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Essay: As NATO extends Afghan mission to 2014, finding booze in Kabul gets more urgent.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The transaction had all the earmarks of a minor drug deal — a whispered phone conversation, a furtive meeting, a hurried exchange of cash for an unmarked package. At the end of it all I had forked over $100 for four bottles of a sweet, fizzy Italian red wine that would not make a half-decent sangria.
Welcome to Kabul’s underground alcohol market. Since it looks like today’s NATO summit in Lisbon is likely to extend a military commitment to the Afghanistan War until 2014 and beyond — it seems appropriate to look at where one can find some alcohol here.
Few topics engender as much discussion in Kabul as the logistics of acquiring booze.
In the halcyon days of 2004-2005, it was not a problem. Foreigners had access to a variety of stores that carried a good selection of tax-free wine, beer and spirits. We used to try and hide our purchases from our Afghan colleagues, until one day shortly after my arrival the transportation manager sidled up to me and asked me to get him a case of beer the next time I made a run to Kabul Blue.
Sadly, in 2006 the Afghan government shut down those operations. Now it requires a lot more ingenuity to obtain the necessary supplies for a good party.
Foreigners are by no means the only ones in search of forbidden fruits.
Under Afghan law, it is forbidden to serve or sell alcohol to Muslims, but the rule is honored more in the breach than in the observance. While many Afghans do abjure demon drink, at least in public, many more are hot on the trail of a bit of liquid cheer.
I once had dinner with an Afghan deputy minister. At the time, every table in every restaurant had a decree — signed by this very man — warning of dire consequences if the establishment were to serve alcohol to Muslims. My “date” had the room cleared out, then proceeded to order bottle after bottle of wine. Rule of Law — Afghan style.
A few years ago a friend of mine went wobbling off in search of beer late in the evening. We had warned him it was impossible, but he was a bit the worse for wear and desperately needed a drink. He wandered into a neighborhood shop where he found cases of Heineken stacked in the back and, upon request, the owner could produce a bottle or two of Stolichnaya vodka. The cashier was puffing away on a suspiciously scented cigarette, and the atmosphere was exceedingly laid back.
My friend, a Scot, raised an eyebrow.
“Aren’t you Muslims?” he asked, with genuine curiosity.
The cashier laughed, and took a deep drag on his spliff.
“Sure we are, but we’re happy Muslims!” he replied.
We’ve called the place the “Happy Muslim” store ever since.
The foreign community can always go to one of the exclusive watering holes reserved for them, where wine and other beverages are served under a variety of euphemisms.
The prices, however, are stratospheric. A friend of mine is still in shock after paying $90 for a pot of “kishmish tea” — kishmish being the Dari word for raisin.
Hosting a dinner party with adequate refreshment can be quite a challenge. I recently had friends turn up their nose at my selection of reds — the aforementioned Italian bubbly along with an exceedingly mediocre Chilean Merlot. Eventually they drank it, and admitted that the second bottle was a lot more palatable than the first.
Those lucky enough to work in embassies, the United Nations or in the various organizations affiliated with the military have access to tax-free alcohol. I have never been very good at cultivating “useful” friendships, although I have gratefully accepted the occasional delivery from well-connected acquaintances.
The rest of the time I am thrown at the resources of the local economy.
These include those few “Happy Muslim” establishments still operating in Kabul — a few stores in the center, where a wink and $20 will still produce a bottle.
Then there is a pair of enterprising brothers who operate a growing business called “Alkidrop.” One calls a number, places an order, and an hour or so later a young Afghan shows up on a motorcycle and hands over the goods.
This was the provenance of my bubbly Italian plonk, which flooded Kabul dinner parties for weeks, inducing vicious hangovers among the unfortunate participants.
It would be so much easier if I were inclined toward wacky weed. Marijuana is not that common, but hashish can be had on virtually any corner. I was once taken to a hash market in northern Afghanistan, where merchants gave away free samples of their wares. A thick fug hung over the area, which contained dozens of small shops. The stock varied from plastic-wrapped wafers that sold for about $1 to fist-sized chunks that cost close to $100.
Near the shops were huge piles of melons — Afghan hash smokers believe that the sweet fruit prolongs and intensifies their high.
Marijuana, of course, is also illegal in Afghanistan. No worries, though — if one is stopped by the police, a few joints or, even better, a wafer of hash can smooth out most difficulties.
I am now out of the country — enjoying a few days of respite in Dubai, or trying to.
Afghanistan was preparing for the Eid al Qurbon holiday — a festival that in my Kabul neighborhood is characterized by massive slaughtering of animals in people’s homes. I am no vegetarian, and I cannot object too much to the humane practice of killing a cow or sheep and dividing up the meat among the poor, which is one of the customs of Eid. I just prefer not to see blood and offal running down the sewers, so I usually arrange to be out of the country for the weeklong celebration.
Dubai, of course, is also a Muslim nation, although the tourist industry dominates the place to such an extent that it rarely crosses my mind. Except last night, when I tried to order a glass of wine with dinner in my favorite restaurant.
“Sorry, we are not serving alcohol today. It’s Eid,” explained the server, a bit anxiously.
Hmmm. I wonder if Alkidrop can deliver out of country?