“The World Wonders Who Is This Nation of Heavy Drinkers”: Demystifying Teetotalism in Libya

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Libyan dry white wine from Misrata (photo credit: Guilhem Roger)

“God invented Guinness so the Irish would not rule the world” Irish saying

 

Dhat Al Imad Towers: Symbol of Prohibition

“There is so much social hypocrisy here that Libyans do not drink,” Barbara, a European young woman working in Tripoli complained to me. “Yet, every Thursday evening, I see a lot of young Libyans drinking heavily. They do not know how to drink here. There is no social drinking . It is not like in Tunisia,” she explained the pattern of drinking among people in post-Gaddafi Libya. Barbara is among many foreigners, particularly Westerners, who have noticed the social stigma around alcohol drinking in this conservative Muslim North African nation.

Unlike its Western neighbor, Tunisia, where alcohol has been legalized since the French “protectorate” (the term used by French colonial system denoting the colonial period of Tunisia between 1881 and 1956), alcohol is legally banned in Libya. Post-independence Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba continued with his predecessors’ laws and regulated the use of alcohol drinks in Tunisian public spaces such as bars, restaurants and hotels. With the ousting of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the advent of a moderate Islamist-led government of Ennahda in Tunisia, many liberal Tunisians who declare themselves as open drinkers feared that once Islamists are in power, they will curtail individual freedoms, of which  that of drinking and selling alcohol in public.

When former Tunisian PM Hamadi Jebali went to Washington DC in May 2011 -a few months before the first democratic elections in Tunisian history in October 2011- he stated that if Ennahdha comes to power, it will not seek to close brothels (prostitution is legal in Tunisia since the 1940s under French colonialism) and bars. He referred to Prophet Mohamed abstaining from destroying statues that people of Mecca used to worship and advised his companions to be patient with the “non-believers” until they accepted Islam and the existence of one God with no compulsion. The same applies to alcohol, we do not want to see a bar in every house,” he insisted. This statement may have shocked many in Tunisia, even if some doubted his deep intentions as “a soft way” to start banning alcohol gradually.

The situation is totally different in Libya. It has often been in fact, ever since Gaddafi took power in 1969. He banned brothels and bars that were “tolerated” under the reign of Libyan king Driss I. The Tripoli area near Jamaa Borgheba is still infamous for being the red-light district of Tripoli till today, albeit illegally and discreetly but people attest to the presence of Tunisian and Moroccan prostitutes there. What about alcohol then? Libyan law makes it illegal to sell it in public places including hotels and restaurants. Yet, long before King Driss’ reign in Libya, some Libyans had often engaged in the brewing of a unique Libyan alcoholic drink called “bokha“. It is brewed from mainly figs and dates and methanol is added to the mixture.

The drink is famous with Libyan Jews in the Diaspora but also Tunisian Jews (many of whom have Libyan origins and might have brought it to Tunisia when they migrated to the country in the 19th and 20th centuries after successive famines in Libya).

In London, where there is an important Jewish community of North African descent, during religious ceremonies kosher bukha, made in Tunisia or in France by North African Jews,  is served in houses for Shabos (Shabbat) and other religious events. The drink contains  between 40 and 50 % of alcohol. During the annual pilgrimage to Al Ghriba Synagogue in the Tunisian island of Djerba in April, Jews from all over the world, often of North African descent, converge to get the blessings of the holy place. Its custodian, Perez Trabelsi, gives one shot of bukha to each visitor. With around 3000 visitors in average before the Tunisian Revolution, Perez would perform the ritual of drinking after each visitor coming to him to have a shot of bukha. “By the end of the ritual, he would be too drunk to walk on his feet,” Bochra, a Tunisian businesswoman who often attended the Ghriba procession told me.

But, if such a brew is strong enough to make someone unable to stand on one’s feet after a few hours, can it become lethal to the extent that it causes the death of over 70 people in a few days? Many in Libya wondered after the tragic death of 101 young Libyans, who have been admitted to Tripoli hospitals on March 10, 2013 for alcohol poisoning. The number of patients reached 1066 that some dangerous cases such as kidney failure, blindness etc were recorded. Some more serious cases were transferred to Tunisia. Poisoning through bokha has become the headline in Libyan social networks and media outlets in Libya and abroad. People were horrified at the quick rising number of deaths. “The strange thing is that there were girls too,” some exclaimed on Facebook. In a conservative society, the news of Muslim females drinking alcohol comes as as a big shock, a shameful act that few were able to comprehend.

