Booze—and Bliss—in Beirut

Booze is legal and widely consumed in Lebanon, where 40 percent of the population is Christian. Guenter Standl/laif via Redux

At Le Bristol, as soon as I am alone and the lights have come up, I order a vodka martini shaken and chilled with a canned olive speared on a stick. I am resolutely solitary at the hotel bar at 10 past 6, and the international riffraff have not yet descended upon its stools. It is l’heure cocktail, and I am content. The birds are still loud on Rue Madame Curie and nearby Rue Al Hussein, and as yet there are no hookers strolling the carpets. I am alone, I think to myself, on my little lake of slightly gelatinous vodka. I am alone, and no one can touch me. I am haraam. In Arabic there are two words, often rendered as haram and haraam in English, that are etymologically related but distinct. The former refers to a sanctuary or holy place; the latter to that which is sinful or forbidden.

i like the Bristol, which lies so close to the Druze cemetery of Beirut; I occasionally wander there if no one has picked me up or a conversation has not dragged me down. The Druze drink alcohol, and no disrespect is possible. I also like the hour of 10 past 6. When I touch the rim of the night’s first glass, I feel like Alexander the Great, who speared his insolent friend Cleitus during a drinking party.

The Bristol’s bar is half hidden in that anxious lobby where men in dubious suits eat honeyed cakes all day long. It is an exercise in discretion. The businessmen who sit here late at night do so with tact, because not all of them are Christians. In Lebanon, which is still 40 percent Christian, alcohol is legal and enjoyed widely. I sit at the end of the bar, and my second vodka martini comes down to me on its paper serviette, with the olive bobbing on the side. Salty like cold seawater at the bottom of an oyster, the drink strikes you as sinister and cool and satisfying to the nerves, because it takes a certain nerve to drink it. Out in the street, beyond the revolving glass doors, a soldier stands with an automatic weapon staring at nothing.

At dusk the first addicts drift into the lobby: soon there is that syrupy commotion of the bar stirring to life as light fades out of the outer world. Subtle intoxications take over. I look over the bottles of Gordon’s and Black Label and Suntory and Royal Stag, the brand names ever prevalent in the East, and then at the tongs idling in an ice bucket and the Picard ashtrays and the barman’s geometric black tie. How universal in its format the bar has become. It is like a church whose outposts are governed by a few handy principles. The stool, the mirror, the glasses hanging above by their stems, the beer mats and the wallpapers that have been chosen from suppliers to morticians. Everywhere in the world these shrines have emerged, and everywhere they exist the cult of intoxication advertises itself with jukebox music and screens filled with faraway football games and the bottles filled with liquids inspired by the Arab alchemists and chemists who 800 years ago gave us al-kohl—a sublimation of the mineral stibnite designed to form antimony sulfide, a fine powder that was then used as an antiseptic and as an eyeliner. Was it the fineness of powdered kohl that suggested the fineness of distilled alcohol, as some lexicographers claim? Or was it the way the “spirit” of stibnite was sublimated into that powder? Either way, in these dens we spend much of our time forgetting what we are.

alcohol is mentioned a mere three times in the Quran, and its use, though frowned upon, is not always explicitly forbidden. The hostility to wine in the holy book, if stern, does not seem especially ferocious. It is drunkenness, rather than alcohol per se, that provokes the prophet’s ire. The first mention of wine in the Quran’s traditional chronology, in the very first surah, known as “The Cow,” is this: “They ask you about drinking and gambling. Say: ‘There is great harm in both, although they have some benefits for the people; but their harm is far greater than their benefit.’” Next we have this: “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” Later, drink is referred to as Satan’s handiwork more explicitly: “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside that you may succeed.”

drinking-in-beirut-lawrence-osborne-OM04-secondary Enjoying a moment with a hookah in the Lebanese capital. Martino Lombezzi/Contrasto via Redux

The hadith is another matter. But there is little certainty about the origin of Islam’s strong interdiction of alcohol. Prohibitions can come and go. Few remember now that coffee was prohibited in Mecca and Egypt in the 16th century because it was considered an intoxicant. Some suggest that the suppression of alcohol may have arisen with the Turkish Seljuk military’s desire to maintain order in their troops. No one now knows, and the beginnings of the prohibition no longer much matter. Others have claimed that it is a modern reaction against rampant Westernization, where the infidels are everywhere present through their infamous Johnnie Walker and their satanic Bong vodka.

Drinking has not disappeared, even from Saudi Arabia. The Khaleej Times, from time to time, regales us with harrowing accounts of Saudis who are taken to the hospital after having tried to use eau de toilette as a drink. In 2006, 20 citizens of the kingdom died after bingeing on perfume. Nothing changes the fact, meanwhile, that in the Arab land of Lebanon the national drink is arak, a distillate of aniseed.

The word “arak” in its origin means “sweat” and refers to droplets of distilled wine vapors condensing on the sides of a cucurbit. The Muslim Persian poet Abu Nuwas, in the ninth century, who wrote many verses about the pleasures of wine and distilled liquors, described it as “the color of rainwater but as hot inside as the ribs of a burning firebrand.” So with all distillates, which are Arab in origin and which were once exported to Europe from the Islamic lands.

