A careless killer on the loose…

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By Khaled Diab

Gun and knife violence gets a lot of public attention but one killer prowling our streets goes largely unnoticed… apathy.

Thursday 24 January 2013

It was a case of senseless violence followed by a needless death. Peter Vercauteren, a 43-year-old Belgian artist and local community leader, was heading home late one night in the heart of Sint-Niklaas, not far from the picturesque market square, the largest in the country, for which this smallish town is best known.

Vercauteren, “Pee” to his friends, was followed by another punter with whom he’d allegedly had a bit of a shouting match in the pub, even though, by all accounts Vercauteren was a jovial man with a big heart and a booming laugh that could be heard long before its owner could be seen.

His assailant, Wesley L, head-butted Vercauteren so hard that he collapsed on a dark street and died… eventually.

Had this been the whole story then this tragedy would have remained a largely private one. But what happened next has had locals, who went on a silent march to express their outrage at his preventable death, searching for explanations.

While Vercauteren lay dying outside a kebab shop, under the apparently unwatchful eye of a police surveillance camera, a number of people walked past him without stopping to offer assistance, including his attacker who returned for a second look. An hour and a half later, someone finally put in a call to the emergency services, by which time it was too late.

This carries echoes of a similar tragedy, in 2006, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, 17, was not only stabbed for his mp3 player on a busy rush-hour train platform in Brussels, but no one came to his aid.

One explanation for why no one lifted a finger to assist Vercauteren, as one friend, Steven, put it to me, is that passers-by may have assumed he was just a drunk who had fallen into a booze-induced stupor.

While this could well be what (de)motivated some from rushing to the fallen man’s aid, I find this diagnoses the symptom more than the underlying condition. Even if Vercauteren was a passed-out drunk, surely this, in a cordial, educated society whose sense of solidarity is reflected in its high tax rates would prod people to act, despite knee-jerk snobbery towards “tramps”. After all, in addition to the danger of choking on vomit, an unconscious drunk also runs the risk in winter of developing hypothermia or freezing to death.

Another, more convincing reason is simple, instinctive, gut-wrenching fear. “The uncertainty in society has increased the level of fear, and this undoubtedly played a role,” says Roel Thierens (23), who volunteered in a youth centre, Kompas, where Vercauteren also worked.

And, indeed, though much of Europe is perhaps the safest it has ever been, a neurotic media and fear-mongering politicians induce in many people a sense of disproportionate fear and distrust of, not to mention alienation from, others, especially immigrants and minorities. But fear, especially in a situation as unthreatening as this, can be overcome.

At heart, what this could all boil down to is that the true accomplice in this crime was apathy and indifference. “Passers-by might well have thought that somebody else is bound to help him,” notes Wouter Thierens (26), Roel’s brother who also volunteers at Kompas.

Many social conservatives see such apparent apathy as a sign of the breakdown in traditions and family values. But what this overlooks is that, though families have become less central than they once were, they still play a pivotal and central role in the lives of most Belgians.

Additionally, in countries where family is still paramount and traditional community remains important, such wilfull blindness also occurs, as demonstrated by the recent outrage when passengers reportedly stood by as a young woman was gang raped and beaten to within an inch of her life on a Delhi bus. And similar incidents occur in the Middle East.

Moreover, in a modern, well-oiled, mechanical society, like that which is prevalent in northern Europe, it is not that people have abandoned their sense of community and solidarity, though some erosion has occurred thanks to the greater individual alienation witnessed in contemporary society, but that it has changed to become more impersonal and distant. Citizens, aka taxpayers, have grown to expect the ‘system’ to take care of everything and everyone: the destitute and the desperate, the weak and the sick, and the criminal and their victims.

However, important as such systemic solutions are, we still need a certain sense of personal social responsibility.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 21 January 2013.


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Holy month, holy city, unholy Egyptian

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By Khaled Diab

Even for a non-believing Egyptian, Ramadan in Jerusalem – where the three Abrahamic faiths coincide and oft collide – is a fascinating experience.

Friday 17 August 2012

Ramadan lights in a quiet Old City. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Chance – or fate, if you prefer – has ordained that my unholy ‘soul’ should find itself surrounded by holiness in both time and space, in the shape of the holy city, Jerusalem, and the holy month, at least for Muslims, Ramadan.

