Getting Drunk Under the Sword of ISIS
by Zanyar Omrani
Having stayed so long, I do not feel lonely and alien in Qamishli and Amuda anymore. It is a spring afternoon, and I decide to take a walk in the streets and alleys of Amuda. There is all silence and bewilderment in the city. You can see the church crosses here and there.
I say to myself, “in a city which has a church, you can easily find a bar.” Delsouz, my friend and companion in these days, points to a clay house and says: “you see that house over there? That was a bar, but now it is just an abandoned ruined house in the middle of the market.”
I ask her: “the extremists did that?” The answer was no.
In the main street of the city, the third alley on the right, a store seems inviting and attractive. As we go near, we see that it has no sign. A somehow drunk and friendly man comes out and accompanies me to the inside: a traditional ambience with clay and muddy walls, which has various types of alcoholic drinks.
Saeed, the bar owner, is an Armenian. As a sign of hospitality, he offers us a bowl of bitter wine. Staring at Saeed’s swollen eyes, makes me scared, but then I see that he is very cordial.
He says that fortunately in all these years, there have been no threat from the Islamic extremists to his job. However, Saeed is unhappy with selling drinks and says,
If people of Amuda drink every day, now I would be selling 100 boxes of beer every week, but unfortunately these days, sale is just about some boxes each week. If nothing changes, I will have to close down the bar like Hana [did].”
Hana is a 90-year-old man who owned the oldest bar in Amuda, but closed it down due to his old age.
In order to find Hana, and the oldest bar in the city, I decide to search for him every street and alley in Amuda. Saeed gives me some ideas and after asking the passersby I came across an Internet café which belongs to Hana’s nephew. Hanna Hilul is 24, and before his uncle’s bar was closed down, Hanna worked there as an apprentice. I ask him, “why did your uncle’s bar close?”
Hanna answers: “my uncle was not physically well and his bad economic status was another issue which led to the close down.” I ask Hanna about the differences and diversities in the bar customers, to which he answers: “most of the customers were Muslims. They could not drink at home, so my uncle’s small bar was the only place where could drink comfortably. “
Most old men and old women of the cities, remember Hana’s bar, and they call it “ Khammara” (in Arabic; saloon or bar). Ezzuddin Mohammad Tavus, is 79-year-old Muslim who has begun drinking wine since he was 10. “We would secretly go to Hana’s place with my friends, and thank God, I do not drink anymore.”
I ask him: “don’t you think that drinking alcohol is in contrast with Islamic teachings?” He answers with a serious tone,
I don’t think so, it really depends on how much a person drinks. Yes! There are many things which are harmful for health, but as they say “everything which is good is forbidden. He sighs and continues: “Yes! We have drunk and got drunk! Don’t you see how do we look like?”
A few blocks down Ezzuddin’s store, an Armenian old woman is sitting, whose clothes and skirt is rather different from the ones that Muslim women wear. Her name is Sihaam Antar. I ask her about Hana’s bar. She shakes the dust off her skirt and says: “sometimes when we passed by the market, I saw people were gathering before the bar, but we were not allowed to get in there.”
Bars in Qamishli
The population of Qamishli is much bigger than the population of the small city of Amuda — and is the number of bars and famous brands. However, the presence of police and security forces in Qamishli, and the segregation of Christians and Kurds, has made it impossible to gather information about drinking alcoholic beverages.
In order to find the bars, one should go to the areas where Assad’s forces are still controlling the areas. Going to such places for someone like me who does not have a Syrian ID card, is very risky, but that “elixir” that Saeed gave me in Amuda, has increased my risk-taking power.
Finally, I made my decision and went on to that area. The differences are many; from the architecture of the buildings and houses to the numerous pictures of Hafiz Assad and Bashar Assad and also the Syrian flags which cover the walls all over. The architecture and the atmosphere of the city takes me back to Jolfa quarter of Esfahan…
I should be more careful.
I go on to some stores but no one agrees to talk. At last, “Nobaar Ghazarian”, an Armenian, accepts me as his guest. Nobaar, owns a cozy bar in the quarter.
The big picture of Bashar Assad in the bar, has made the atmosphere of the bar more serious. Nobaar is completely unhappy; both with the control of the city by the Kurds and with the few sale of alcoholic drinks.
I ask a question about the reason of few sale of drinks and why people do not come for drinking. He says: “the unrest in Syria and also the fall of the national currency against the dollar were the main causes.”
Nobaar shows me his job certificate and proudly speaks about the many years he has done that job. He claims: “in the job certificate given by the Syrian state to the bar owners, it is written that the certified person must be a Christian.”
A hundred kilometers beyond Qamishli, and in a city where most of the people are Musilm and from Serikani, Adel Sheikhu disagrees with Nobaar. It is now more than 7 years that Adel has been selling alcoholic drinks in Serikani. Adel regards himself as the instance that rejects Nobaar’s claim and insists that Yezidi Kurds were also given permissions to sell drinks.
Prices on the Rise
Nevertheless, Nobaar says: “most alcoholic beverages in Syria is produced in Homs. Homs is very far from Qamishli and the terrorist forces have impeded the way, so the drinks do not reach Qamishli as easy as before.”
