Drambuie in Damascus
Forget the booze cruise, Winston Fletcher finds that, with a little patience, you can get sozzled in Syria
Our first dinner in Damascus was a bizarre Arabesque.
“Do you serve wine?” I asked, as my wife and I sat down. The thinly-moustached restaurant manager rolled his eyes upward, as though seeking guidance from Allah. “Not…” he mumbled, “…at your table.”
I peered round the beautiful, high, Ottoman dining room. Maybe there were boozing and non-boozing tables – as there used to be smoking and non-smoking tables? No, nobody was boozing at any other table. Perhaps they only served wine at the bar? No, there was not a bar.
“Not at our table? Somewhere else?”
“We are...” He looked furtively at his other customers. His other customers were puffing contentedly on hookahs and gawping – anything but furtively – at a huge plasma screen on which the Egyptian soccer team was giving Gambia a right thrashing. “We are ... close to Great Omayad Mosque.”
“So not wine at table.”
“But you serve wine?”
“Oh yes,” his moustache quivered as he shuffled his feet, “we open bottle in kitchen. We bring you glass.”
How this ruse would fool the Imams of the Great Omayad Mosque – none of whom, it should be said, were to be seen among the raucous footie crowd – escaped me. But mine not to reason why.
“OK. Can I see the wine list?”
“List? No list.” He was whispering so inaudibly I could hardly hear him. “Red or white?”
Perhaps I should ask the price? That might be a cork too far.
Minutes later he rushed through the kitchen’s swing doors, looking shiftily from side to side like a comic spy in Carry On Down The Harem. He was carrying a small parcel wrapped in a table napkin. On reaching us he unwrapped the napkin a few centimetres. The bottle peeked through – a practice not often employed by sommeliers in London or Paris, but quite charming in its way. It was definitely red. I nodded acceptance. The napkin closed again. Together with his parcel the manager returned swiftly to the kitchen.
The meze arrived, followed by a tremulous waiter shakily carrying two tiny glasses half-full of red liquid. The glasses were so small, and we had been waiting so long, that we downed the contents pronto. The waiter was mesmerised. My wife and I were palpably alcoholics. Petrified, he scurried back to the safety of the kitchen. Oblivious to the drama being played out in their midst, the other customers ogled the plasma screen, noisily cheering on the Pharoahs and puffing on their hubble-bubbles. The smoke generated by a couple of elderly lady Pharoah fans in burkas would have sent Action on Smoking and Health into apoplexy. They appeared to be on fire. My wife was sure the older one had smoke pouring from her ears and through her burka.
We now had two empty glasses on the table and an almost full bottle of red in the kitchen. How could they get friendly?
After about ten minutes more food came. The waiter reappeared carrying two more minuscule half-filled glasses, and removed the dead men. Having learned the drill, my wife now took her time. I lack her self-control. My glass sat empty on the table for a further ten minutes. I told my wife to hurry up as any incoming Imams would surely spot a full glass, while an empty glass might pass unnoticed. She drank up.
Shortly afterwards two more small glasses arrived and the two empties were withdrawn. Thus the meal continued. We never saw the bottle again. I imagine we emptied it. Anyway both the wine and its price were agreeable.
Half a mile away at the Domino pub, the bar was stocked to the gunnels with a galaxy of famous brands which would have done credit to any snazzy West End boozer. The mirrored shelves were piled high with Baileys, Benedictine, Cointreau, Drambuie, Galliano, Gordons, a rainbow of Bols liqueurs – who on earth drinks those gaudy Bols bevvies? – and whiskies galore: blended, malt, bourbon and rye. Beers and wines too, of course. All being knocked back by Damascans, male and female, young and old, many of them smoking hookahs while they drank. They chatted, giggled, and must have been high as kites.
Muslims’ attitudes to alcohol are a farrago of inconsistencies and hypocrisies. One Damascus University student, working part-time in a bar, explained to me: “I never drink alcohol. Only beer.” He had, he later confessed, drunk “alcohol” twice, ended up rat-arsed and hated it. So now he sticks to beer. But he admitted most of his fellow students drink “alcohol”. And they get rat-arsed. He can’t see what they see in it.
In the modern part of Damascus there are a few bars which open on to the street, where drinkers can drink openly. But when the hotelier who runs one of the city’s trendiest hotels tried to open a second he gave up, as the new premises were near to a Madrassah and serving alcohol would be totally forbidden (even wrapped in table napkins, presumably). No alcohol, no customers, no profit, he said. More typically, in the posh Damascus Cham Palace Hotel alcohol may not be drunk in the open atrium, only in cordoned-off bars.
In theory none of this should happen, as Syria claims to be a secular state. Libya, in contrast, makes no bones about its tough stance on booze. At Tripoli airport President Gaddafi threatens incoming tourists who try to bring alcohol into his country with the direst consequences. The guide books warn you not even to think about it. (Paradoxically, alcohol’s etymology is Arabic.) Even the grandest Libyan hotels sell no alcohol. But as American prohibition proved, hooch has a way of squeezing past even the toughest of roadblocks. Once he was sure we were trustworthy, a Libyan friend – no names, no amputations – invited my wife and me home and offered us “wine” he had distilled from potatoes. He would have liked to have offered us whisky, he said, but he had no apples. We said we weren’t that keen on apple whisky anyway.
Distillation was invented by an Islamic scientist around 800AD, but our friend had been taught to distil by Russians, during the era when Gaddafi had cosied up to the Soviet Union. “Did the President think the Russians would stay sober while they were in Libya?” he asked rhetorically. Still, he was truly terrified of being caught. To enjoy a real booze-up he and his chums went camping hundreds of miles out in the desert, where they felt safe to get sloshed.
In most other Muslim countries alcohol is freely available in Westernised hotels, restaurants and bars – as the Damascus hotelier said: no alcohol, no customers, no profit. Often it is served by barmen who have never had a bevvie in their lives: it’s an old Arab tradition, rather like being a eunuch in a seraglio. But few of their bosses are quite so abstemious. Still, Muslim attitudes to alcohol are no more hypocritical than the attitudes of many Jews to pork (or Christians to sex). Many Jews who claim to be wholly secular can’t stomach pig meat – while others will cheerfully wolf down a well-buttered ham sandwich before scuttling off to shul on Yom Kippur. And as for Christians’ hypocrisies about sex ... well, they are not dissimilar to Muslim ones. On multichannel Arab television you’ll find a host of channels with such subtle names as “Sexy Arab”, “Arab Erotic Club” and “Top Oral Sex TV” – most showing lesbians having a ball, in their trailers, which presumably turns on the Arab blokes (and other blokes, come to that).
Whatever their inconsistencies about alcohol, Muslims are strangely rigorous about pork – much more so than Jews. Even in secular Syria pig meat can hardly be found – though it is not hard to find in Israel. Western airlines flying to Muslim countries feel forced to reassure passengers that none of their in-flight meals have been tainted by the dreaded porkers. The plush new Damascus Four Seasons Hotel, which is all but awash with bars and booze, serves pork nowhere. The closest you can get is something called “veal bacon”.
Still, as my throbbing temples kept whispering to my addled brain the morning after an altogether too convivial night at the Domino pub, any deity who at least tries to keep your liver in good order probably cannot be all bad. How I yearned for a comforting bacon buttie. But in Damascus? Not a prayer.
Winston Fletcher is not an alcoholic.