Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Drinkers Face Tough Times in New Iraq

In the south of the country, getting hold of a beer or bottle of spirits is a lot harder than it used to be.
By Salaam Jihad

In the increasingly conservative climate of the Shia south, people in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf who enjoy a tipple now and then are finding the going rough.

Liquor stores have been forced to close leaving drinkers with a long journey to purchase alcohol, and they then have to find a secluded spot to drink without harassment from disapproving neighbours.

Before the fall of the regime, it was illegal to sell alcoholic drinks in the holy cities, but drinkers could easily find beer, whiskey and other spirits in liquor stores on the outskirts of the cities. By law, Muslims cannot sell alcohol so liquor stores, traditionally, have been owned by Christians.

The al-Ansar quarter of Najaf was a popular place to buy alcohol, but after the war, the people in the neighborhood forced out Christian families selling liquor.

“Our religion and traditions don’t allow us to keep silent now,” said Adel al-Yassiry 43, a local resident who condemns alcohol consumption and was glad to see the liquor stores and drinking spots disappear.

Today, consuming alcohol in the holy cities is not outlawed but is seriously discouraged by religious and social pressure.

“In the past we couldn’t do anything,” said al-Yassiry. “The local police in the city protected them because the police spent their nights in these places.”

Alcohol was also available in nearby cities before the war. From Najaf and Karbala, drinkers could buy liquor in cities 15 to 30 kilometres away like Abu Skhair, Twaireej, or to the tourist city Razaza. But today the nearest place where liquor is sold is Hillah, some 70 km from Najaf.

Once alcohol is located, drinkers need to find a place to enjoy it. Between Najaf and Karbala lies fertile farmland. Local entrepreneurs have built crude, open-walled shelters in the palm groves and fruit orchards to provide drinkers a private place to imbibe.

There, hidden from local police, men can still sit about on empty cans of ghee, old car seats or makeshift benches of wood planks on cement blocks to drink.

Another favourite drinking spot is the expansive cemetery in the middle of Najaf. Drinkers hide among and within the grave compounds. In Najaf, people are interred above the ground behind earthen walls, which provide privacy.

The cemetery is a labyrinth of narrow paths between the compounds and drinkers hire the gravediggers to guide them at night to safe places with lanterns. They are followed by stray dogs who always hover nearby looking for scraps of food.

“Everyday we go to the grave yard to drink with the spirits of the dead who are the only company we have,” said Karar Abdul Ameer, 28. “They protect us from the devils.”

Mechanic Thair al-Gharrawi, 33, has another favorite drinking spot, “I always go to Abu Skhair and buy a bottle of gin and broad-beans and half a kilo of lemon. I sit on the bank of the river near the palm groves in Kufa, drinking and singing.”

But that happy spot may be no more. “One time when I was sitting in the grove, the owner came with his axe and started to beat me,” al-Gharrawi said. “He said, ‘if I see you again, I’ll kill you’. ”

Salaam Jihad and Hussain Ali al-Yassiry are IWPR trainees.