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- Travel tales, Travel: Middle East
It is well known that alcohol is banned in Iran.
Well, it is mostly banned. Officially recognised non-Muslim communities living in Iran, such as ethnic Armenians and Assyrians, are theoretically allowed to make and drink their own alcohol. In contrast, import, trade and consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims are strictly prohibited. Getting caught trading or consuming booze in Iran bears a strict punishment of 80 lashes.
With this information in mind, I had expected my trip to Iran to be entirely dry. I enjoy alcohol (well, I enjoy red wine and beer) and regularly partake in the exciting activity that is the drinking. On occasion I have even been known to do so in moderation; I blame my Russian genes.
Here is a flag of Iran for further emphasis
Shortly before setting off to Iran, I was surprised to learn that, despite the harsh rules, alcohol was actually pretty easy to buy everywhere in the country. I shouldn’t have been judging the book by its cover: many people in Iran not only drink regularly, but also drink so regularly and abundantly that they have become alcoholics. There are reportedly at least 200,000 alcoholics in Iran, and, given the secrecy and stigma surrounding the problem, likely many more. Drink driving is a major issue, too: if Wikipedia is to be believed, over 20% of drivers in Tehran were found to be drunk during a month-long testing.
The Iranian authorities had for a while tried to sweep the issue under the carpet, but even they finally admitted that there was a problem. In 2015, the health ministry announced plans to set up 150 alcohol rehabilitation centres modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous. It was an unusual move for an Islamic state, demonstrating the sheer proportions of the alcohol problem in Iran.
SO LONG, BOOZE, I’M OFF TO IRAN
Shocked to discover the truth – and tempted to confirm it through personal experience – I nevertheless assumed that I would not be looking for ways to contribute to the illegal alcohol trade in Iran. The risk was simply not worth it. Slowly sipping my complimentary red on the flight from London to Istanbul – what I thought was my last drink for 2.5 weeks – I was cheering myself up imagining how much healthier and lighter I would be coming back to London. I am an exercise freak and eat very healthily, so alcohol is probably my biggest source of nasty calories. I was keen to see how my body would react to the mandatory detox.
I started off pretty well. Iran was proving to be absolutely spectacular, with unmatched history, breath-taking sights and amazingly welcoming locals. I was hardly noticing the lack of booze in my life. Sadly, my plan to lose weight was failing: Iranian food is quite heavy and I was compensating for not drinking by indulging myself in tasty kebabs, fresh bread and even pizza – all the things I carefully avoid in London. Sugary teas available on every corner didn’t help, either.
When I wasn’t shooting selfies, I was stuffing my face with succulent dishes (not pictured, but I vividly remember what I had in this small vaulted eatery in Tabriz: it was abgusht, a rich lamb stew with vegetables and chickpeas. Yummy!)
Also, I soon discovered the sweet malt drinks available in kiosks, shops and supermarkets everywhere in Iran: the so-called non-alcoholic “beer”. Its flavours varied from peach to grape – it was really lemonade – but I liked the concept of chilling out with a bottle of something in my hand (yes, writing this makes me fear that I, too, have an alcohol problem). Passing others enjoying their fake beer, I would raise my bottle in a “cheers”-like gesture, and they would do the same. Cheers! It was quite funny that the gesture was there while the alcohol wasn’t, but I was quickly getting used to my new reality.
Just like I do with beer, I took plenty of selfies with this fizzy malt replacement: this one was peach-flavoured. Cheers!
AND THEN I REACHED YAZD
To be fair, my first encounter with alcohol in Iran was most civilised. It was the result of an unlikely – or, as it turned out, very likely for Iran – series of events which led me to get to know a local family on my last night in Yazd. Knowing someone in Iran proved to be a perfect (if not the only) way for a foreigner to get access to an alcoholic drink.
Let’s picture central Yazd on a warm spring evening. I had missed a chance to buy Meybod pottery earlier and, knowing I had to leave early the following morning, was desperately scouring every shop I could find for a perfect piece. I had almost given up when I was approached by two sisters about my age who were out shopping with their mother. Speaking good English, the older sister asked what I was doing and, hearing about my troubles (of global proportions, no doubt), offered to take me to another shop by car: the family was also shopping for pottery and was heading there anyway.
And, despite what my own mother had taught (and continues to teach) me about getting into strangers’ cars, I instantly agreed.
Fast forward about 15 minutes and, clutching my gorgeous new pottery (yay!), I was accepting the family’s invitation to join them for a birthday dinner (because, Iran). Buzzing from this unexpected encounter, I first looked around the family’s home (‘Uniform off,’ one of the sisters commanded as we entered, tearing off her headscarf and manteau and transforming unrecognisably in the process. I was likewise made to shed my covers), sat on a massive plush armchair and fed an enormous amount of nuts and chocolates as the family members showered me with questions. I was introduced to the head of the family who, having studied abroad, also spoke excellent English.
