.

However, even the iron gate wasn't enough to protect the store from insurgents who threw a Molotov cocktail inside the family store in Karrada in mid-May. "The fire cost me $10,000," Saif reckoned.

Forced to close, he repainted the store and reopened it in late May. Other Islamic prohibitionists then placed a bomb near the shop. The explosion meant more losses, but he opened the gate again a few days later.

Saif's family, who are Christians, are nothing if not resilient. They once owned 13 liquor stores all over Baghdad but lost nine to Islamist insurgents, Saif said. Now iron gates protect those that have reopened.

Liquor distilleries can be found in all 18 of Iraq's provinces. The most famous are in Diyala and Nineveh provinces. Iraqis are well-known among Arab countries for the liquor called arrack, made of dates and colloquially called "the milk of the lioness." Abo Dawood, another liquor-store owner, noted that "most of my customers prefer to buy arrack because it is cheaper and stronger than any other liquor."

Iraqi law bars licensing Muslims to sell alcohol, and the trade is in the hands of people such as Dawood, who's Yazidi, a small non-Muslim sect from the north of Iraq, and Christians.

Drinking is nonsectarian, however. Iraqis from all religions and sects consume alcohol.

Abo Do'aa is a Muslim Iraqi in his 40s who travels more than 50 miles from Balad, in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, to Sadoon Street in downtown Baghdad to buy liquor. "It's very safe these days, and I can go back to my town even at 2 a.m.," he said. "I came to buy liquor for me and my friends. It's expensive, but we can afford it. We used to drink for a long time just to enjoy ourselves."

Another regular is Abo Ali, 37: "I drink only beer because I like it and it relaxes me."

In his store on Sadoon Street, Dawood offers more than a hundred kinds of beverages, including whiskey, beer, vodka and wine. Prices range from less than $1 for Iraqi hooch to $3,000 for a single bottle of Black & White Scotch.

One reason for the high price is the cost of previous attacks. About 18 months ago, insurgents from the Mahdi Army, a Shiite Muslim militia, stormed into the liquor store of one of Saif's friends, cut off his arm with an electrical saw and left. Saif's family closed their stores for several months, which cost them about $90,000.

Most of Baghdad's liquor stores are in the downtown Karrada neighborhood. In Sadoon Street, a mixed Shiite-Sunni Muslim area, the stores form a long chain that provides a feeling of security for the owners. Until the recent lull in violence, most owners opened their stores at most about four hours a day.

Things have changed. "I open my store at 10 a.m. and close it at 7 p.m.," Dawood said. "The security situation is much better, and I hope it becomes even better because I believe that all Iraqis are brothers and deserve to live in peace".

To which a lot of Iraqis, even teetotalers, would shout: "Bsihtak!" Cheers!

(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Mike Tharp of the Merced Sun-Star contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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