Arak and the vodka martini, therefore, have a common Islamic origin. They are both the color of rainwater. And how, sitting here morosely at the bar of the Bristol, can I not think of the homosexual Abu Nuwas, who appears as a character in One Thousand and One Nights and the long-dead poetry of that genre known as khamriyyat, “the pleasures of drinking”? The scabrous poet who mocked “ye olde Arabia” and made the case for the cutting-edge urban life of Baghdad. Who lamented the sexual passivity of men and the devious sexual appetites of women. For whom a crater on the planet Mercury is named.

I have with me in my room my copy of Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad and O Tribe That Loves Boys, even though there’s not a single affordable edition of Abu Nuwas on For Abu Nuwas, desire is incarnated in the saqi, the wine boy at the tavern. A gentle fawn passed around the cup. And as I sip my vodka martini in the Bristol, this time at midnight, alone but for a bowl of salted peanuts, those words come down through the centuries, from the debauched salons of Baghdad.

A gentle fawn passed around the cup. He glided among us and made us drunk, And we slept, but as the cock was about to crow I made for him ...

in the early morning I drove two hours from Beirut to the Roman city of Baalbek with Michael Karam, Lebanon’s preeminent wine critic. He is from an old Maronite family of Mount Lebanon, educated in England, fashioned by a disastrous spell in the British Army, a connoisseur of arak as well as of wine.

drinking-in-beirut-lawrence-osborne-OM04-third The Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon, honors the god of wine. Chris Stowers/Panos

The temples lie at the head of the Bekaa Valley in Hezbollah territory, to one side of a clean little town. We sat in a café in the sun just by the ruins drinking pomegranate juice and watching black-clad clerics walk past as if they were ruminating on that morning’s unpleasant electricity bills. The loudspeakers were active here. Sermons delivered at an emphatic clip. It seemed like a reasonably oppressive place, clean and safe. The kind of place where you might be kidnapped for an hour or two just to satisfy someone’s curiosity. Halfway through our drink I knocked over my glass of pomegranate juice, and it fell to the ground, smashing loudly into a hundred pieces. The passersby froze for a split second. The loudspeakers started up again, and suddenly the Roman architraves visible over the trees seemed yearningly alien and lost. We walked over to them with a silent, mutual relief. To step from 21st-century Baalbek to first-century Baalbek felt like a blessing. The latter was called Heliopolis. The gods that once ruled here stand facing their conqueror, divided by a parking lot.

Baal, Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus. The Temple of Jupiter is unlike any other extant Roman building. Its scale is immense. Six of its columns remain—the Emperor Justinian hauled off nine for the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; the rest were toppled by earthquakes. Their drums lie around the pavement below. But even these six columns quell any modern hubris. Below them lies the Temple of Bacchus, raised by Antoninus Pius in the second century, the largest sanctuary to the wine god ever built. It is also virtually intact, the most perfect of all buildings surviving from the Roman Empire except the Pantheon in Rome, the remains of Ephesus, and the Maison Carrée in Nîmes. No one remembers that Dionysianism was the most popular religion of the late empire before the arrival of Christianity. It was Christianity’s principal rival. Here a stoned Rasta sat on one of the drums, waving to everyone. We asked him where he had come from. “Outer space,” he said.

The cult of Venus at Heliopolis was so wild it had to be curtailed by Christian emperors. The cult of Bacchus must have been as fierce. We walked into its temple as the sun was declining, and we could look up and see the near-perfect fretwork of the ceilings over the outer columns. We went into the cella, which felt like the nave of a church, still partially roofed, the niche carvings still preserved, the steps to the altar intact. One rarely thinks of the cult of Dionysus-Bacchus having an actual church, and a rite that may have influenced Christianity very early on. Scholars like Karl Kerényi have argued that the figure of Christ absorbed many of the characteristics of Dionysus. But here you suddenly become aware of this possibility.

drinking-in-beirut-lawrence-osborne-OM04-fourth Prohibitions can come and go. Few remember now that coffee was prohibited in Mecca and Egypt in the 16th century because it was considered an intoxicant. Jens Schwarz/laif via Redux

I sat on the steps and listened to the echoing Hezbollah sermons coming from the town. I could sense that Michael was thinking the same thing. I glanced down at the marble relief at the foot of the steps and saw a single panel with a dancing girl etched into it, pristinely chiseled, her hair and chiton flowing. A bacchante from the time of Antoninus Pius. She was no bigger than my hand, so tiny perhaps she had been forgotten by all the looters. Like the sculpted girls you can see in remote Angkorian temples in Cambodia, she had survived against the odds. A follower of Bacchus caught in a single moment and still here, spinning to her god’s energy.

I put my palm over the marble girl and closed my eyes. One has to remember what she was dancing to, and why intoxication is the most primitive mystery. In the Mediterranean world, it was at the origin of a religious passion. Today we have turned that same passion into a secular industry and a private struggle. But meanwhile, Hezbollah are right to hate the drinker: he, and this delicate marble girl, are their greatest threat.

Adapted from Lawrence Osborne’s forthcoming book The Wet and the Dry, to be published by Hogarth Press in July.