Dying for a Drink: Mosul’s Liquor Ban Leads to Desperate Measures
|May 29, 2011||Filled under Iraq Daily News|
For years Mosul city has had an unofficial alcohol ban. Bottle store owners are bombed, alcoholics are assassinated and you can be shot for openly carrying a beer. The locals still find ways to get a drink though.
On the night of Wednesday Nov 10 last year, the Iraqi military pulled off a successful operation in Mosul. They had received a tip off about a terrorist group gathering in the bushes on the west bank of the Tigris River and at midnight they surprised the group, none of whom, somewhat surprisingly, tried to resist arrest. Only later was it revealed that the group actually consisted of four drunks. Their only weapon was a knife that they were using to cut vegetables.
That group of unfortunate midnight revellers was far from uncommon. Many inhabitants of Mosul city, the capital of the northern Ninawa province, seek out isolated places to drink alcohol where they will often stay all night, due to a curfew imposed by security forces that lasts from midnight until 6am.
Mosul is a conservative Sunni Islamic city and has no bars, nightclubs or discos. Restaurants do not offer any alcoholic drinks, even behind closed doors. Interestingly this is not because of any prohibition-style laws or just because of the locals’ Muslim religion.
Sociologist Waad Salem explained that the closure of bars and the alcohol ban actually dates back to the 1990s when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched a “return to faith” campaign in his attempt to be seen as a great religious leader. Part of this was a ban on drinking in public, which resulted in the closure of many pubs and bars. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to Hussein being deposed, alcohol began to be sold in Mosul once again. But this was short lived. In 2005, religious fundamentalists with links to terrorist organizations began to take control of the city’s security.
“In early 2006, fundamentalists killed a bottle store owner in the Ziraai neighbourhood in west Mosul,” Salem recounted. “His shop was targeted with a bomb. Another two shops were also targeted; one in the Darkazliya neighbourhood and another in the Faisaliah neighbourhood. A number of alcoholics were also murdered around the city.” All of which led to, Salem explained, “a fearful atmosphere.” Even today that apprehensive mood still exists, despite the fact that since the middle of 2008 Mosul has been back under the control of the Iraqi military and police forces.
A member of the Ninawa provincial government with affiliations to the Islamic political parties who preferred to remain anonymous because of the general opprobrium around the discussion of alcohol told NIQASH that he would not hesitate to vote for the banning of liquor. Such a decision would be in the “public’s interest,” he said.
“I don’t expect bars to open in Mosul, not even in the future,” he added. “Not even if the city becomes completely secure.”
The only shop that openly sells alcohol in Mosul is at the top of Dawasa Street in central Mosul. The small premises are owned by Ayad Tobyato, 42, and a Christian whose religion does not prevent him imbibing. Two of his brothers assist him with security for the shop, sitting outside all day long. Tobyato has already survived several attempts on his life because of his job.
Despite the fact that Dawasa Street is closed to vehicles and is located near Ninawa police headquarters with police deployed in the street continuously, Tobyato’s bottle store was completely destroyed in 2009 when a bomb went off outside it. Two people were wounded and many nearby stores were damaged. A similar attack took place in 2008, when two bombs went off near the store: Tobyato was not in the bottle store at the time.
Tobyato reported that there were two other stores in Mosul that sold alcohol. One, owned by Abu Salam, a practitioner of the Kurdish Yazidi religion that does not prohibit alcohol consumption, was bombed three times in one year. The other bottle store was owned by Abu Salam, a Christian – tragically one of his sons lost both legs when a bicycle bomb exploded outside the premises.
Tobyato himself said he is continuously frightened. A police car is parked next to his store most of the time but, as he said: “We always expect to be attacked by explosives or weapons with silencers.”
Inside the small bottle store a young Muslim, Fayez Marwan explained that: “We put the beer or whiskey in black plastic bags to hide what we are carrying with us. Carrying alcohol is a dangerous thing to do.” One of Marwan’s neighbours was killed by gunmen in the Saa neighbourhood in Mosul because he drank alcohol, sometimes openly. He was carrying a bottle of beer when he was shot and killed.
Marwan’s friend, aged in his 30s, told how he could not drink at home because as a Muslim he lived with his family. “I go to friends’ houses who live closer to the river or we meet at a house or bar to drink without letting anybody know what we are actually doing,” he explained. “For instance, we put beer in Pepsi cola bottles or in other kinds of bottles.”
Many young people are happy to travel in order to drink. In general, they go to places in northern Ninawa, cities and areas such as Qaraqosh, Bartala, Tall Kaif, Qosh or Bashiq. The majority of the population in these places are Christian and the residents of Mosul are willing to drive far from home in order to either sit in a bar, or to buy some alcohol to take back to Mosul, albeit well hidden.
Arjalan Samir, who sells wine in a bar in a Bashiq, 17 kilometres northeast of Mosul, explained that the city had been famous for centuries for the arak it produces – arak is a clear, very potent spirit traditional to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria among others – and that Iraqis had always flocked to the city to buy Bashiq’s arak.
“Prices are cheap and the alcohol is made by private householders,” Samir explained. “It’s easy to put in any plastic bottle – which is what buyers on a limited income do with it.”
Wealthier customers, Samir said, went to Qaraqosh to buy premium whiskeys, arak from Lebanon, Jordan or Cyprus, as well as Heineken beer from Holland or Turkish beer.
Samir, who had been working in alcohol sales for many years, also had some wisdom to impart: “In my experience, I have seen that banning alcohol only seems to increase demand for it. Whenever one bar is closed, another one opens – it’s just that the next bar will be hidden inside somebody’s house,” Samir said, smiling.
The smile left his face though as he recalled the unfortunate events in Mosul on that Wednesday night last November. The security forces who had been alerted to what was apparently a terrorist group at work on the river bank were unsure as to what the drinkers had been doing and shot them. “It’s just sad to see people dying for a bottle of beer,” Samir said.
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