A Libyan friend of mine who studied and lived in the US admitted he sometimes drinks but socially “like in the West,” he insisted . ” You know that Gaddafi ordered the building of the five towers of Dhat Al Imad -commonly known by some in Libya as shisha maglouba (Libyan Arabic for an upside down bottle)- to symbolize prohibition in Libyan society, according to Gaddafi” he explained to me. The five towers are cylindrical, bottle-shaped skyscrapers. His under-statement hints to a deep malaise among many young Libyans who question the use of such a prohibition in a deeply conservative Muslim society. What is banned, forbidden is often the most desired, some would say. The myth of Libyans being teetotalers has been challenged recently. Many Libyans who would often flock to Tunisia to go to its trendy bars in Sousse, Hammamet, Djerba and Tunis is reminiscent of young Saudis who would travel to the small island-state of Bahrain during weekends to get drunk.

” The World Wonders Who is This Nation of Heavy Drinkers”

 

“There is this social hypocrisy that Libyans do not drink because they are devout Muslims,” noted Barbara. Some Libyans on Facebook sarcastically made comments about the status of Libya being the country of one million Quran reciters and now the world discovering they are a nation of drinkers. “The world wonders who is this nation of heavy drinkers ,” Min Libya (a pseudonym), a young Libyan, who describes himself as a  “low-key” liberal and often drinks”, wrote on his Facebook status one day after the tragedy of alcohol poisoning deaths in Tripoli. “Why can’t they just regulate drinking alcohol and end this hypocrisy that no one drinks in Libya? That way, young Libyans can drink sensibly like everyone else,” he insisted. The sarcastic note hides a deep resentment and distress of many Libyans by the tragedy.

The death of over a hundred young people and the blindness of several more through alcohol poisoning has left many Libyans in shock, puzzled and distressed but not indifferent at the extent of the tragedy and its impact on post-Gaddafi Libyan society. Self-denial and “social hypocrisy” have let room to heated debates on social networks and media outlets about alcohol consumption unearthing an old and persistent taboo in Libyan society: that of open alcohol consumption. Some empathized with the victims and lashed out at the hypocrisy behind the issue of alcohol drinking in Libya; others made strong statements in which they blasted the victims’ loose behavior for leading an immoral life of “binge drinking” (the mysterious deaths of these youths made some think that they were heavily drunk, hence their sudden deaths).

Min Libya called on his Facebook page for the regulation of alcohol consumption as well as the industry of alcohol brewing. This bold statement may be shared by other fellow Libyans, yet it shows the development in mentality regarding some social taboos in Libyan society and culture. This lifted up the lid off social stigmatization of alcohol consumption and denial that more and more Libyans drink including young women. It came as a shock for many that among the victims were young women, yet it showed a deep malaise in Libyan society that this scourge of alcohol consumption is related to a number of factors, including post-conflict/war stress and traumas.

Those who sympathized with the victims justified the act of drinking alcohol by the (side)-effects of the nine-month conflict in 2011 on the morale of many youths, some of whom resorted to drinking to numb the psychological disorder and stress caused by war atrocities. I met a young Libyan from Misrata in Tunis last year who was jailed in the infamous Abu Salim jail in Tripoli during the Libyan Revolution, was tortured and later released. He would drink so heavily when he comes to Tunisia that he would fall and vomit in the street, a French friend of his told me.

The culprit who sold the poisonous alcohol in Tripoli was caught in the western Tripoli area of Ghergharesh by a Tripoli brigade fighting criminal activities. He has been identified as Elisa by the captors. Yet little is known about the number of people who were involved in the business of brewing bukha. However, six were arrested connected to the case of alcohol poisoning. This underground industry has always flourished under Gaddafi. A young Salafist living in Benghazi confessed to me once that there are farms east of Benghazi where people brew bokha, while authorities are turning a blind eye to it.

