Nov 27, 2014 · 15 minutes

KUWAIT CITY—Alcohol is illegal in Kuwait.

That doesn’t mean there’s no alcohol here. The place is swimming in it. It’s just illegal. And that’s where the grim fun called Prohibition gets down to business.

My favorite thing about the booze ban is watching you drunks stumble around embarrassing yourselves worse than any druggie trying to score in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Shame, humiliation—that’s one thing about Prohibition that most people don’t get. It’s just so goddamn embarrassing. And back in the world, you boozers never have to worry about that. You don’t need the brain of a rain frog to score your drug of dumb-ass choice; you just go into the nearest 7-11 or Safeway and come out with a clean, industrially-produced, contaminant-free supply. And you get it for less than the price of organic veggies. I tell ya, you want to see some spoiled druggies, don’t even bother going to a Malibu party, just stop outside any corner store in Christendom and watch the middle-class addicts loading up their sedans.

Then they come here, lured by tax-free ESL-teaching wages, and find that booze is a crime here. It’s fun, watching their faces when they get that news. You might not believe it, but the notion that booze can be banned doesn’t even occur to some of them. I had to break the news—nah, let’s be honest, I enjoyed every second—but anyway, I had to tell a newcomer the bad news on the bus to work last week. He was having a hard enough time adjusting to the traffic, the close calls every few seconds. Didn’t even appreciate how lucky he was, getting here in November when it’s cool. I tried to tell him that, while the bus nosed into a roundabout, provoking the usual test of wills with every other driver circling that roundabout like tuna in a 360-degree tank. He said in a whiny London accent,

“But where d’ya, you know, get a drink here? I can’t find anything.”

My soul, such as it is, lit up with a quiet, warm glow. Oh, he’s one of the dummies who didn’t even bother to google his destination, huh? Well, we’re teachers, right? I shall instruct him! For free, even! So I said with simulated quiet regret,

“A drink? Booze? You can’t. No alcohol.”

He was too busy watching a huge SUV try to slant from the inside lane of the roundabout to the far outside lane, through heavy traffic. Takes a while to learn the special rule about those SUVs: If you encounter a huge SUV in Kuwait, it will be driven by an actual Kuwaiti, the dishdash/kaffiyeh wearing locals who make up only a third of the population but have exemption from all traffic rules. All. Period. Or as the Brits say, full stop, which is what your vehicle has to do if one of them wants to pass.

Our bus did a sudden stop as the driver realized he owed the right of way to the SUV, which bluffed its way across two more lanes of tiny sedans driven by mere expat workers to the exit. Then he got back to his own priority:

“What, do you need one of those special licenses? Fucking Hell, if I have to go stand in a queue again like Oman…”

My inward smile warmed to pure contempt. Oman! We sneer at Oman, that squeamish moderate! Oman allows foreigners to buy booze if they can prove they are mere infidels, and thus not worthy to be subjected to Sharia. The theory seems to be that if you’re going to Hell anyway, we can let you drown your sorrows here in the waiting room.

But even Oman, the shining city of toleration, is now considering a ban on alcohol. It can’t resist the pull to the right forever.

Kuwait, which never had Oman’s rep for tolerance, has been moving to the right for decades, just like most of the Sunni Arab world. And, not coincidentally, the United States.

People don’t realize how recent all this Islamist right-wing stuff really is. If you look at photos from any city in the Muslim world from the 1950s and 1960s, you don’t see a lot of women in head scarves.

You see bottles with suspiciously wine-like curves on the table at celebrations. You see musicians onstage, not hiding their instruments. And if you could talk to the people in those photos, you’d hear them take it for granted that the future involved more of the same, nonstop tilting toward the left.

At that time, if you wanted a drink in Kuwait, you could go buy one—the same clean, industrially-produced booze that any Westerner can pick up at the corner. You would have faced social disapproval, and there might have been a good deal of yelling from the relatives—but you could, at least, have that clean, safe drink without doing time for it.

But there was a sullen majority—often misspelled “silent” majority—offstage. You don’t see them in the old photos of celebrations from the 1960s—they’re not photogenic. They watched the orgies—booze openly drunk in Kuwait, acid openly gobbled in San Francisco; women in knee-high dresses in Lahore and naked hippies in Golden Gate Park—and waited, and hated. All over the US and the Muslim world (because those two worlds are oddly in sync), they watched and waited and hated. They were an inert mass until some clever people found a way to mobilize them. And then it started to change, to tilt “so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” as Nixon’s top advisor John Mitchell promised.

All at once. Very quickly. In America, and all over the Muslim world, in the same key year, 1979. That was the year Wahhabism blew up in Saudi, as a Wahhabi wannabe Mahdi captured the Holy Mosques and had to be dug out by some very expensive foreign mercenaries. It was the year that Zia ul-Haq “Islamized” Pakistan, with the glorious results we see in the news every day, and the year that Khomeini returned in glory to judge the living and the soon-to-be dead in Iran. And once Khomeini was in power, our next president, Ronald Reagan, arranged with Khomeini not to release the American diplomats held hostage in Tehran until Reagan had won. One of history’s little ironies, that was: Reagan doing a deal with Khomeini in order to get elected as a hard-bitten conservative who’d kick some Iranian ass, unlike that softie crypto-Quaker Jimmy Carter. I still remember the kickball backboard at my old school where somebody with a knife had carved “FUCK IRAN” in the wood.

