Liquor Shops Open for Business - 03.30.2009

[Editor’s Note: We’d like to thank Salam Pax for his handy assistance with translation. You may have noticed Alive in Baghdad has not been updating regularly. Due to financial constraints and our own difficulties with the global economic downturn, we’ve had trouble keeping translators on staff. Can you help? Please email us at aliveinbaghdad at if you are able to help us translate material from Arabic to English!

We’d also like to thank the International Academy for Web Television for recognizing our work at Alive in Baghdad these last 4 years by awarding us the first ever Streamy for Best News or Politics Web Series. We’d also like you to take a moment to recognize the efforts of our Iraqi staff, their families, and the many Iraqis who have lost their lives during the last six years of the conflict. I would personally also like to thank Steve Wyshywaniuk, Josh Mull, our regional coordinator Omar Abdullah who, despite personal hardship, has persevered and always been a guiding light for our work, Mike Hudack and the rest of the team, my wife Eowyn, my parents and family, and everyone else who has been so supportive these last years and deserves more than this brief mention of thanks.

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While westerners are busy wrestling with their own taboos of government intervention and racial politics, a different taboo is re-entering the consciousness of Iraqis. The improved security environment has allowed the alcohol trade to boom, and while Iraqis welcome the business momentum, they are once again forced to reconcile their dual identities as proud Muslims and vulnerable people grappling with the trauma and depression of war.

Even though it was commonly understood that Saddam Hussein and his inner circle regularly partook of alcohol, the sale of liquor was for the most part banned during his rule. The accepted reasoning behind this was to bolster Saddam’s image as a pious Islamic ruler. However, much like in the United States during its Prohibition period, liquor stores continued to operate in Iraq, albeit as unlicensed dealers on the black market. These underground liquor establishments suffered occasional harassment from Saddam’s security services, but after the American invasion and the anarchy that followed, the harassment escalated to new, hellish heights.

During the chaos of the US occupation, freshly legalized alcohol merchants, and even the customers who attempted to patronize these merchants, were regularly the targets of kidnappings and bombings. And unlike average partisans in Iraq’s civil war, liquor merchants found themselves attacked from all sides of the conflict. Most of Iraq’s alcohol trade is run by Christians and Yazidi operating out of Mosul and other cities in Kurdistan, and while they do close on Fridays and during Ramadan out of respect to Islam, being a Kurd, a different religion, and doing something as “un-Islamic” as selling alcohol were more than enough reason to draw the wrath of everyone from fundamentalist Al-Qa’eda to the more moderate Shi’a militias.

It’s also this fact that betrays one of the most sensitive aspects of alcohol in Iraqi culture: Most liquor merchants are Christian or Yazidi, relatively vinocentric faiths, who abstain from alcohol, while the vast majority of drinkers in Iraq are Muslim, a religion which explicitly forbids it. But it is also this strange dichotomy combined with a reinvigorated attitude toward democracy that have led to fascinating public debates on personal freedom in Iraqi society.

Some Iraqis see alcohol as a shared affinity with westerners (most of the alcohol comes from the European Union via Turkey), while others see the choice to drink alcohol as a personal right guaranteed by no less than the Iraqi constitution. Even some religious parties have begun to question the ban on pubs and bars, if only for the rather condescending reason that drinking in a private establishment is less harmful than secretive drinking at home in view of the impressionable eyes of women and children. This alone is an explosive admission that drinking alcohol in Iraq’s war-torn environment may actually be inevitable, albeit still highly disreputable.

In this week’s episode of Alive in Baghdad, we talk to a handful of Iraqis in the alcohol trade and discover some of the intricacies involved in selling, and imbibing, a seemingly “forbidden” product in the midst of dictatorship, civil war, and democratic evolution.

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