Although I gave up fasting many years ago, I still enjoy observing Ramadan, that is, its cultural and social aspects, from a comfortable secular distance. And I have encountered the multifaceted yet universal spirit of Ramadan, as a child, youth and adult, on three continents, in Muslim, non-Muslim and hybrid lands.

In its basic character, Ramadan in the Palestinian quarters of Jerusalem is similar to how it is in my home town, Cairo, or elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a bizarre ying-yang of contradictions and contrasts: fasting during the day and feasting after dark with family and friends, like a whole month of Christmases. There is also charity and goodwill towards others, which coexists side-by-side with the uncharitable loss of temper among the fasting and furious motorists.

Although Ramadan is about austerity and frugalness during the day, at night it is a different matter. After a hard day of fasting, many feel it is their just deserts – or desserts, if you like – to consume prodigious amounts of mouth-watering seasonal delights. But even for the more spiritual and ascetic, conspicuous consumption, albeit of the immaterial variety, is still the order of the day: marathon nocturnal prayer sessions and the constant reading of the Qu’ran.

The religious aspect of Ramadan may be similar in Jerusalem and Cairo, but the secular spirit is quite different. Although Palestinians too hang out the decorative trappings of the season – including the famous fanoos or Ramadan lantern and even give the month that extra bang with sorties of unauthorised fireworks – the night-time revelry of Cairo is missing.

In the Egyptian capital, one of those city’s which truly never sleeps, night truly becomes day, and throngs stay out to the wee hours in specially erected Ramadan tents and cafes, both traditional and modern, expensive and cheap, while the true night owls head off to Cairo’s ancient quarters to eat a traditional dish of fuul (fava beans) just before dawn to line their stomachs for the fast ahead.

Ramadan is a much quieter affair here. This is partly because Jerusalem is small, lacking Cairo’s plethora of hangouts, and Palestinians tend not to be as outgoing as Cairenes. However, Jerusalemites say that the city used to be much livelier, but the Israeli occupation has throttled the social and cultural life of East Jerusalem, which has shifted to that cosmopolitan upstart, Ramallah.

That said, Jerusalem possesses a trump card Cairo does not. Although the Egyptian capital houses some of the most impressive mosques in the world and Islam’s most respected religious authority, al-Azhar, Jerusalem is home to what was once Islam’s holiest site and is now its third holiest, the “Holy Sanctuary” of the sublime Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Every Friday during Ramadan, an uncountable torrent of worshippers – disproportionately old and female because of the restrictions Israel often imposes on younger Palestinian men – weaves its way through the alleyways of the old city to pray at the place where Muhammad is believed to have visited on his winged stead, Buraq, during his nocturnal trip to heaven.

Momentarily casting aside my rejection of organised religion and my scepticism of god’s existence, I decided that I could not miss this unique cultural experience and, one Friday, joined the throng. Inside, the outdoor esplanade, which is so huge that it normally looks empty, was packed solid, with many of the fasting faithful stuck in the blazing heat of the direct sun.

The area immediately around the magnificent golden dome, which dominates the Jerusalem skyline, was reserved for women, while men occupied the Aqsa mosque and the area outside it. I was struck by the irony that here I was participating in a ritual that, though impressive to behold, did nothing to shake my sceptical ‘soul’ out of its a-religious spiritual lethargy – in fact, living in the Holy Land has made me even more suspicious of religion – while many true believers are deprived of the opportunity to pray here for want of an Israeli permit.

While savouring the spirit of the season is enjoyable, for an agnostic, non-fasting Muslim like myself, it can become overwhelming. In the West, Ramadan can creep by with none of the fanfare Arabs tend to associate with it. A similar spirit prevails in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem, where the holy month barely leaves a ripple on the tempo of life.

Jewish areas of the city provide the chance to eat and drink in public, which one doesn’t do in the Arab quarters out of respect. That said, there are options for escape in Palestinian areas, as we discovered with some Palestinian friends on the first day of Ramadan, when we went to a swimming pool where Christians and non-fasting Muslims did rather more barbecuing than swimming.

