Expatriates in the Middle East
How do everyday businesses function under Islamic law?
- In Aden, socialist neglect for 25 years after independence in 1967 had destroyed any cachet associated with the massive natural harbor.
- Many Yemenis drank beer to counteract the effects of the stimulant, qat. Qat chewing went on day and night in Yemen, and the beer acted as a kind of downer.
- Sharjah treats alcohol kind of like a weapon — you pay a hefty fee for a police license to consume the stuff at home.
- In the heyday of the British Empire, the constant steamship traffic between England and India made Aden the second busiest port in the world, after New York.
During my many years in the Middle East, I met all kinds of expatriates pursuing quixotic dreams of bridging the gap between West and East, but none were going about it with quite the same gusto as Ekkehard Zitzman.
The portly, middle-aged German was, as he liked to boast, "the last brewer on the Arabian peninsula!"
His Sirra Beer was most welcome in the scorching summer climate of Yemen, where the thermometer regularly hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Zitzman's infectious enthusiasm for his smooth, thirst-quenching pilsner was remarkable not least because he faced terrible odds and he knew it. The mullahs who ushered in Iran's Islamic Revolution had shuttered his previous brewery.
The first time I went to see him in Aden — the once famous, now dilapidated port in southern Yemen — he told me that he had no need to consult a calendar to know when the holy month of Ramadan loomed. His delivery trucks were stoned. Firebombs sailed over the brewery walls.
Death threats against him and his workers rose sharply, prompting him to sleep in a different room in his house each night. After the weekly mosque sermons each Friday, hundreds of zealots aroused by fundamentalist clerics would march on the brewery, determined to torch such an obvious outpost of Satan.
Salvation arrived in the unlikely form of the army.
"The army officers here are all Soviet-trained, which means plenty of heavy drinkers," Zitzman told me. "They always bring up the big guns to protect us." A few mortar rounds fired judiciously over the heads of the demonstrators usually proved sufficient to disperse them.
Zitzman was a jolly character with a much-needed wry sense of humor, and I recognized that his was no small accomplishment since Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol and most area governments enforce prohibition.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are both dry, while Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman restrict liquor consumption to expatriates. Sharjah treats alcohol kind of like a weapon — you pay a hefty fee for a police license to consume the stuff at home.
The Yemeni government inevitably got involved in the brewery battles, announcing each Ramadan that the benighted heathen establishment would have to close and this time it would definitely, certainly, absolutely stay closed for eternity. Significantly, the orders came from the capital, Sanaa, in the north, which was far more religiously inclined.
Zitzman knew that the edict wounded both the palates and the pride of most southern officials. First, many drank the beer and, second, they clung to it as the last vestige of Aden's long-faded cosmopolitan past.
(My visits to Zitzman predated the harbor making headlines when an Al-Qaeda suicide attack with a skiff blew a gaping hole in the side of the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer, killing 17 American servicemen.)
The telephones worked intermittently, and sewage from an over loaded system built by the British in flush times often flooded the streets. Socialist neglect for 25 years after independence in 1967 had destroyed any cachet associated with the massive natural harbor.
In the heyday of the British Empire, the constant steamship traffic between England and India made Aden the second busiest port in the world, after New York.
Of course not everyone who visited while their ships refueled proved a fan of the low-slung city spreading out from the blackened crater of a dormant volcano. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a witty British travel writer and long-term resident of Yemen, quoted the author Vita Sackville-West as calling the city "precisely the most repulsive corner of the world."
With the collapse of colonialism and the arrival of the jet engine, Aden reverted to the boondocks. But it still boasted a brewery. Sirra Beer even reflected the glorious past, with the black outline of an old Portuguese fort overlooking the harbor gracing its distinctive red label.
The wily brewmaster always made sure to fill the storage vats before unplugging the machines at the start of the holy month. Ramadan over, he would drop into the local governor's office and casually mention that the vats were full of beer ready for bottling, wondering if perhaps he should just pour it down a drain?
The top officials hemmed and hawed for a while over glasses of tea and then invariably decided it would be a terrible waste to jettison beer that was already made. Of course the carbonation in bottled beer comes from new production, Zitzman explained to me, so bottling the stored stuff meant making new brew and the entire cycle began again for another year.
Observant Muslims naturally found this exasperating, especially since the order to close the brewery remained on the books.
"We don't care if people love the beer!" Sheikh Mohamed Abdulrub Gaber, the head of the Aden branch of Islah, the largest Islamic political party, groused to me.
The bearded cleric pointed out that drinking beer, along with chewing the stimulant qat — the favorite pastime of virtually all Yemeni males and no small number of women — was a drain on household budgets. A beer lover goes "to the alcohol market and spends his money, leaving his family penniless. He might even sell his wife's jewelry!"
It was true that many Yemenis drank beer to counteract the effects of qat. The beer acted as a kind of downer, akin to trying to assuage the buzz derived from drinking too many cups of espresso. Qat chewing went on day and night in Yemen.
One time the elusive leader of a socialist political party, a man I had been trying to reach for days, knocked on my hotel door around 2 AM, long after I had gone to sleep. I staggered to the door to find what appeared to be a talking tree. "Want to chew?" the politician asked from behind his bushel of qat.
For Zitzmau, the struggle to keep brewing was an old story. He had arrived in Aden from Iran in 1980, a year after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionaries booted out the shah.
He told me that he had managed to protect his Tehran brewery from Muslim mobs who burned down the country's four other breweries, and he even continued deliveries for about six months, covering the windows of a Volkswagen van with brown paper to disguise the contents. But he knew the jig was up when a turbaned mullah materialized at the gates one day and told him that the brewing obviously had to stop.
In Yemen, the end came abruptly. Not long after I met Zitzman, the periodic tensions that followed the unification of northern and southern Yemen erupted into renewed fighting.
The army, preoccupied, could not protect the brewery and the fundamentalists overran the grounds, setting the building alight. It burned down, and there was no longer any question of filling the vats before Ramadan.
Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a three-part series from Neil MacFarquhar’s book, “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday.” Copyright 2009 Neil MacFarquhar. Reprinted with permission of PublicAffairs Press.