Thu, Mar 27, 2014 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Moonshine is just a phone call away in Islamic Iran

Reuters, ANKARA

“Have a shot of tequila first, cheer up,” Shahriyar tells guests gathered at his luxury apartment in Tehran.

His girlfriend, Shima, said they party every weekend.

Despite the ban on alcohol and frequent police raids, drinking in Iran is widespread, especially among the wealthy.

Because the Shiite-dominated Muslim state has no discotheques or nightclubs, it all takes place at home, behind closed doors.

Some of the alcohol is smuggled in, but many resourceful Iranians make their own.

“My friends and I routinely gather to stamp down on grapes in my bathtub,” said Hesam, a 28-year-old music teacher in Tehran, asking to be identified only by his first name. “It’s fun, a cleansing ritual almost.”

Only members of religious minorities — Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians — are allowed to brew, distill, ferment — and drink — discreetly in the privacy of their homes, and trade in liquor is forbidden. Catholic priests make their own wine for Mass.

Yet wine-making has a long history in Iran.

Scientists believe Stone Age settlers in what is now Iran drank wine with their olives and bread as early as 5,000 BC.

In modern Iran, the Armenian community is the main source of home-brewed spirits, notably arak, a generic variety of vodka extracted from sun-dried grapes.

Amin, a 35-year-old sports trainer, has turned his 50m2 yard into a vineyard and rigged up a crude apparatus in his basement to make the spirit, which costs as little as US$0.50 a liter.

Which all means if you are not inclined to make your own, wine, beer and moonshine are just a phone call away.

The availability of alcohol has caused alarm among the country’s clerical leaders, many of whom accuse the West of plotting to lure Iranians away from pious religious observance.

The number of police raids has declined since the pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in August last year, but the ban on alcohol and severe punishments for producing and consuming it remain intact, for health as well as religious reasons.

And in fact alcohol abuse and alcohol poisoning are becoming real problems.

There are as many as 200,000 alcoholics in Iran, according to Iranian media reports, and some believe the number is higher.

In September last year, a permit was quietly issued for the country’s first alcohol rehabilitation center in Tehran.

Home-brewed drinks can cause blindness and even death. Iranian media often carry reports of deaths caused by alcohol, or mashroob.

Last year Iranian health officials warned the government over the increasing number of “victims of home-made alcohol,” calling on the government to take action.

Industrial alcohol is available in supermarkets, purportedly for use in manufacturing, but widely consumed.

The other big business around alcohol is smuggling.

The Iranian judiciary has accused border officials of complicity in the contraband trade.

The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards formed in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, who are in charge of controlling the borders, are widely believed to have a monopoly on the activity, securing a profit of about US$12 billion annually, according to opposition Web sites.

Police seizures cause temporary price hikes on the street, but prices and supplies soon recover.

Back in Tehran, at the apartment owned by his wealthy businessman father, Shahriyar says his alcohol-fueled parties allow his circle to get around the social restrictions imposed by the Islamic establishment.

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