Business, Finance & Economics

Beer and Chivas fly off the shelves as Baghdad's liquor stores reopen after Ramadan

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At a liquor store on Saadoun Street in downtown Baghdad, the biggest sellers are beer, "Chivas 18 and [Johnnie Walker] Black."

Credit:

Susannah George

After a long, hot month of fasting, Baghdad is springing back to life now that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is over. But that doesn't mean it's just restaurants and shops that are reopening: Baghdad’s liquor stores are also back in business.

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Along Saadoun Street, the sidewalk in front of a strip of liquor stores looks like a big block party — lots of young men decked out in new clothes, buying booze.

It can get pretty rowdy here. There's not a woman in sight, and a lot of the men are drunk. In one dark corner, someone's passed out on the pavement. 

Soheil, who owns one of the stores, says he had to close early on the first night of Eid — the celebration marking the end of the Ramadan — because it got so crowded.

He's an Iraqi Christian — they're the only ones allowed to sell alcohol in Baghdad. The vast majority of Iraqis are Muslim, but that doesn't stop many of them from drinking. The most popular drink at Soheil's shop is beer — Tuborg, a Danish brew, to be precise. After that, it’s scotch. "Whiskey, Chivas 18, and black,” he says, meaning Johnnie Walker Black Label. 

Selling booze in Baghdad can be a dangerous job. Just last year, a string of attacks on liquor stores left dozens dead. In most cases, gunmen pulled up to shops in SUVs and shot owners and their employees — sometimes in broad daylight. While no one claimed responsibility for these attacks, they're widely believed to be the work of Shiite militias, who view selling and drinking alcohol as a violation of their strict interpretation of Islam.

It's an unwelcome echo of the recent past: At the height of sectarian strife during Iraq's civil war, alcohol stores were targeted for attacks by militants. With the rise of religious political parties in Iraq, alcohol sales were briefly outlawed in 2006; two years later, stores began cautiously opening their doors again.

And the caution is still there. The owner of another store says the attacks scare him. He'd rather not be selling booze, he says, but it's one of the only jobs available to him as a Christian.

But customers, at least, are happy. Two men who’ve come here to buy beer say they're excited that Ramadan is over. They admit they didn't stop drinking during the holy month, but they had to buy booze on the black market that thrives during Ramadan. They prefer coming to a shop like this where the drinks are better quality and cheaper.

When alcohol was illegal — and even the black market sometimes ran dry — another customer here says he took pills to relax. But now, he says, all he wants to do is eat and drink. 

Susannah George's reporting from Baghdad is part of our partnership with Global Post.