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What A Fella Has To Do To Get A Drink Around The Muslim World

NPR | July 6, 2013 2 p.m.

Contributed By:

Sean Carberry

Alcohol is illegal in Muslim countries — except when it’s not. So if an ordinary night out on the town gives you a headache, you may want to go ahead and pop a couple of Tylenols now — before we take a quick nip of the laws regulating booze in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Let’s start with where I live these days, Afghanistan. Here, locals are banned from possessing and consuming alcohol, yet there are countless establishments in Kabul with licenses to sell drinks to foreigners. It’s an awkward but utterly pragmatic compromise struck after the fall of the Taliban, born of the simple reality that the thousands of expatriates working in Kabul generally like to drink.

In years past, there used to be shops that openly sold alcohol, and for reasonable prices. But those establishments, and prices, are a thing of the past.

Non-Afghans are allowed two bottles, or liters, when they enter the country. Some are able to find ways to exceed the limit — though the giant pile of smashed bottles outside Kabul airport’s arrival terminal indicates plenty of failure.

Make No Assumptions

In Qatar recently, I found a completely different, albeit no less crazy-making, set of regulations. I was traveling from the U.S. back to Kabul, via Doha, Qatar’s capital. In my suitcase, my two-bottle quota of alcohol.

I thought briefly about whether it would be a problem to bring in the alcohol, but I figured it would be like Dubai. There, alcohol is sold in hotel bars and restaurants (there are special liquor stores for only licensed expats with resident status), and it’s legal to carry it in or buy it at the duty-free shops in the arrival halls.

I figured wrong. In Qatar, alcohol is confiscated upon arrival and returned upon departure – not ideal, but at least my bourbon would make it to Kabul.

And, indeed, upon arrival in Doha, customs officials politely relieved me of my stash and issued me a receipt.

Now, that might lead you to believe that booze isn’t allowed in the country at all – but once again, you’d be wrong. Also like Dubai, Doha’s hotels are full of bars, and Westerners paying exorbitant prices for drinks: something like $12 for a Heineken, $16 for a shot of Jim Beam.

Well, most hotels are full of bars – I managed to find one of the only chain hotels that wasn’t. Given that in Sana’a Yemen, an extremely religious — and thus dry — country, one of the only hotels with alcohol is the Moevenpick, who would think one of their two hotels in Doha would be dry?

And that’s just the start of the idiosyncrasies and oddities of alcohol polices in Muslim countries.

Sudan is as dry as it gets. In 2007, my fixers took me to someone’s house in a sketchy neighborhood, where we were able to buy what looked like IV bags of Ugandan pineapple schnapps.

Libya is also dry. During the revolution, it was easy to bring bottles in. But once strongman Moammar Gadhafi fell, the transitional government started enforcing alcohol bans at the airports and borders.

But where there’s a will, there’s usually a way, and in Libya, Johnnie Walker Red — also consigned to a sketchy neighborhood (this time, in Tripoli) — could be had for $120 a pop.

Oases In A Conservative Region

Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are all quite wet, and alcohol is available in restaurants, bars and shops. Turkey is also full of bars and liquor stores, though as my colleague Peter Kenyon has reported, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is tightening the rules.

While the Gulf countries are more conservative, Bahrain has some of the wildest bars in the region — often resembling rowdy spring break spots more than the Middle East. Arabia and Kuwait are completely dry, and there’s not a drop of legal alcohol outside diplomatic compounds.

Back in Qatar, when I went to reclaim my bottles at the Doha airport, the young men working behind the customs counter made a cursory check in the closet and said they weren’t there.

Wrong answer.

After an hour of running to different desks and talking to different airport officials, a new crew of 20-something customs officers began their shift. They searched every duty-free bag in the closet — and finally found my bourbon.

I had just enough time to run to the gate — past a duty-free shop selling $6,000 bottles of scotch — and catch my plane.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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