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Poor of Cairo drown their sorrows in moonshine

"Bouza" — an ancient form of bootleg alcohol — is cheap, popular and frowned upon both by religious and medical authorities.

CAIRO, Egypt — Hagg Mohamed arrives at the bar just before 10 a.m. and orders his first drink. A dozen other customers are already several glasses down, all slouching on a short bench against the tile-covered walls. An old fan above sits motionless, and the narrow room reeks of smoke, stale alcohol and boiled onions, served alongside the alcohol.

As the early morning light pours in through a hole in the ceiling, Hagg Mohamed begs the bartender to turn off the bright fluorescent lights above. Raucous laughter and cursing ensues from the inebriated old men in the now dimmed room. As Hagg Mohamed grabs his walking cane and attempts to stand, one of the more sober of the old men breaks up the feeble attempt at a fight before it even starts. Five minutes later, with fresh cups of bouza, all seems forgotten.

It’s a typical morning at this unassuming bar in Cairo’s Bab El-Shariya district, one of the few remaining places to order bouza in Cairo. Bouza, the only drink on the menu, is a homemade alcohol produced from barley and old bread.

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to discover that fruits and barley could be fermented and drunk. Bouza in Egypt today is likely the closest surviving ancestor to the oldest beers of the Pharaohs.

The bouza-brewing process begins in a sealed room at the back of the fly-ridden bar, with the bartender/brewmaster dripping water over barley seeds in clay jars until they spout. The malt is then crushed, mixed with water and bread for its yeast content, then slow-boiled and left to ferment. After just four days, the resulting concoction is filtered into a khaki-colored liquid, thick like paste, with an acidic aftertaste similar to a cross between a flat beer and sour bread pudding.

“It’s a very cheap process to make. Customers come here to drink bouza because it’s not very expensive,” says the bartender.

A huge mug of bouza costs only 30 cents, compared with the cheapest bottle of Egyptian beer, which can range anywhere between $2 at a local bar and up to $8 at a five-star hotel. The United Nations estimates that nearly one-fifth of Egypt’s population earns less than $2 per day.

Fifty-five year-old Ibrahim has been drinking bouza for 40 years. He started drinking the day his father died. Every day since then, Ibrahim has come to the bar, 30 minutes from his home in the outskirts of Cairo, to drink between four and 10 cups of bouza — before starting work as a taxi driver.

“You know, I drink bouza for a pick-me up. It makes you feel good,” says Ibrahim, well into his quota for the day.

A normal morning at this bar is atypical for most in this majority Muslim country. For most Egyptians, alcohol is frowned upon and considered haram, or forbidden by Islam.

Still, alcohol here is legal. Egypt has become a popular destination for visitors from its more conservative neighbors for that very reason. Indeed, with a vibrant tourism industry sector and a significant minority of Coptic Christians, the alcohol industry in Egypt is flourishing, said Said Sadek, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.