During Ramadan, some Muslims who drink suffer a special kind of thirst… for alcohol. Some give it up voluntarily, seeing a contradiction between the “virtue’ of fasting and the “sin” of drinking, though some Muslims do combine the two, like an eccentric Arab journalist I know in Jerusalem.

However, even those who wish to quench their thirst can find it hard to. In Egypt, only foreigners are allowed to consume alcohol during Ramadan. Among Palestinians, it is more complex. Although there appears to be no law forbidding alcohol during Ramadan, some Palestinian-run bars and restaurants stop serving alcohol and even shut down during the holy month. In addition, though alcohol once used to be a common feature of Ramadan in liberal Ramallah, in recent years, the city council has prohibited alcohol during the holy month by decree, a Palestinian friend informs me.

However, whether or not this decree exists is a matter of some debate, since numerous bars in Ramallah reportedly continued to serve booze during Ramadan, which suggests that it is not well enforced. In some other Palestinian cities, like Hebron and Nablus, finding a drink, even out of Ramadan, is no easy feat.

This seems to reflect the deepening religiosity of Palestinian society. Although Palestinians strike me as being generally more secular than Egyptians, there are troubling signs that tolerance is diminishing. I’ve heard of some shopkeepers refusing to serve women not wearing a hijab and the Palestinian Authority reportedly started deploying, a few years ago, a small police squad in Ramallah to prevent eating in public during the fast.

By one of those sleights of fate, one Sunday this Ramadan, Jews too were fasting to mark Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which stood where the Holy Sanctuary (or Temple Mount to Jews) is today, though they were not destroyed by the Muslims.

What could have been an occasion to express interfaith solidarity through fasting, rapidly descended into confrontation and animosity, as Muslim worshippers feared that Jews would “violate” their sacred space, while extremist Jews made some troubling pronouncements, including one Knesset member’s call for the al-Aqsa mosque to be dismantled and moved.

But this sense of distrust and animosity was not always so overwhelming. Older people, such as my 90-year-old neighbour, remember a time when people of different faiths celebrated each other’s festivals in a spirit of good neighbourliness.

During the late Ottoman era, a carnival outside the old city’s walls to mark the festival (Eid) at the end of Ramadan was attended by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, where they enjoyed fairground rides, horse races, Arab sweets and, apparently, even peepshows. Likewise, Muslims and Christians dressed up in Jewish costumes to celebrate the flamboyant Purim.

Centuries before, the Temple Mount/Holy Sanctuary was an interfaith space where Muslims and Jews could worship. In fact, the early caliphs who ruled Jerusalem even appointed Jews as custodians of this holiest of places, which was seen as the spiritual centre of the world.

Some of this spirit of interfaith solidarity still lives on in Ramadan, in the form of joint iftars when Jews join Muslims during the breaking of the fast, and I’ve even met a Jewish Sufi who fasted Ramadan in full.

Some time towards the end of Ramadan is Laylat el-Qadr (Night of Destiny), when Muslims believe that the Gates of Heaven are wide open to the prayers of the believer. Though I am not one of those, I do hope and “pray” that one day peace will, as the city’s name suggests, make Jerusalem its abode and the Holy Land will finally find a way out of its unholy mess.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Huffington Post on 15 August 2012.

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

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By Khaled Diab

Although alcohol is ‘haraam’, Muslim societies have rarely managed to stay on the wagon, and vital parts of their culture have developed under the influence.

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

If I said that we went to an Oktoberfest last weekend, readers may wonder why I am writing about it. If I added that the beer festival in question was in the West Bank and there we encountered a couple of self-deprecating young Germans dressed in lederhosen, some may start asking themselves what I’ve been drinking, or perhaps smoking. 

To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, as my wife pointed out, fellow Belgians – who possess not only the world’s best beers but also perhaps the greatest per-capita distribution of breweries – and other Europeans may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all this way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap. 

Secular Palestinians, expats and even leftist Israelis equipped with glasses of Taybeh beer wandered around food and handicraft stands, watched traditional Dabke dancers  – which our toddler son strutted his stuff to – modern music, comedy and theatrical performances. 