My uniform. To be fair, precisely no-one else was dressed like that in Iran (including the tourists), and I received plenty of attention – and questions if I was from Pakistan (the outfit is a salwar khameez)
At some point the father disappeared into one of the many rooms of what seemed to be palatial quarters. When he returned, he was carrying a glass with maroon-coloured liquid. Really? Wine?!
To my shame, my first feeling in this significant moment was one of regret – regret that the glass was only half-full (Yes, I am still an optimist. No, I don’t have an alcohol problem. Do I?). But it was real wine, and my hosts looked very natural in making the gesture. The sisters were watching my reaction with some interest, but they clearly didn’t find it unusual to treat guests to home-made alcohol.
This is Yazd: the city in Iran where I first tasted the forbidden fruit
I was quickly grateful that the glass was not full: 12 days of abstinence meant that a single sip of wine sent me straight into warm tipsiness. We had to get on our way to the restaurant; the ladies’ “uniform” thrown back on, we turned volume to maximum and Andy’s “Parya Khanoom” on repeat (What a classic! Recommended), and drove to an outdoor restaurant where a long table had already been set up for dinner.
And what did the waiter greet us with? A tray full of shot glasses containing dark red liquid. In my naïveté, I jumped to the conclusion that it was an alcoholic liqueur, which infinitely entertained the birthday party. Alcohol in Iran is mostly consumed behind closed doors: self-producing booze to enjoy within the confines of your family home may be fine, but having a restaurant serve drinks would be pushing it. The liquid was actually a syrupy fruit drink – but the fact that it was served in shot glasses, exactly in the same manner as a proper alcoholic shot would be, was intriguing. The locals could not have been strangers to customs surrounding alcohol consumption.
I know you are all curious to see Meybod pottery: the reason I met a fantastic family in Yazd. Three blue pieces on the left are Meybod, pictured with the rest of my mementos from Iran
HAPPY SHIRAZ TO YOU TOO!
My next alcohol experience in Iran was at Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz. Wandering casually from stall to stall (and feeling my backpack grow heavier in the process), at some point I found myself in a small jewellery joint. Two boys in their late teens had a plastic bottle of non-alcoholic beer on the counter in front of them – or, at least I assumed it was non-alcoholic because of the characteristic sticker.
Business aside, the boys and I were soon saluting each other over glasses of fake beer. I remember thinking, as I drank it, that it was a very good imitation indeed – a huge contrast to fruit-flavoured lemonade I had been pretending to enjoy for two weeks.
You can all guess what followed. I spent the next hour bouncing off the walls and breaking into uncontrollable giggles every few seconds. Which led me to conclude that the “non-alcoholic” beer was alcoholic all right and that, had the boys been smart enough to install a hidden camera somewhere, they would have had a good laugh watching a drunken foreigner stumble around.
Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz. Not sure if the man is looking a little concerned because of my slightly tipsy behaviour
BUT THE REAL FEAST WAS ONLY COMING
On my last day in Shiraz, I arranged a trip to Persepolis. My driver turned out to be a fun, friendly chap – let’s call him Reza, a good Iranian name. Reza and I spent the entire drive bonding, and, naturally, I told him about the fantastic local experience I had had in Yazd – including the birthday party, the shots of sweet fruit liqueur and that unforgettable (if half-full) glass of home-made wine.
To which Reza burst out laughing and announced that he would get me some wine that very night. He would pick me up at the hotel for a drive around the block and back. The exchange of wine would happen at some point during the driving – which, as I later found out, was not at all an uncommon arrangement in a country where alcohol consumption was illegal.
One of my rare sober moments in Iran (ok, exaggeration)
All went according to plan. In the boot of his car, Reza was carrying not one, but two bottles of wine – one the usual grape variety, the other pomegranate – as well as toasted nuts in honey, a common treat in Iran. The sweet Persian soul even assumed (correctly) that I would have no container to serve the nuts in and lent me his very own beautiful glass bowl. I was very touched.
Having safely smuggled the forbidden goods back into the hotel, I immediately poured myself some grape wine. It tasted absolutely divine – I was tempted to call it a day and start packing (drinking?), but I still had a bit of day light to enjoy in Shiraz on my last night. I threw back another glass in the space of about two minutes, picked up my camera and headed out.
A DRUNKEN WANDER THOUGH SHIRAZ
Having already seen a lot of Shiraz, I headed in the direction of Shapouri House – a gorgeous building from the early 20th century – and gave the ticket seller my biggest smile. I then made a sizeable effort not to jump straight into a beautiful pool of water in front of the building (which, for some reason, tempted me as an excellent idea), took a few blurry photos and waltzed towards the exit. I suddenly remembered that I had a whole stack of rials still left, and that I only had a couple of hours left to spend them. Skipping along to the cheerful music in my head, I started moving in the approximate direction of the bazaar.
Shapouri House in central Shiraz, in as much focus as was achievable
I managed to locate a small greengrocer’s where I clearly explained (I think) what I was after. As I was handing over my excess cash in exchange for dried nuts and chocolates, I felt something slide across my bum. Turning my head in a sudden burst of sobriety, I saw a young man limping slowly away. I had just been groped by a crippled Iranian guy.
