Viewed by many as a disgrace, a drinking culture is developing in Amman

Story and photo by Jessica Teich

AMMAN, Jordan – Sanaa Nabeel, 24, was standing at the counter of Vino, a liquor store in the upscale Abdoun Circle neighborhood, ready to buy two bottles of Amstel beer when the cashier asked if she wanted to drink from one of them right there in the store.

He popped the cap off with the edge of a white lighter and handed the bottle to her for a sip. “I am a Muslim, I don’t link religion to any drinking act,” said Nabeel, an administrative assistant at Sukhtin Industrial Trading Company in Amman.

Nabeel spoke with a sort of counter-culture sneer, careful to make it clear that she can both drink and be a practicing Muslim, if that’s what she wants to do. She represents a developing culture in Amman that conflicts with what the predominantly Islamic society here teaches – that alcohol consumption is a disgraceful, disrespectful act.

At H&H Liquor Store in Abdoun Circle, beer and vodka are the most popular choices of a growing clientele.

“If in the end of the day you want to drink, it is not accepted,” said Mohammad Khazer al-Majali, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Jordan. “In general, those who drink are not respected in this country.”

As a devout Muslim, Majali has an opinion that is much more in line with the traditional Islamic code. But a younger, less traditional generation is coming of age in Jordan, and its members are exerting their own lifestyle choices.

Dr. Nasser Shuriquie, clinical director and deputy manager at Al Rashid Hospital for Psychiatry and Addiction in the Abu Nsair neighborhood just north of Amman, elaborated on the country’s drinking demographic: “Ninety percent of Jordanians are Muslim, and in Islam, alcohol is not allowed. But alcohol isn’t forbidden in Jordanian law,” Shuriquie said. “People drink in this country, people of every background, the upper, middle and lower classes – but religious people tend not to.”

And yet, the growing popularity of liquor vendors in the city suggests that despite a Muslim culture, people are in fact indulging.

Samir Farah, manager of H&H Supermarket and Liquor Store also in Abdoun, has noticed a recent increase in clientele. “In 24 hours, we might see 150 people,” he said, adding that most of his customers fall between the ages of 20 and 35.

“People have been drinking more lately, with changing generations and how people think,” agreed Hadi Nofal, 19, who graduated from high school in 2011. “They’re becoming more open-minded about drinking,”

Nofal first tried alcohol last year, and though he still drinks now, he avoids doing so in excess to keep his habit a secret from his parents. “They don’t know I drink. They’d be angry and really upset, and they’d try to prevent me from doing so,” the teen said.

Though Nofal only began experimenting with alcohol recently, many of his peers operate differently. Talal Faris, 18, for example, said he began drinking when he was 12. Now a first-year student at American University of Madaba, Faris said his mother and father are not supportive of his decision to drink. Earlier this year, he got exceedingly intoxicated and was delivered home to enraged parents.

“My dad was really angry, he kicked me out for a week,” Faris said. “My parents told me I should quit drinking. They’re not OK with it, but I’m OK with it. I just drink to have fun.”

Faris did acknowledge, though, that drinking has had a negative impact on his life. “Sure, there can be bad effects. My stomach is [messed] up,” he said. Faris also noted that he’s only taken two exams this semester, and skipped the rest. “I think my GPA is below one.”

Nabeel, still sipping her Amstel at Vino, has developed a similar pattern of hiding from her family her decision to drink. With seven siblings, Nabeel is careful not to let her brothers and sisters see what she’s up to. “My parents know I drink and they’re fine with it, but I won’t drink at their house,” she said, pushing her long dark hair away from her face. “I wouldn’t mind, but I won’t hold a drink in front of [my siblings,] not under the circumstance of being a bad example.”

Shuriquie, the psychiatrist at Al Rashid Hospital, said that Nabeel’s sentiment is one shared by many Muslim families throughout Jordan. “You can drink, but don’t expect to sit at the table [with the family] if you do.”

In addition to the social and physical hardships drinkers face, they also suffer a financial challenge here. Farah, the manager of H&H Liquor Store, said that among his customers, “flavored vodka and beer are most popular.” A standard bottle of Stolichnaya, the most popular brand of vodka at H&H, rings in at 23 Jordanian dinar, or about $32. And with 16 percent sales tax on all alcoholic purchases in Jordan, drinking here isn’t a bargain.

Aware of all of the risks and dangers that come with alcohol consumption, some members of the younger generation choose to opt out of the booze scene. Orobah Alalwan, 19, is part of that non-drinking crowd – and she said she’s not alone. “Out of about 200 friends, none of them drink, ” the University of Jordan student said. “It’s the rule of Islam and it’s the regulation in this country. Drinking, it is not good. The human is lost.”

Majali, too, is adamant in his urgings for a more rigid stance. “No one has the right to argue something ancient, clearly in the Koran and the word of the prophet,” Majali said. “My hope for alcohol is that it will be vanished and forbidden in Jordan, totally, everywhere, because we are suffering.

“It harms the body,” he added. “It harms the mind, and we have to stop.”

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One thought on “Viewed by many as a disgrace, a drinking culture is developing in Amman

  1. A problematic downside of becoming “westernized”. Drinking is an obvious problem for all who overindulge…it’s sad to see one culture surrender to the more harmful elements of another.

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