Western perception of the Middle East seems to be grounded in an ever-growing pile of untruths. It’s a shame that Edward Said isn’t around anymore to promote his seminal work Orientalism. It was after a girl in a bar asked me if I’d ever had a drink before that I wanted to take a look at the relationship between Alcohol and the Middle East; to try get past the images of Saudi clerics breaking smuggled scotch bottles or fundamentalists calling wine a satanic drink.
It’s true that Islam prohibits Alcohol; a much quoted verse from the Qur’an is the revelation of intoxicants and “games of chance” being the work of Shaitan (Satan). Though this was not the first revelation about intoxicants; it was the harshest. The first simply said Muslims should not come to prayers intoxicated, but the second, that there are good and bad things about intoxicants but the bad things tend to outweigh the good. Few Muslim countries criminalise drinkers; Saudi Arabia and Iran have banned it, but the more conservative gulf countries tend to have only harsh alcohol laws.
Brewing and drinking beer, wine and spirits has been a long tradition for many Arab cultures…
There are always expat havens in these countries though. Flick through Orwell’s Burmese Days and you’d be surprised that the old officer’s club colonial bars are not a thing of the past, often acting as a social centre for Westerners living abroad, in a similar way to the classic English village pub.
But much to everyone’s surprise, a lot of Muslims do drink. Many modern Muslims keep their faith by identity but are as devote as the Christmas and Easter Christians you come across in the UK. Brewing and drinking beer, wine and spirits has been a long tradition for many Arab cultures, if you’re ever in Lebanon try a glass of Arak.
…why not hitch a ride to the Taybeh Beer Festival?
A prime example of the alcohol industry in the Middle East is the Taybeh Brewing Company, the only brewery in Palestine. Run by a group of Christians in Taybeh, a village deep in the Israeli occupied West Bank, they have fought off criticism and legislation from both Israeli authorities and Palestinian Islamists and now annually hold the Taybeh Beer Festival, the Oktoberfest of the Arab world.
The essential rule to remember about drinking in the Middle East is not to be stupid. Doing things you wouldn’t usually while drunk is fine when the risk is minimal, but in some Arab countries, some big holiday destinations, it is not. If you ever find yourself hanging around the West Bank around October time why not hitch a ride to the Taybeh Beer Festival? There’s music and drama and comedy to go along with the beer on tap, though there is only one.