Despite its remoteness and tiny proportions, Taybeh has earned its place on the cultural and social map as being the location of the only Palestinian beer brewery. It has battled the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to become a rare Palestinian business and cultural success story. 

This may explain why Taybeh once adopted “Taste the revolution” as its advertising slogan. And, judging by its micro-brewery quality, the revolution tastes pretty good. 

The very existence of Taybeh overturns the stereotype associated with Palestinians – and Arabs in general – as teetotal, fanatical Muslims. This caricature has been reinforced since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, where the Islamist party has imposed a de facto ban on alcohol, though bootlegging has become a popular, if risky, pastime

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

There are those who will protest that Taybeh is the exception that proves the rule. After all, it is the only Palestinian brewery, and it is owned and run by Christians. But the absence of local competitors has more to do with the difficulty of setting up a viable business in the Palestinian territories, which requires a certain foolhardiness and courage – and, anyway, most of the people who drink Taybeh are Muslims. 

In the wider Arab and Muslim context, booze is widely available. Although alcohol is generally considered to be haraam (forbidden) in Islam, only the most conservative countries actually impose a legal ban on it. Egypt, for instance, has a booming local alcohol industry that has been growing for years. 

This is not just a recent Western import or “innovation“, as conservative Muslims might believe. In fact, the history of the region where beer and wine were probably invented shows that most societies there have a long track record of falling off the wagon. The prominent 19th-century orientalist Edward William Lane – famous for his incredibly observant if somewhat condescending book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – provides, in one of his lesser-known works, some fascinating details about the drinking habits of Egyptians. 

“From the conversations and writings of Arabs,” he notes, “drinking wine in private and by select parties is far from being uncommon among modern Muslims.” Lane also alludes to the fact that boozing was even more common in earlier centuries, before the introduction of tobacco and coffee as substitutes. Interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, from which the English word derives, originally meant “wine”. That’s something to mull over while sipping on your morning caffeine shot. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to back Lane’s assertion. Numerous prominent Muslims throughout the ages drank alcohol. Even caliphs, such as the Abbasid ruler Haroun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame, were reputed to indulge, despite their title of “commanders of the faithful”. 

Alcohol has played so prominent a role in Islamic history that many aspects of its various cultures and societies were formed under the influence, so to speak. This is evident not only in the starring (or should that be staggering?) role that booze has played over the decades on the silver screen, but also in traditional poetry and song.

Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is famous for its odes to wine, known as khamariyat, and this tradition continued into the Islamic era. Take Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s camp court poet. In addition to his homoerotic ghazal, he penned endless verse in praise of wine. 

Although he was considered to be the greatest Arab poet ever during his lifetime, Nuwas has fallen out of favour with the modern Muslim reader. But he is not alone in talking up the virtues of drink. The celebrated poet and polymath Omar Khayyám wrote extensively about wine and love, as did the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.

Modern-day puritans will argue that Khayyám and Rumi used wine and drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. But there’s no reason why their poetry should not be read both literally and figuratively, as mystics have long used alcohol (after all, we do use the term “spirit” to describe some drinks) and other drugs to alter their consciousness in pursuit of the divine.

The relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol in the earlier centuries of Islam may have been due to doubts, in the days before the religion had hardened into rigid orthodoxy, as to whether the Qur’an actually prohibits the consumption of alcohol or merely recommends moderation and/or abstinence. Some hadith (traditions of the prophet) even suggest that Muhammad may have actually drunk mildly alcoholic beverages.

Regardless of whether this is the case or not, devout Muslims have every right to consider alcohol haraam and not part of Islam the religion. But they must also accept that alcohol has always been an integral and largely tolerated aspect of Islamic culture.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2011. The related discussion can be viewed here.

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Who wants to be a millionaire? I don’t (know)

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By Christian Nielsen

Yes, it’s a famous Cole Porter song but an even better ambition for a fading socialist of the 1980s kind.

15 October 2010

Tis easy to have socialist leanings in your youth because you’re usually broke and life hasn’t dealt you enough blows to know the difference. You write off your conservative-voting gene pool as misguided and scorn Gordon “greed is good” Gekko, the devil of Wall Street personified.

