Skandar Keynes: Week 3

This week, SKANDAR shows that Middle Eastern drinking culture doesn’t end at Fez.

Arak Bacchus Cambridgeshie chundergraduate Drinking Life Middle East Muslim Ramadan Skandar Keynes UL

skandarkeynesInvariably, one of the very first questions on any self-respecting chundergraduate’s lips when I mention that I’m spending a year in the Middle East is: “but can you drink in Lebanon without having your hands chopped off?”

The answer is yes. You most definitely can. In fact, drink driving seems to kill more young people than bombs or bullets in this part of the region.

Beirut prides itself on being one of the party capitals of the Middle East. Now I know that’s not exactly the highest of accolades – but it’s a damn sight more impressive than being dubbed the party capital of Cambridgeshire.

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On the whole – despite Lebanon’s substantial Muslim population – Beirutis have a relatively laissez-faire attitude towards alcohol. Lebanon even produces a lot of its own booze. I can think of three good brands of Lebanese beer right off the top of my head. Wine has been produced in the Beqaa valley since the time it was a Roman province, and the Temple of Bacchus (the Roman God of wine to you and me) is one of Lebanon’s top tourist destinations. First timers in Lebanon are even told to try the local arak, an aniseed based spirit that you mix with water – but I myself have no qualms in passing up this ‘authentic’ experience.

While there are the conservative areas – places where I might think twice about walking through with a pint in my hand at two in the afternoon – if you want to go out in Beirut, there’s plenty to choose from.

Tell a taxi driver that you want to go to Gemmayzeh and he’ll take you to a seemingly infinite stretch of LASH#postironic. Here the locals and tourists alike bar hop their way around town into the wee hours of the morning.

Spend a day here and it is glaringly apparent that most people in Beirut have never heard of noise control. Spend too long in a bar and Life may start to sound like the UL. I have genuinely had to go outside because I felt I was two minutes away from bleeding out of my ears. When you can’t even hear yourself shouting, it’s probably time to move on to somewhere else.

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Drinking in the middle of the day isn’t really a thing here. Arak might be served at a family Sunday lunch, but they don’t have the equivalent of pub lunches or a cheeky afternoon pint.

You will also very rarely see people blind drunk propositioning themselves to the world. Don’t get me wrong, in this city of debauchery you can definitely find people who will proposition themselves to the world – but they just don’t have to be blind drunk to do it.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are encouraged to fast and generally abstain from bad actions, the clubs are noticeably emptier. In theory it shouldn’t make a difference, as Muslims who are good enough to observe Ramadan shouldn’t drink alcohol year round. But in a weird interplay between piety and the modern age, it does.