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One of the world's tightest drinking laws just got a whole lot tighter.
KABUL — Afghanistan’s parliament has passed a tough new bill mandating harsh punishments for alcohol. Those who buy, sell, or consume the evil brew can be fined, imprisoned, or given 60 lashes with a whip, all in accordance with Sharia law.
This is the first time that the legislature has addressed the issue of liquor, which could signal a stricter approach to the issue.
But given the brisk if discreet trade in gin, vodka, whiskey and beer in some of Kabul’s markets, the residents of the capital are not taking the new law all that seriously.
“There are lots of other things that should be outlawed before alcohol,” laughed one young man, who was haggling with a shop-owner over a bottle of whiskey near Shar-e-Naw Park, in central Kabul. “I am having guests tonight, so I need to buy it, even if there are 10 laws against it."
Alcohol has always been illegal in Afghanistan, since it is prohibited in Islam. But the ban has always been more honored in the breach than in the observance.
One foreign guest, prowling a back street in a Kabul suburb a few years ago in search of beer, came upon a shop stacked high with bright green cans of Heineken. The sales personnel were a bit tipsy, and one was smoking what appeared to be a joint.
The foreigner was overjoyed, but surprised.
“Are you not Muslims?” he asked the store’s owner.
“Of course we are,” came the equable reply. “But we are happy Muslims.”
The happy Muslim rule seems to apply widely to Afghans, especially the hip urban young. Few social occasions pass without some kind of mood enhancer, either drunk or inhaled.
Nor is the laissez-faire attitude towards drinking restricted to Kabul, although prices rise and quality drops the further one travels from the capital. In Helmand province, the centre of the Taliban insurgency, foul-tasting “cognac” of dubious purity was selling for $70 a liter a year ago. The local supplier also catered to the turbaned crowd, although hashish was much more popular than liquor among the fighters.
One exception is the western city of Herat, where good wine is available for reasonable prices. Local fans of la dolce vita say that it finds its way off the military base in town, which is run by Italy.
While it is rare to see alcoholic beverages openly displayed, those in the know can always find what they need.
“I keep it next door,” said one shop owner. “Once I agree with a customer, I go and get it.”
If caught, the shop owner could be in trouble. Article 45 of the new law allows for the imprisonment of those who import or sell liquor, “from 10 days to 20 years, depending on the amount.”
He is unruffled, however.
“I know I can always work something out with the police,” he smiled.
Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan, and much larger crimes than bootleg liquor are subject to some form of gentleman’s agreement.
Tipplers have an easier time of it. Article 349 of the penal code metes out fines of $60-$120 dollars, three to six months in jail, or both, to those caught using any form of intoxicant, including alcohol.
But if Mawlawi Abdul Manan Mudarez of Samangan province has his way, things could get a bit uncomfortable for those who persist in boozing.
“The Book of Hedaya, a major source of Hanafi jurisprudence, says that the consumer of alcohol should receive 60 lashes from a leather whip,” he said.
Hanafi is the oldest of the schools of law within Sunni Islam.
Kabul’s thriving foreign community may also feel the pinch of the new law.
At present, non-Muslims are given a free pass when it comes to alcohol consumption. Thursday evenings at L’Atmosphere, the capital’s premier watering hole, would be all but unthinkable without vast quantities of demon drink.
Employers’ attempts to impose a “two-can limit” on contractors appear to be futile, at least judging by the slurred speech and lurching gait of many of L’Atmo’s patrons.
Article 57 of the Constitution of Afghanistan specifies that foreign citizens residing in Afghanistan are bound by the laws of the state, and the new bill could be tricky.
“We are a bit concerned,” admitted the hostess at Bocaccio’s, one of Kabul’s most popular restaurants. The Italian cuisine is backed by an impressive wine selection, and reservations are hard to come by on weekends. A loss of their liquor license could put a big dent in business.
But the manager of the small shop at one of the UN guest houses in town just shrugged off the new law.
“Of course alcohol is against Islam, and should be banned,” he said, pointing to the well-stocked shelves of beer, wine, and whiskey. “But those who want it will always be able to get it.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi contributed to this report.
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