We’d been on the road in Iraq for a week, and after inhaling ten pounds of desert sand each, we really needed a beer. Luckily we were in Basra, and our tour leader Geoff knew a good place to buy liquor under the counter. So after a day of seeing the historic quarter and taking a boat trip along the Shatt al-Arab, a few of us ditched our guards and headed out into town.
Ditched our guards? In Iraq??? Sure. Basra is a pretty safe town and our Muslim guards from the Ministry of Interior wouldn’t have approved of us going on a beer run. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? The last time I went off without my guards I nearly got arrested, but that wasn’t so bad. I even got to meet a general.
Geoff led the way. We passed down some quiet back streets flanked by crumbling concrete buildings. The few passersby didn’t seem to take much notice of us. This is common in Iraq. They’re looking at you but don’t make a show of it. If you wave and say hello, though, they’ll respond warmly.
We ended up at a little corner grocery store. A few dusty boxes of tea and some cans of soup with faded, peeling labels sat on the shelves. It didn’t look like this place had sold any groceries for a decade. It was one of the least convincing facades I’ve ever seen.
%Gallery-171530%We walked up to the counter and asked for beer. The two middle-aged men behind the counter didn’t bat an eyelid. They named the price, we handed over the money, and one of them walked out of the store.
“He will be back in one minute,” the owner said. “Where are you from?”
We replied and had the usual friendly conversation of “Welcome to Iraq” and “How do you like my country?” Lots of smiles and handshakes. Anyone who has traveled knows these conversations. They quickly get repetitive but they’re good for international relations. Iraqis and Westerners could do with a few more friendly conversations.
“We are Christians,” he told us.
We nodded. The liquor sellers in Iraq tend to be from the Christian or Yazidi minorities. They still suffer harassment, even though they aren’t breaking the rules of their religion. In some places liquor sales are strictly forbidden by self-appointed vice squads. In other places like Basra it happens in a semi-secretive fashion with everyone turning a blind eye, like with the pot dealer at a university dorm. In Baghdad the liquor stores operate out in the open. It all depends on which of Iraq’s countless factions controls that area.
The guy returned with a bulging plastic bag filled with cold cans of Turkish beer. The owner cut the conversation short.
“You go now,” he told us. Having foreigners in the store was attracting attention. People on the sidewalk peered through the glass door as they passed by. A group of guys across the street stood staring. One made a call on his mobile phone. I looked right at him and he looked right back at me, expressionless.
We thanked the shopkeepers and left. I volunteered to carry the bag. I figured if we ran into trouble I could use it as a club. A dozen beer cans upside the head will stop just about anybody.
It was the only weapon I ever carried in Iraq and I never got to use it. Those guys across the street were simply curious. The one with the phone wasn’t calling in a hit squad. We got back to our hotel with no trouble at all – except for getting lost. And what’s the point of traveling if you don’t get to ask for directions in Basra with a bag full of beer in your hand?
Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.
Coming up next: “Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq!”
[Photo by Sean McLachlan. This is actually a liquor store in Baghdad that runs much more openly. I didn't get a photo of the Basra folks. They weren't exactly in a photogenic mood.]