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Blitz and booze, side by side

Baghdad, April 1 (Reuters): Drinkers in the Iraqi capital are hard up these days — the main liquor-selling district in Karradet Mariam has the misfortune of being right next to the main presidential palace, a top target for US bombers.

Scores of liquor stores selling everything from Tayyara (plane) arak, an ultra-strong alcohol made of dates with a picture of an airliner taking off on the label, to European beer brands were closed even before the war started 13 days ago.

And those which struggled to stay open to meet war-time demand have bad news for their customers. Hanna Boulos (John Peter), a small store in the mainly Christian area, re-opened today, hours after the presidential compound took another battering last night. “Yes, we raised our prices. Try to find another Heineken in Baghdad,” said Akram, the son of the owner as he doubled the price of a half-litre can of imported beer to $3.

Every shopfront in the high street was broken, including Sirawan Kebab and Haidar Double, Baghdad’s leading falafel shop.

Across the street, workers cleared debris from a US attack on a building next to one of the palace’s gates. Buildings inside the compound, which stretches for miles on the Tigris river, also took direct hits overnight.

The war premium extends to everything Hanna Boulos sells, including arak. Unlike the Lebanese and Syrian variety, which are made of grapes, Iraqi arak requires a strong stomach and cautious consumption is advised. Asriyah, the premium Iraqi arak brand, is out of stock at Hanna Boulos. Tayyara, the second best line, has now doubled in price to 4,000 dinars ($1.30) a bottle.

“Arak is selling fast,” says Akram. “Customers want something that knocks them out quickly during bombardment.”

Iraqis were starting to buy arak as a substitute for local beer, such as Farida and Shahrazad, whose factories have closed. Iraq, a mainly Muslim country, has traditionally taken a more relaxed attitude to alcohol than its Gulf neighbours, despite occasional crackdowns. Beer and wine were available in smart Baghdad restaurants in the days leading up to war.

Iraqi beer used to be affordable, selling for about 10 cents in refillable bottles. Its strong barley taste was too much for most foreigners but for Iraqis, impoverished and unable to buy imported beer, it was fine — at least before the war. “I am buying arak now,” said Raeq, a taxi driver. “I think it is destroying my stomach, but I need to sleep at night, especially where I live.”

Raeq lives next to the Iraqi Olympic Committee, which is headed by President Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. The huge compound was targeted by bombs overnight and remained burning for hours.

Arak goes well with charazat, or mixed nuts, and charazat shops are seeing good business as the air raids keep most people at their homes, in shelters or with relatives. At Shorjah, an old market within the walls of the original city of Baghdad, Hussein re-opened his charazat shop recently. He brought back a stock of pistachios, nuts and dried fruit imported from Iran and brushed off the city’s woes.

“I did not expect the war to be like this at all,” he said. “The bombardment has not been as bad as we had thought.”

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