You pack up your Renault 12 with all your belongings and move to the city to study Law-Arts (because just Law could be misconstrued). There, you find kindred spirits. Rich and poor kids grunging it up (or down), railing at inequalities and injustice the full length of Islington.

You get political. You get more ideas. You read other people with ideas, and you pick up the language of action, the language of change. University ends. You’re broke and can’t afford to keep studying.

So you take up a crummy entry level job out of university and the bosses are all bastards growing rich off your sweat and toil.

You sleep on just the mattress, because it’s down to earth, and the Batik wall hangings smell distinctly like stale paraffin and incense. Your friends still pop over unannounced and your repertoire of conversation pieces and quotes include Kundera (most used: “A worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails.”) and a fistful of foreign film titles that you claim to watch sans sous-titres.

Miraculously, you get to work on the stroke of 9 am every morning and then count the hours till your hangover wears off, while inventing ever-more creative ways to power nap in the office. Successful methods are shared with compatriots. Favourites include the paper-clip caper (PCC), post-office pass (POP), and the dodgy Somali sauce slip (SSS).

PCC is simple yet ingenious. Spread paper clips liberally under the desk, close your office door four-fifths (fully closed = something to hide), snuggle into a pocket under your desk and nap until revived. If you hear the distinct footsteps of your boss – languid and leather-soled – commence paper clip pickup and bump your head deliberately on the desk as you act startled by his presence in the doorway.

POP works a treat when you really have to join your housemates at the free Tibet demonstration. Pull out the registered mail slip you keep in the drawer and wave it liberally until the secretary and several colleagues have seen it. Then casually leave, saying: “I’ve got to pop out’ (details smell of deceit). Take as long as needed, and claim killer queues for longer stays.

The triple S is the young socialist’s equivalent of a bad prawn at the quay-side brasserie, and can be deployed with no backstory or preparation for those moments when the Che-inspired sangria just won’t stay down. It draws ample sympathy and no suspicion as your breath smells of uncooked garlic from the guacamole, not tell-tale booze fumes.

[You might wonder why young socialists have to be so ‘creative’ with their skiving. This is because the bourgeoisie classics, like letting a tradesman into your house, don’t work when you rent and don’t have any white goods or renovations to worry about.]

You’re 20-something and eager to change stuff about the world, about your neighbourhood, about your self. You talk about career like it is social climbing, and you slip in something existential at least twice a week – even if just to say the word – to remind yourself that you are ‘existential’. That the silk tie isn’t you and that being quite good with spreadsheet databases is a handy skill for, say, protest mailouts.

But something is wrong. You forget to send your apologies to the monthly union meeting, again. Your friends pop over as usual and you’re a bit annoyed because you rented a video cassette. And one Monday ‘the man’ calls you into his office. You think the PCC game is up and prepare to deliver your rehearsed ‘f-you’ speech. But it’s worse than you thought: instead of dismissal, he deals your ideals a body blow by giving you a promotion.

Of course, you know deep down your left leanings are straightening out when you catch yourself complaining to a fellow middling-manager that your staff is punching the clock instead of pulling their weight. Still, you haven’t faced the 4AD music with your friends.

You don’t tell them about the next promotion, either. But soon a work car appears on the scene – much harder to conceal. Next thing you know, you’re eating with friends and their partners at a Thai restaurant. As the bill comes you lift a cheek [of course you’re sitting cross-legged at the table and can’t reach your wallet otherwise] and deftly pull out a credit card.

“You can’t pay for it all!” they protest. Still, no-one makes more than a half-hearted attempt to stump up. Then a mate quick-draws his own credit card, then another has one out. Now you start to protest, pulling your trump card… you’ll expense it. Everyone goes quiet.

The broke mate who’s doing his second masters, this time in election monitoring, breaks the silence: “I’ll get it next time,” he says deadpan.

Everyone cracks up laughing. Socialism gets its death knell… and the relief to all in the room is palpable. Bring on the High Society.

©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Ramadan for drinkers

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By Khaled Diab

With booze in short supply, the month of fasting can be a thirsty wait for some Muslims.

