Libyans risk poisoning for a sip of illegal hooch in their dry nation

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Marco Werman: Lots of talk about oil in Libya this week. The Libyan government is trying to keep rebels from exporting the stuff illegally but there is another valuable that's trading on the Libyan black market that we want to talk about: booze. Kind of surprising for a Muslim country where alcohol is banned, or maybe not. Reporter Marine Olivesi recently spent two weeks in Libya learning about its alcohol culture. Marine Olivesi: Is still, at least on paper, a completely dry land. But in reality, it's not. Libyans in Tripoli can easily find imported whiskey and vodka smuggled from Tunisia or Algeria. Everybody knows where to get the booze. There's a big black market area in a seaside neighborhood in Tripoli. One dealer I talked to there says he sells up to 800 bottles of whisky on weekends so that's quite a big business but it's not for every pocket. These imported bottles are quite expensive. For instance, one bottle of regular Chivas Regal costs 120 Libyan dinars. That's $100. Many Libyans turn to drinking Bokha instead. That's the name of the homemade Libyan booze. It's a much cheaper alternative, about $15 for a liter, so it's cheap but it's not the safest drink these days in Libya. Werman: When I was in Libya in 2006, I was discretely offered Bokha on several occasions. It seemed people were not too worried about getting caught with it. But I was kind of worried about this when I tasted Bokha, there was a mass poisoning about a year ago from a vat of booze. How did that come about? Olivesi: Yes, it was a major health crisis that broke out last March because of a batch of poisoned Bokha. I talked to a doctor at one of Tripoli's main hospitals who has been working there for 7 years. She said that it was one of the worst crises that she has had to deal with as a doctor. To give you an idea, she says that even the fighting during the revolution and its string of casualties did not compare to the chaos caused in the ER by this outbreak. Werman: A number of Libyans died in that episode, right? Olivesi: Yes. It was actually caused by methanol being added to the Bokha. Over 100 Libyans died either because they were ashamed of going to the hospital or because they arrived too late and dozens of others suffered irreversible brain damage or blindness. Werman: That shame and those other consequences - has all this changed the way Libyans drink? Olivesi: Not really. Some Libyans told me that they stopped drinking or at least slowed down for awhile after that, but really the word on the street is that more people nowadays are just producing Bokha themselves. They don't trust the big producers anymore after what happened and so they've turned to making their own booze. Werman: So $100 for a bottle of Chivas or a real cheap but potentially toxic bottle of Bokha. How's the government responded to these bootleggers who are making this homemade hooch? Olivesi: I spoke with one health official and asked if this health crisis changed their mind and made them reassess the alcohol ban for the sake of public health. He said "no, absolutely not." These days, there's no police and pretty much anything goes, so you can sell and buy whatever you want. This small Bokha producer I talked to, Mohammed, says the government should then legalize alcohol because Libyans will keep drinking anyway and at least legalizing it will ensure that what they drink is safe. Mohammed: They should open a shop or something that makes clean alcohol and they can put the mosque on the left and the drinks on the right and if you want to go pray, you can go pray and if you want to go drinking, you can go drinking. Werman: Marine, will alcohol be legalized in Libya any time soon because I would have thought the departure of Gaddafi would have quickly opened the door for a serious re-thinking of the alcohol prohibition. Olivesi: It really doesn't look like it. That opinion was from Mohammed but many other Libyans, including some who regularly drink, have quite a conflicted view about the whole issue. They pride themselves in Libya's traditional Islamic values and say alcohol should at least officially stay illegal, even if they themselves enjoy a drink every now and then. So no, it doesn't seem alcohol will be legalized any time soon, but that won't stop many Libyans from drinking, even though now they know that the risks can be much worse than a bad hangover. Werman: Reporter Marine Olivesi who's just returned from a reporting trip to Libya, where she explored, among other things, the country's booze culture. Marine, thank you very much. Olivesi: You're very welcome.