Now closed: Signs in a beer garden in Iraqi Kurdistan.
It is not too difficult to find them. The young men are standing by the side of the road, on the highway into the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, waiting for customers. As this correspondent was also standing on the side of the road, he was mistaken for one of them. A car pulled up beside me.
“Can you sell me some alcohol?’ the driver asked me curiously.
I couldn’t but I knew who could. I pointed at the other side of the road, to the young men. Satisfied, he drove toward them. I too approached the young men. Coming closer, it was obvious what they were doing.
When a customer arrives and asks for alcohol, his order is taken. Then, just like a drug dealer in a big European park, one of the young guys goes to find the bottles the customer wants. These have been stashed nearby in gullies, long grass or, in this case, inside a large rubbish container.
He respects other people’s religious beliefs but he doesn’t think that they should be used to restrict his rights, which includes having a drink or two.
Mahdi Karim* is one of the young men doing a roaring trade here. “We sell spirits and our customers are from every social group,” says Karim, who’s been doing this work for the past five years and always from the side of the road during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Karim says during Ramadan; he and his colleagues need to work as surreptitiously as possible. “Obviously it would be far better if we could do this legally,” he suggests.
Ramadan is a month long commemoration of when the holy book, the Koran, was revealed to Mohammed, during which the pious abstain from eating, drinking and other activities like sex, during the day; they then break their daily fast with friends, family and neighbours at night. None of that involves alcohol, which is not permissible to Muslims anyway.
It is possible to get alcohol in Iraqi Kurdistan most times of the year though. However when Ramadan starts, that has changed in Sulaymaniyah: at the start of the month of fasting, all of the alcohol stores here close their doors. Only 4 or 5 star hotels, mostly accommodating foreigners, are allowed to continue serving spirits.
Ramadan also means that some restaurants and cafes will close during the day, in some places, so as not to offend those fasting. A lot of this activity is organized by the local city authorities and every year, they send out a list of rules and instructions for local business owners. This includes liquor store owners.
No beer here: Ramadan in Baghdad.
“We take into account the Iraqi Constitution which says that Islam is the main religion of the Iraqi people,” says Goran Qadir, head of the organizing committee at the municipal authority in Sulaymaniyah. “So to show respect to Ramadan, the liquor stores close up.”
No matter the rules, it’s become a social custom here, Qadir notes, saying that even the Christian store owners (many alcohol stores are run by Iraqi Christians because their religion doesn’t have the same restrictions on drinking) won’t open their shops out of courtesy.
The fancy hotels in Sulaymaniyah are excluded, Qadir says, but that isn’t a problem. “Foreigners of different faiths and beliefs come to those places,” he notes. Qadir also acknowledges that it’s still possible to buy a beer from street-side vendors like Karim, who appear on the side of the highway as soon as the liquor shops close their doors.
Most customers want beer, whiskey or arak, a regional aniseed-flavoured spirit, says Karim. Because the bottles are being sold illegally the price is increased by around IQD250 (about $0.20) to make up for the risk, he explains. The authorities have already confiscated several shipments of bottles, he explains.
There’s one street in Sulaymaniyah, you can usually find a few people lounging around having a drink. But now there’s only a handful.
It impacts the rights of many people in Iraqi Kurdistan – Iraqi Christians and followers of other religions as well the hundreds who make their living from the trade.
Two men are sitting in the back of a pickup truck sipping vodka. One of them, Khalid Mohammed* says he is 53 years old and he started drinking in 1984 and that he is not about to stop now, just for Ramadan.
Mohammed says that he is secular and prefers his politics left wing. He respects other people’s religious beliefs but he doesn’t think that they should be used to restrict his rights, which includes having a drink or two. “Religion can’t stop me from drinking spirits and anyway,” he adds, “this only happens because the authorities want to appease certain members of their parties when they make this decision.”
“Drinking helps me relax and it doesn’t hurt anybody,” he says – he buys his drinks from the highway vendors during Ramadan because he cannot afford to drink in the luxury hotels in town. He only earns between US$300 and US$400 a month.
Another drinker, Shakir Ahmad*, is standing by his car when we meet. There are a few empty beer cans lying nearby. Shakir, 26, is a university student in his final year and living in dorms – he leaves the dorms when he feels like a drink. In fact, Shakir says he didn’t use to drink during Ramadan but his opinions have changed recently so now he has a drink whenever he feels like it.
Dlawar Rahim is an Iraqi Kurdish writer and former resident of the Kurdish city of Erbil who currently lives in France. He sometimes posts pictures on Facebook in which he is shown drinking wine or spirits and via Facebook, he tells NIQASH that he too thinks a ban on alcohol during Ramadan is a bad idea.
For one thing, he argues, it impacts the rights of many people – Iraqi Christians and followers of other religions who don’t celebrate Ramadan, the hundreds who make their living from the trade and, he adds, just general individual freedoms.
It would be better to amend the laws so that those who do sell alcohol by the side of the highway don’t get into trouble, Rahim concludes.
*Real names have been withheld due to sensitivity of the topic.
This story was altered on 1/6/2018 to correct an error: Not all liquor stores in Iraqi Kurdistan close during Ramadan.