In my merry state, I was about to forgive the perpetrator generously (the poor fella couldn’t have many takers, flashed in my drunken brain). Very unfortunately for the chap, his actions had already been spotted by an eagle-eyed elderly lady picking out vegetables nearby. She was infinitely less forgiving and, enraged, loudly called him out: suddenly the entire street transformed into a screaming competition, accompanying the unwise limp in his painfully slow and inglorious procession around the corner. Excitedly I joined in, even grabbing some pistachios from the till and throwing them in the wake of the vicious criminal.
It had certainly been an eventful evening, but I had my two (ok, 1.5) bottles of wine to return to. I clearly remember doing my best Bollywood moves around the hotel room as I packed my backpack, downing ever more of the wine. The grape wine was soon finished, and I started on the pomegranate variety. It was very sweet and, I felt, stronger than the other. Finally, I remember editing some photos, setting the alarm for 00:40 – my flight was at 03:35 – and turning off the lights.
Look what I found on my old phone! I actually took a photo of myself with my Wine In A Plastic Bottle. Scarily enough, my eyes already look drunk, and that bottle is almost full!
THE SOBERING AWAKENING
I next remember waking up and feeling something was not quite right. Rubbing my forehead – I had a horrendous headache – I looked at my phone.
It was 02:36.
Less than an hour before my flight.
My flight was leaving in 59 minutes, and I hadn’t as much as left my bed yet.
Thankfully, even in my inebriated state I had done some stellar preparation. Who cares about showering? I was ready to go in exactly 3 minutes, stopping only to pick up my breakfast from the fridge (because I never, ever leave food behind) and Reza’s glass bowl (which I immediately smashed on the floor and dumped into the bin – forgive me, Reza). I then stared at the half-finished bottle of pomegranate wine on the bedside table – the straw that broke the camel’s back – for a few seconds. It wouldn’t be wise to leave behind such glaring evidence of my drunken debauchery. I wrapped the bottle in a thick plastic bag and carried it out.
Downstairs, I made perhaps the craziest move of the past few hours – namely, handed the wine to the sleepy receptionist with a smile – and stormed out. I was praying a taxi was going to appear magically in this dead, dead hour – to get me out of a country where a hotel camera had just successfully captured me handing to a local a bottle-shaped object wrapped in plastic.
Miraculously, I had barely waited for 20 seconds before a taxi stopped in front of me. Such luck! The driver was visibly relaxed about me making the flight, and I questioned my original plan to get up a whopping 3 hours before departure. It seems that I did well giving myself an extra two hours of sleep instead, though my sore head certainly didn’t feel rested.
After a very chilled check-in (seriously, Shiraz airport is a dream), I faced my final hurdle: passport control. The recent dose of adrenaline had sobered me up significantly, but I still struggled to speak without wanting to giggle mid-sentence. I wondered if I had alcohol on my breath and if my pains were obvious to everyone in the queue. Cringing, I remembered that there was a mistake in my Iranian visa, too – my nationality was incorrectly stated as Lithuanian rather than Latvian (two-letter difference in Farsi), something I never noticed until the last minute. I practised my most charming smile in case they decided to ask me about it, but wasn’t sure if the result was just a drunken grimace.
Look under the massive “IRAN” in that visa, and you can see that the Persian script clearly says لیتوانی = Lithuania. My nationality is لتونی = Latvia. The barcode on the bottom also had the wrong country code.
Thankfully, like everyone else I had met in Iran, the immigration officer knew no difference between Latvia and Lithuania. I almost gave the handsome chap stamping my passport a thumbs-up, but, thankfully, remembered that the gesture was considered inexplicably rude in Iran.
CLEARED FOR TAKE-OFF
Struggling to stay vertical, I boarded the plane and collapsed into my aisle seat. In-between trying to shut down, my exhausted brain had suddenly brought up the 747 chasing scene from the Argo movie. I imagined Ayatollah Khomeini himself at the wheel, beard waving in the wind and fist clenched high, hurling curses towards a hungover foreigner so ingloriously fleeing the country.
The image was so vivid that I burst out laughing, ignoring my fellow passengers’ stern glares. The chasing scene from Argo borders on the ridiculous and is probably the most unrealistic piece of cinematography involving an airplane that I have ever seen. Even if Mr Khomeini was still alive, he probably would have had better things to do in the middle of the night than chase unsuspecting aircraft. At which point my brain switched off.
One blurry transfer through Istanbul later, I landed at Heathrow. Seeing Alan in the crowd, I was finally able to sigh with relief. My short drunken adventure was over.
‘This is for you,’ the love of my life said, handing me a hip flask with what smelled suspiciously like scotch. Despite it being 10am, my husband had obviously decided that his alcoholic wife needed a drink after 2.5 weeks in an Islamic country.
‘Where do I start,’ I said.
Beautiful report, bringing back many memories about Iran!
I found Shiraz a very cool and relaxed city.
Thank you! I did find the levels of harassment in Shiraz quite overwhelming, to be honest. The attention from the male population was a lot more toned down further north! Kashan was probably my favourite place in Iran.