Alcohol makes furtive comeback in Afghanistan

O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination,- of Satan's handwork: Eschew such (abominations), that ye may prosper. Satan's plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allh, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain? [Qur'n 5:90-91]

By Stuart Grudgings 
 
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - With a nervous glance over his shoulder, the Afghan boy reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a $11 bottle (seven pounds) of Russian vodka.

A few months ago, before the U.S. declared war on terrorism helped topple the Taliban, this could have resulted in him and the shop owner being tied to the back of a pick-up and dragged three times around the nearest mosque by the Taliban zealots.

Now it just brings a kind of quiet shame.

"We're an Islamic society so of course it's a little shameful," said Ayoub, who runs a hole-in-the-wall grocery store in the centre of the northern city.

But now that the Taliban are history, he freely admits to doing a brisk trade in Russian vodka, which he says he gets from neighbouring Uzbekistan.

"I sell five or six of these a day, and they're getting more popular," he says. "Officially, it's illegal, but no one gets in trouble for it these days. Under the Taliban, they would practically kill you, but I still sold a few even then."

Asked whether it was possible to sample a rumoured local brew that caters for the less discerning drinker, Ayoub whispers that it's no problem if the buyer returns after dark.

Even before the Taliban imposed their strict Islamic doctrine, drinking was frowned upon in Afghanistan, even in relatively liberal Mazar-i-Sharif.

Residents here still remember the days of Communist President Najibullah's rule in Kabul in the early 1990s when drinking in public, particularly by government officials emulating their hard- rinking Soviet counterparts, was not an unusual sight.

Local warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, himself a former Soviet commander who helped retake the city from the Taliban in November, is also said to be fond of a drink.

SHAME IS ONLY PUNISHMENT

Under the Taliban, anyone caught selling alcohol in Mazar-i-Sharif was publicly humiliated by being dragged around a mosque, with flogging sometimes thrown in for good measure.

Drunks were thrown in jail

"They weren't following Islamic rules," said Zekrullah, a cleric at the city's blue mosque. "It was for political reasons -- they were just doing it to draw the attention of the world to themselves."

"We haven't had that kind of punishment lately. Of course, drinking is against Islam, but we would rather persuade people that it is wrong and so they change their ways because they realise that," the 86-year-old said.

Just up the street, a shopkeeper called Mirwais is doing a profitable sideline in cans of Bulgarian and Russian beer for about $3 and foreign soldiers are some of his best customers.

A bearded foreigner in desert fatigues jumps out of a four-wheel drive and starts haggling discreetly with the owner of the next shop over the price for 19 cans of German beer.

"We come down here three or four times a week," said the French soldier, Chris. "The prices used to be much more expensive, but now it's better I guess because a lot of shops have got supplies in."

As darkness envelopes Ayoub's shop in the evening, he produces the home-brewed liquor and offers a health warning.

"I've heard that people have died or gone blind after drinking it," he says, offering the glass to his visitor.

One sip of the foul liquid, which goes for a dollar a glass, is enough to confirm its lethal potential.

"I've already drunk quite a lot tonight. It helps keep out the cold," Ayoub says.