It is no surprise that the number of Libyans consuming alcohol increased since the death of Gaddafi but there has been no study or a quantitative/qualitative research of alcohol consumption in Libya. Almost a year ago, the Economist published a report entitled “Tequila Umma: Alcohol Consumption in the Muslim World in which it drew a chart on alcohol consumption in eight countries from Pakistan, to Lebanon and Iran. It described Libya as a flourishing black market for spirits. It listed Libyans consuming an aggregate of 0.11 liter of alcohol per person annually between 2003 and 2005. The chart described Libyan alcohol consumers as being “the Gaddafis before their fall”. How true are the Economist‘ findings is dependent on more accurate quantitative and qualitative research/findings into alcohol consumption in Libya to gauge the extent of the phenomenon in post-Gaddafi Libyan society.

The Irish Connection and the Libyan Diaspora in Ireland

 

Ireland, the Emerald Island, is considered as the most conservative country in Europe, religion-wise. The Catholic nation has often bred this image of being a staunch Catholic country where religion plays an important role in Irish society and culture. Yet, this nation of 6 million people is also famous for being one of the “merriest” nations when it comes to drinking alcohol. Guinness, the Irish booze par excellence, is consumed without moderation in Irish pubs in Ireland and around the world. The Irish Diaspora in the UK and the US have brought with them traditions from their island, including the St Patrick’s celebrated annually in March. The Great Famine of the mid-1840s forced around one million Irish men, women and children off their island and sought a better life in the New World. Until the 1970s, Ireland remained an under-developed country compared to its European counterparts. It witnessed an economic boom after joining the EU in the 1970s and became the Celtic Tiger thanks to its rapid economic growth between 1995 and 2008.

Ireland bears an uncanny historical, social and cultural resemblance with Libya: both had witnessed famines in almost the same period of time (for Libya in the 1760s, 1790s and later in the 1940s), a lot of Irish and Libyan population left their homelands to neighboring countries, Britain and Tunisia respectively (where living standards were better than in their homelands), both came under the rule of “ruthless” colonial powers: Italy and the UK. Other traits include the clan/tribe system, where it faded in Ireland and subsisted in Libya and bagpipes music, to cite but a few of the common cultural traits.

Irish cuisine still has potato-based recipes, which was the staple food of most Irish families since the 16th century and until the Great Famine with the failure in potato crop. This unsophisticated cuisine although it developed recently thanks to the cosmopolitanism of its cuisine and to the openness to foreign cuisines is rooted in Irish history where many Irish had to survive eating basic food, where potato is the main ingredient. In Libya, food made of barley in particular became the basic staple food for Libyans. Bazeen is an example of a Libyan dish that historically, Libyans during successive famine periods, used to consume quite often to survive when there was nothing else to eat  during years of draught.

There is a considerable Libyan diaspora in Ireland, the most famous of an Irish-Libyan is former Libyan Minister of Health Fatima Al Hamroush. During Gaddafi-era, a Libyan school was set up in Dublin and many IRA members supported Gaddafi and continued during the Libyan Revolution. Many Libyans chose to settle un Ireland, particularly students. Some married Irish women there and had Irish-born Libyan children. The island has become a hospitable place to live in for immigrants since the 1990s, including Libyans. Where Guinness is Ireland’s national brew, bokha is Libya’s “unofficial” national alcoholic drink. Bukha is also consumed by Tunisian Jews during religious events and weddings.

Yet, Libyans never claim to be alcohol consumers as would the Irish often pride themselves in being among the biggest consumers of Whiskey and Guinness in the world. Even during Prohibition years and the rise of temperance movements in 19th century America, bootlegged whiskey continued to flood US markets, competing with Irish whiskey. Where it is common that you may be stopped by a friendly Dubliner in the streets of Dublin and amicably invites you for a pint of Guinness in the local pub (it happened to me and a Tunisian female friend in 2006 but we had to politely decline his offer), a foreigner is even more surprised by hospitable Libyans insisting on inviting you to their house and making you eat couscous or taste the good old bazeen.

When Iranian president, Ahmadinejad declared in 2008 that there are no gays in Iran, his statement was met with mockery over his denial of the existence of an important homosexual community in Iran. It will be a long time before officials in Libya admit to the fact that alcohol consumption in Libya is a reality and no longer a social taboo that needs to be hidden from the outside world.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

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Categories: Gaddafi, Ireland, Libya, Libyan Revolution, Tunisia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on ““The World Wonders Who Is This Nation of Heavy Drinkers”: Demystifying Teetotalism in Libya

  1. Adam

    Great article

  2. benji

    H

  3. benji

    Huda,
    I appreciate your candid investigative journalism. I like it.

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