These days as you head into Karmah, one of the smaller cities in the central Anbar province, you may notice a small store on the way into town. It’s not a big shop but its doors are wide open and it is selling alcohol. It is an unusual sight in this province, where conservative traditions and religious customs prevent the open sale and consumption of alcohol. But things have changed since the extremist group known as the Islamic State was in charge here.
“While we were displaced we lived in both Baghdad and in northern Iraq,” says Ahmad Abu Ali, a 44-year-old local; Karmah was part of the territory controlled by the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group and Abu Ali and his family fled their hometown. “And we used to see a lot of these shops there, close to where we lived. To us, it was an indication that these cities were safe and secure.”
“Although the drinking of alcohol is against our religion, the shop is a good sign. It is proof that the militants who once had such a big role in this city, and those who supported the militants, no longer play a part here,” Abu Ali explains. “Each person can practice their own religion. And when we saw this [the alcohol store] it gave us hope.”
Although Abu Ali doesn’t drink, his fellow townspeople who do are happy about the alcohol store for other, more obvious reasons.
“In the past we used to have to go to Baghdad to buy spirits,” Ibrahim Abdo, a 38-year-old local of Fallujah, told NIQASH. Abdo used to travel to the capital to buy enough alcohol to last a couple of weeks but he no longer has to do this. “We used to hide the bottles in the car so that the police and people at checkpoints wouldn’t harass us. They would destroy the drinks if they found them. Today I can just buy what I want even while the security forces are watching,” he says, somewhat incredulous.
Abdo says he used to feel like some sort of smuggler even though Iraqi law doesn’t prevent anyone from drinking or selling alcohol.
Selling alcohol is a fairly lucrative business in some parts of Iraq. A bottle of spirits can be sold for double the original price in areas where alcohol shops don’t operate. A kind of network of contacts brings the spirits into those areas.
One local taxi driver, Yahya Darwish (not his real name), often takes passengers between Baghdad and Ramadi in Anbar. He got to know the soldiers deployed at checkpoints on the way between the two cities and was able to pass through with minimal inspection.
“At the beginning it was just one of my friends who asked me to bring back two bottles of spirits. When I got back, he was waiting for me and paid double what I had paid for the drinks, as well as the taxi fare,” the 44-year-old says. “After that I realized I could do good business with this trade and I started bringing back bottles to sell to friends and family.”
Darwish says that he has since expanded the trade and that his income is now dependent on it. “I know it’s a risky business but I now have customers of all kinds, from army officers to engineers and clerical staff,” he says.
The demand is another reason why locals are starting to open alcohol shops in the aftermath of the extremists. Under the IS group, selling and consuming alcohol or cigarettes could see the perpetrator punished severely, perhaps even executed. Even before that, selling alcohol was seen as a sort of insult to local society here and to religious customs. Opening an alcohol store was a very risky business in the past. Even if one had a license, it could mean being harassed by locals and in some cases the presence of liquor stores have made people so angry that the shops have been blown up or vandalised and owners beaten or killed.
But now it has become possible to open a store selling beer and spirits. Anbar’s big cities such as Ramadi are seen as having particularly good potential.
“Some of our customers came to Baghdad regularly and they encouraged us to open a store in Ramadi,” explains Awat Haiwa, 54, a local from Baghdad who has just completed his application for a liquor license. His next step will be to find a suitable property in Ramadi where he can open the store. “They encouraged us because the province is now free of extremists and the people are feeling free.”
A lot of Haiwa’s customers come to his Baghdad premises from other parts of Iraq and take alcohol back to their home towns to sell. “This has resulted in a lot of unlicensed vendors who are exploiting the buyers, charging at least double what the price really should be,” he says. They also make for more competition for the licensed store owners such as himself, he notes.
Of course, not everyone in Anbar is happy about the new access to alcohol. One 48-year-old resident of Ramadi, Abdul Razak al-Fawhan, says he thinks this new trend aims to upset the local way of life and goes against religious, cultural, and tribal norms in Anbar.
“It is an attempt to undermine our values,” he told NIQASH. “Of course, we know that a lot of people go to Baghdad or to other provinces to buy spirits but it’s not logical to describe the opening of these stores as some sort of issue of personal freedom. The opening of liquor stores is dangerous for locals. They are going to see what God has banned, out in the open, and that the government is supporting it. The locals themselves don’t even get a say as to whether they want this or not,” he concluded.