What to Drink:
Monday, October 15, 2012
In Egypt Rules Follow You: An Introduction to Haraam
In Egypt Rules Follow You: An Introduction to Haraam
I would like to introduce the notion of Haraam—meaning sinful or forbidden— the opposite of Halal. It would be far too much work to discuss all the ways that Haraam impacts life in Egypt in one post, so here is just one feature of Haraam.
I have never been involuntarily deprived of nutritious food, clean water, electricity, and ‘fun’ for any significant amount of time. I often take these luxuries of life for granted. I expected that Egypt would challenge the way I viewed these parts of life, and in some respects it has, but not very dramatically. In Cairo food is plentiful, clean water easily attainable, and electricity only a light switch away. It is rich in culture, the sights are unrivaled, the people watching is amazing, and the opportunity for adventure is bountiful. What it does not have is good wine and beer—‘fun.’
The one aspect of life that I have had to reevaluate since coming to Cairo has been ‘fun.’ I am not trying to say that Egypt isn’t fun, or that Egyptians don’t have fun, only that Egypt is deficient in ‘fun’ in the way that I, as an Americans, understand it. Most of the luxuries that constitute ‘fun’ for Americans are Haraam in the Muslim World, including but is not limited to, drugs, tattoos, gambling, pre-marital sex, alcohol, and bacon. This means that Egyptians have ‘fun’ differently than American. However, there is a strong pressure to have American ‘fun,’ because the vast majority of my friends and peers in Egypt are American.
Strictly speaking, things considered Haraam are not allowed in Egyptian society. However, Egypt is largely a tourist economy, and as such it relies on foreigners having a good time. There is also plenty of money to be made in industry of Haraam! So while Haraam items are theoretically not permitted, they do exist as a way to placate tourists and insure a continual stream of revenue from those who come for the pyramids and stay for the buying power.
As a result, numerous establishments dabble in the sale of Haraam products, most notably alcohol. By knowing where to go, what to look for, and how much to pay, Haraam seekers can satiate their thirst for forbidden hedonism. Debauchery can be purchased for a meager price, and the understanding that the impending actions will draw the ire of a large portion of Egyptian society, and may perpetuate the image of American gluttony and decadence.
What to Drink:
Once run by the Egyptian government, Al Ahram Beverages Company, now owned by Heineken, controls the majority of Egypt’s alcohol industry. Because of Egypt’s massive import tariffs on foreign alcohol, Al Ahram products dominate the Egyptian market. The company produces a number of beers including the ever popular, Stella, and the lesser Saqqara and Meister, wines, none of which are worth the awaiting hangover, and a line of loathsome hard alcohols
The Egyptian hard alcohol is not for the faint of heart. The travel guide, Frommer’s says that Egypt’s hard alcohol isn’t worth it. However, anyone intent on drinking something more to the point can choose from a variety of hard alcohols with brand names that nobody has ever heard of, including I.D. Vodka, Auld Stag Whiskey. The local Rum and Tequila are so awful I haven’t bothered to learn their names. The production and assumption that such poor quality alcohol will be consumed is almost insulting. Considering the quality and price of Egyptian hard alcohol, I will be, unhappily, sticking to beer.
There are some who say that Egypt’s Stella beer is one of the best beers in the world. They are wrong. I have tried Egypt’s three major domestic beers, and their specialty variations, and I can say with confidence that they are bad. Who ever said this must have been in the throws of a monumental binge, no sober person would ever make such an outlandish claim. I find no pleasure in drinking Egyptian beer. Stella, Saqqara, and Meister are watery, flavorless, alcohol sodas, which are chilled just enough to feel cold to the touch but still warm on the pallet. The only unique quality I have found in them is that they defy the logic of bad beer, no matter how much is consumed, the taste and quality of the beer remains the same.
I must admit, that I do believe it is fantastic that, even in a Muslim country where alcohol is considered Haraam, Egypt has a brewery. Unfortunately, it seems the brew master was dropped as a child and never developed a sense of taste.
Still beer is the cheapest and most reliable option for alcohol in Cairo. Though most bars carry a selection of beers, Stella, unofficially the national beer of Egypt, is the most widely served. At eight to ten Pounds per beer, an occasional night of drinking with friends is not too expensive. I suggest Cairo’s famous El Horreya bar, which offers a fantastically smoky atmosphere to enjoy good conversation while choking down a few bottles of Stella. Unfortunately, the price of alcohol can be much higher at many of Cairo’s more exclusive clubs, restaurants, and hotels. Though I understand the logic behind these high prices, there is no way I am willing to subject my taste buds and liver to something so bad at that price.
Where to Buy Alcohol in Cairo:
Wine and beer line the walls of Drinkies, the retail store for Heineken’s Al Ahram Beverages Company, and Cairo best known, and most public, liquor store. It is a haven for Thursday night warriors looking to stock up for the coming weekend. Because alcohol is Haraam, the atmosphere inside Drinkies is tense. For legal, the sale of alcohol is kind of a grey area, and practical reasons the workers are always on edge, and rush customers out to the door. Immediately after entering Drinkies, an energetic, bordering on manic, employee expects an instantaneous decision about what you want to buy. If and when you dismiss him, he returns moments later to check up on your browsing, without ever actually offering any assistance. This isn’t too much of a problem because Drinkies’ paltry selection make the decision process pretty strait forward. This customer service is prompt and attentive to the point of obsessive. But, as a result of Egypt’s disappointing alcohol, a rushed decision about what to drink is no worse than one made after careful deliberation.
Drinkies has a delivery service, which can be quite handy if the party is running low on libations. Drinkies’ menus are widely available, which makes ordering alcohol a good alternative to going to the shop. Unfortunately, deliveries can take a while, so don’t hold your breath while you wait. It is best to plan a head in order to be prepared for the forthcoming ‘fun,’ or to ensure the party doesn’t run dry. Because it is Haraam, actually receiving the alcohol order may mean bribing the bowab—doorman— to not confiscate it, or to allow the deliveryman into the building.