Have you heard any good news coming out of Baghdad in the past couple of decades? Unlikely. According to media reports, the city is a war-torn shambles crumbling into the Tigris and bereft of amusement. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Baghdad once claimed the title of the party capital of the Middle East boasting a booming nightlife and healthy drinking culture.
Despite the Muslim ban, alcohol still is, and for the large part always has been, legal in Iraq, a relatively secular nation by Middle Eastern standards. Mesopotamians, those that settled the cradle of civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates many thousands of years ago, were the first cultivators of barley and grapes and thusly, beer and wine, References to and adoration of alcohol populate early regional writings. Today, the country even has an official drinking age (18).
It wasn’t until the end of the Gulf War in the early 1990s that Iraqi imbibers began to have issues. Saddam Hussein, miffed by his lost Kuwaiti invasion, turned to religion to reinforce his political allegiances and alcohol consumers became a target for the police. Booze all but disappeared from restaurants and bars as Iraqis took to drinking in the protection of their own homes.
Since then, the story of alcohol in Iraq reads like a game of Whac-A-Mole - wherever alcohol begins to pop up, someone arrives with a mallet - or an IED - to drive it back underground. During two periods, the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the 2008 wane of the insurgency, alcohol began to appear in its regular points of sale. But as it appeared, strict Islamist militias began to target these establishments, bombing their buildings and murdering their proprietors. With the recent resurgence of militant groups such as ISIS, selling and consuming alcohol are once again life-threatening activities in Baghdad.
To add insult to injury, those Iraqis longing for a quiet drink at home can no longer justify their craving. ISIS has overtaken northern regions of the country through which much of the country’s alcohol imports must travel. The difficulty in delivering drinks to the capital has caused their prices to skyrocket with 500% markups on a can of beer and bottles of cheap whisky jumping from $15 to $50.
So how do you relax with a drink in Baghdad? There appear to be few options.
The once bustling Abu Nawas street, a 2-kilometre stretch of road along the banks of the Tigris and named for an Eighth Century bon vivant poet, is quiet.
The Baghdad Country Club, immortalized in a 2011 piece for the Atavist by journalist Joshua Bearman who called it a “Casablanca in the Green Zone”, shut its doors after little more than a year of its owners risking their lives transporting cases of booze through the streets of Baghdad to the bar.
The Iraqi Hunting Club, a place of respite for the Baghdad posh, has largely kept its doors - and pool - open throughout the city’s chaotic years, but appears to still risk militant destruction by pleasing its guest with alcohol.
If it’s a drink in Iraq you seek, you may be better off risking a trip through the militant-controlled areas and push through to Kurdistan. A report in the Jerusalem Post shows that the party Baghdad was once famous for has migrated there.