September 2008

In Europe, Ramadan creeps up on you with none of the fanfare associated with the fasting season in the Muslim world, where it is a unique time of year. It is a month of fasting and feasting, frugalness and greed, night turning into day, spirituality and commercialism. When it started this year, we’d arranged, by chance, to go out for drinks with some friends, where we, blasphemously, drank an impromptu seasonal toast.

While the majority of people go without food or drink from dawn to dusk, some Muslims suffer a special kind of thirst. For those who drink alcohol, the holy month can be a very dry spell.

Many do this voluntarily, much like Christians give up certain ‘bad habits’ for Lent. One Bosnian woman describes people who practice this temporary abstention as being “Muslims on batteries”. In Bosnia, the majority of Muslims still drink alcohol, despite the growing religiosity of society there since the traumas of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.

When I used to fast, I would have ‘one for the road’ just before the holy month began, try to keep on the Ramadan wagon for the fasting season, and join friends for a new season of drinking after the Eid festival.

Curiously, Ramadan was the only facet of Islam I stuck to religiously. Long after I’d stopped entering mosques except to admire their architecture, I still continued to fast. This may have had something to do with the periodic and festive nature of the season, rather like becoming a football fan for the duration of the World Cup. The discipline, humility and endurance required may have played a role because it made it a ‘cleansing’ personal challenge, as opposed to an empty a religious ritual.

While it’s okay for Muslims to stop drinking during Ramadan out of choice, society often takes a paternalistic attitude towards drinkers. Egypt, for instance, has a booming alcohol industry, which comes to a virtual grinding halt during the holy month.

During Ramadan, Egyptians are barred from purchasing alcohol and all alcoholic outlets besides ones catering to foreigners close down. The first time I became aware of this peculiar legislation was when I was out with some foreign friends and we ordered drinks at the bar, only to be told by the waiter that I wasn’t allowed to.

Feeling humiliated, I complained to the manager who made sympathetic noises and admitted that he would love to serve Egyptians, who made up the bulk of his clientele, but he would face an enormous fine if an inspector walked in. In fact, Ramadan is a month of major losses for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

This law is patently unfair because it forces Egyptian Christians to live by an Islamic rule, and it casts the state in the role of moral guardian. If alcohol is legal, what right does the government then have to force its citizens to behave temporarily like ‘good Muslims’?

It also leads to some absurd situations. Egyptians who do not wish to stop drinking clean out the off-licences just before they shut. Sometimes in mixed groups of expats and Egyptians, the foreigners will order binge quantities of booze, while the Egyptians will order a token soft drink and, with one eye on the door, they will all make merry.

The first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I acquired Belgian citizenship, I seized the opportunity to order a stiffer drink that previously permitted, and surreptitiously poured beer into an Egyptian friend’s coke as we moaned about the injustice of it all.

Well, I shouldn’t complain too much, at least drinking in Egypt is not a punishable offence like it is in the Islamic theocracies of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, and the law is more honest than in, say, Morocco, where Muslims are officially not allowed to consume alcohol, but everyone turns a blind eye – except during Ramadan.

In some countries, a veritable ‘alcohol war’ is brewing between alcohol-free puritans and the booze brigade. Despite having licences to operate during Ramadan, several restaurants and bars in the Jordanian capital, Amman, have been shut down by over-zealous health inspectors on questionable pretexts.

The owner of Books@Cafe, a popular Amman hangout, summed up the situation by saying: “This is about where we stand in hypocrisy and bigotry…and where we will be if we remain quiet.” His article drew more than 200 outraged responses, with one poster describing the closures as “the pinnacle in state-sponsored stupidity”.

In Turkey, which normally has a relaxed attitude to drinking, a shop owner was attacked for selling alcohol during Ramadan in an upmarket Ankara neighbourhood.

Turkish revellers have been organising a campaign of boozy civil disobedience – which has continued into Ramadan – to defend their right to drink at a popular Istanbul quay. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district, where some restaurants serve traditional iftar for the pious and others offer alcohol for the secular punters.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims will be looking forward to the post-fasting festivities of Eid el-Fitr, which will be around 1 October, where I will get to observe the Indian version in Delhi. For Muslim drinkers, they will be eager to fall off the Ramadan wagon and head for their nearest watering hole.


This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 27 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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