What Nobaar means of terrorists, are all the forces participating in what he calls the “fitna1 of 2011”. He believes that the extremist Islamists also have made some problems for his job: “al- Nusra Front take tolls from the lorry drivers. They are sensitive toward intoxicants. Therefore, [the few] alcoholic drinks [that reach] here, come by embedding them between the fruits and other products.”
Another bar owner, Sheikhmus Qarnu, blames other dealers for taking advantage of the situation. “The hardship of transporting drinks, have caused some dealers to take advantage of the circumstances by hoarding the drinks and raising the prices, and therefore when the prices are high, less people will come for buying drinks and the drink market will be depressed.”
Another way for importing drinks which is nearer, is from Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan; a choice which has been removed off the list, as the borders were closed down due to political reasons. Nevertheless, trafficked Turkish beers have reached to the windows of Kurdish bars.
According to most bar owner I met in Qamishli and Amuda, since 2011, the price of alcoholic drinks has been on the rise — for some products, the price has risen six-fold. Nobaar says,
If in Homs, or the greater Levant [Syria], a brand of drink is 400 liras, then here we have the same one for at least 800 liras, and people cannot afford it.”
An interesting point here is that for example Grants Whiskey that Sheikhmus sells me for 1300 liras, Saeed would charge only 800 liras. Sheikhmus Qarnu says: “in this situation, maybe we should turn to hand-made drinks again.”
However, bar owners like Nobaar believe that this idea cannot be practiced easily, as the primary materials for making drinks in the current status of Syria, are rare and expensive and it also takes a long time. Nobaar thinks that the main problem here is the lack of grapes in Rojava cities.
Besides such things, another stunning claim is expressed. Hana Hilul claims that due to the high profits of alcoholic drinks, the ISIS takes part in selling and distributing them.
Handmade Wine in Tel Tamer
In order to record the steps of making hand-made wines, I should go to a village near Tel Tamer. Tel Tamer is located 100 kilometers south of Qamishli and 30 kilometers away from Hassakah. Most people living in Tel Tamer are Assyrian but recently after the constant attacks of the ISIS to the suburban areas of the city, most Assyrians have left the city.
In Tel Tamer, I see Yundam Ashuri, one of the citizens who has decided to stay. I ask him about Tel Hermes village and its hand-made wines. He says: “the village is in the ISIS’s hands, and doubtlessly all the places used for wines, have been destroyed until now.”
Lozieh Aboud, an Assyrian housewife from Homs who is now living in Direk, which is 100 kilometers east of Qamishli, still makes wines on the roof of her house. Lozieh, tells me the way she makes wines in Arabic:
I buy the grapes in market. Then I will rinse the grapes and put them in a large plate to dry off. Then I will put the dried grapes in a larger barrel. In order to let fermentation happen, I will add a piece of bread in it. Then the barrel will be kept closed for 40 days and during this time I will shake the barrel every day. As soon as the forty days end, I will open the barrel lid and keep it open for four days. In the last stage, I will pour the prepared wine in a big bowl or in one-liter bottles.”
It seems that the deep-rooted diversity of people, which is due to the cultural combination of ethnic and religious minorities and the more liberal society of Syrian Kurdistan, has isolated the religious extremism in these areas. Less religious tensions are seen in these regions, but the limitations against women and girls, are the same common restrictions in the Middle East.
Bars in Kobane
Shirin Mohammad Ali, is a Kurdish journalist from Kobane. I ask him about the bars in Kobane. She says: “I remember that there was a park in Kobane, called “Siran” where the local people would gather for holding marriage ceremonies or celebrating holidays such as Eid. There was also a bar in the park. When the ISIS attacked the city, they made a video about that place and that bar, calling Kurds as “infidels and drunkards”.
Vivian Fattah, a journalist from Qamishli, on the cultural differences of Muslims and Christians in case of consuming alcoholic drinks, says: “the Christians drink on a regular basis, particularly on special religious rites, which is mainly done collectively, but the Muslim Kurds, drink in smaller groups and more frequently than the Christians. Sometimes, the over drinking of alcohol by adolescents, causes some problems such as motor cycle accidents, harassing girls and shutting down the streets and pavements.”
“When you get drunk, what comes to your mind?”
‘I asked this question from all bar owners and they gave interesting answers. Nobaar Ghazarian, still bears in his mind the nostalgia of security provided by Hafiz and Bashar Assad for the Christians. He was drunk most of those days.
Nobaar knows that there were just a minority in the city and of course there are Kurds, who thought about the hard days of lacking ID cards in their drunkenness.
Saeed but says that he does not think of a special thing and begins to sing one of the poems which he often sings while he is drunk:
This is a bowl from the sweetheart
For his devotees and lovers
Its color speaks of the truth
Taste it to see the true bitter part
No friend and companion is like that
It washes the sorrows off the heart
Whoever has a pain and affliction
The fate has made him fall apart
You, like me are inflicted by the fate
Come and sit and have a drink
Drink this bowl to be immortal
To remain healthy and to feel great
Some of the bar owners in Amuda and Qamishli have left their country, in the last few years and they all went to Germany.
The first time I left Saeed’s bar, I felt dizzy but now the dizziness is more and I think I got drunk. Anyway half-drunk and dizzy, I continue to walk home in Amuda’s streets. Several military Toyota vehicles pass by quickly on the road going out of the city, and few minutes later, I see some other Toyotas bringing back the bodies of the ones killed in the war to the city.