Liquor sellers in Baghdad are getting back to business

Nineteen-year-old Saif is barely old enough to buy liquor in Iraq. But the improbably young entrepreneur's family owns four liquor stores in Baghdad – and business, after years of literally being blown out from under them, is becoming brisk.

There are no bars outside the American-controlled Green Zone and parts of Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, because booze can be sold only in stores. But more shop owners, like Saif, are reopening behind iron gates.

Saif, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, represents an unusual resurgence. Iraq is a deeply Muslim nation that allows citizens 18 or older to purchase and consume alcohol. During the era of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, drinking was common. After the U.S.-led invasion, however, violence and Islamic extremists forced most liquor shops to close.

Today, Saif's family stores are running full tilt after years of off-and-on business. Self-service, it isn't. To buy a bottle of Scotch, customers confront an iron gate that keeps them 3feet from Saif. By vaulting two steps back, Saif can hide behind the wall where he displays bottles of liquor.

The iron gate wasn't enough to protect the family store in Karrada from insurgents who threw a Molotov cocktail inside in mid-May. “The fire cost me $10,000,” Saif said.

Forced to close, he repainted the store and reopened in late May. Other Islamic prohibitionists then placed a bomb near the shop. The explosion meant more losses, but Saif opened the gate again a few days later.

Saif's family, who are Christians, once owned 13 liquor stores all over Baghdad, but lost nine to Islamist insurgents, Saif said. Now iron gates protect those that have reopened.

Liquor distilleries can be found in all 18 of Iraq's provinces. The most famous are in Diyala and Nineveh provinces. Iraqis are known among Arab countries for the liquor called arrack, made of dates and colloquially called “the milk of the lioness.” Abo Dawood, another liquor-store owner, noted that “most of my customers prefer to buy arrack because it is cheaper and stronger than any other liquor.”

Iraqi law bars licensing Muslims to sell alcohol. The trade is left to people such as Dawood, who's Yazidi, a small non-Muslim sect from the north of Iraq, and Christians.

But many Iraqis from all religions and sects drink alcohol.

Abo Do'aa is a Muslim Iraqi in his 40s who travels more than 50 miles from Balad, in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, to Sadoon Street in downtown Baghdad to buy liquor. “It's very safe these days, and I can go back to my town, even at 2 a.m.,” he said. “I came to buy liquor for me and my friends. It's expensive, but we can afford it.”

In his store on Sadoon Street, Dawood offers more than a hundred kinds of beverages, including whiskey, beer, vodka and wine. Prices range from less than $1 for Iraqi hooch to $3,000 for a single bottle of Black & White Scotch.

One reason for the high price is the cost of previous attacks. About 18 months ago, insurgents from the Mahdi Army, a Shiite Muslim militia, stormed into the liquor store of one of Saif's friends, cut off his arm with an electrical saw and left. Saif's family closed their stores for several months, which cost them about $90,000.

Most of Baghdad's liquor stores are in the downtown Karrada neighborhood. In Sadoon Street, a mixed Shiite-Sunni Muslim area, the stores form a long chain that provides a feeling of security for the owners. Until the recent lull in violence, most owners opened their stores at most about four hours a day.

Things have changed. “I open my store at 10 a.m. and close it at 7 p.m.,” Dawood said. “The security situation is much better, and I hope it becomes even better because I believe that all Iraqis are brothers and deserve to live in peace”.

To which a lot of Iraqis, even teetotalers, would shout: “Bsihtak!” Cheers!