It was good for Reagan, and it was good for Khomeini, and for Zia and the House of Saud—but it was bad luck for the rest of us, especially those weak souls who depend on a drink or ten to get through the Kuwaitit teaching day. Kuwait, always a little slower than its Saudi patrons, got around to a total ban on alcohol in 1983 (which may explain why there’s a big nostalgia restaurant on the beach here called ‘The Seventies’)

But clearly, this Londoner on the bus hadn’t done his homework. He seriously thought he’d just have to sign a form, like he did in Oman. I didn’t say outright, “Oman is for wimps,” but I tried to suggest it in my response:

“Oh no no no! No form! You can’t, there’s none. No booze.”

“What, not even beer?”

“What, nothing? Ever?”

“Nope. Never.”

We seemed to be slipping into Gilbert and Sullivan territory, and besides, we’d bumped onto the freeway by then and the wind noise made talk difficult, so we both slumped into our depressive monads, as ESL-teacher etiquette requires. At that moment, each morning, as the bus slides onto the freeway and candy wrappers start flying around in the wind, you can actually see shoulders ahead of you start to slump, and heads tilt sadly, as each of us, Western driftwood washed up on the Persian Gulf, goes over the old question: “What went wrong?” It’s a very absorbing one, for the person affected, though profoundly boring to every other person in the world, and it takes the rest of the trip. So conversation tends to lag.

Next day, the Londoner sat next to someone else, having decided I was no fun, not a good potential connection. His new friend was a grizzled two-pack-a-day veteran from the North. The Londoner leaned in to him, looking desperate, amazingly like junkies in the movies, in that strung-out scene actors love for its innate hammery: “C’mon man, you gotta help me, I’m hurtin!”

The Londoner wasn’t on the bus the next day. Or the day after that. Finally the news got out: He was in the hospital. He’d gotten some info on how to score some booze. Somebody, some street-smart genius, told him to go down to the beach at Mangaf and wander around looking thirsty, and somebody’d fix him up.

They fixed him up, all right. The story, as I got it, was that he’d met an Iraqi who had some liquid to sell. The Londoner paid $100 for it — Prohibition does wonders for liquor markup — and probably sprinted back to his apartment. Ah, that wonderful first sip, or rather gulp in his case.

Except it wasn’t so wonderful. He told a colleague who went to visit him in the hospital, “It tasted funny and then I started to bleed from the nose.”

Now me—I’m not a medical doctor—but the nosebleed? Me, personally, that’s where I would have stopped. Not this guy. He wiped the blood away and took another gulp. And, I’m sure, a couple more, to see if they could fix the increasingly death’s-door feeling he was beginning to experience.

He had the sense to call an ambulance before passing out, which is why he lived to have his stomach pumped and be scolded by doctors when the coma passed. They didn’t tell him what he’d paid his $100 for, but it could’ve been any one of a number of household substances that are sold as liquor in Sharia countries:

“…cleaning fluids, nail polish remover and automobile screen wash, as well as methanol and isopropanol which are used in antifreeze and some fuels. These other types of alcohol can produce similar effects to ethanol in terms of making you feel tipsy. But they are also potentially very dangerous.”
The Londoner was lucky. He lived, and kept his eyesight. A lot of other people in this part of the world die or go blind from stuff sold as booze. Blindness is a common side-effect of drinking methanol, the alcohol in fake booze made from antifreeze, instead of ethanol, the stuff you wusses in the West buy legally. These horror stories about what happens when you drink methanol are especially common in Iran, a much poorer country than Kuwait. There are two ways to die from booze in Iran: At the hands of the state, since you can be sentenced to death for booze recidivism; or by methanol poisoning, which happens all the time.

Kuwait is a softer country than Iran, or its other neighbor Saudi Arabia. Saudi is just as fond of beheading people for violating Sharia as Iran; in fact, they’re in a kind of beheading competition Imperial-Japanese style at the moment to see which can be more Sharia-faithful. This is bad news for anyone attempting to smuggle booze into Saudi Arabia. In fact, you don’t even have to try to smuggle actual booze in through Riyadh airport to get into trouble. I knew a man in Riyadh who spent a good long week in a Saudi prison—actually, more “long” than “good,” from the way he told it—for trying to be a smart-ass. His idea, and I should explain he’d been a chef in his native Austria, because that kinda sums up his half-bright plan—his idea was to get something called “Vodka flavoring” and bring it in. No alcohol, see? Just that yummy vodka flavoring! Don’t ask me, I ain’t no Austrian chef. I thought the whole idea of vodka was that it doesn’t have any flavor.

Anyway, the Saudi customs people weren’t interested in his cunning plan. They put him in prison, deported him, and then let him back in a few months later, for reasons no one could understand. And the Saudi correctional system corrected him, to the point that he didn’t even bring deodorant in his luggage for fear it might have traces of alcohol in it.

Of course, alcohol is all over the Gulf. Not just in relatively soft countries like Kuwait but even in the most Wahhabist ‘hoods of Riyadh or Tehran. Prohibition is such an intrinsically corrupt and lucrative system that you can always get stuff if you’re willing to pay. That’s really the biggest impact of the booze ban on Kuwait: prices. Just like “drugs” in the west, you just have to pay a lot more.

A bottle of “Jack Daniels Old No. 7,” which I take to be a standard bottle of whisky, costs about $33 in the US. In Kuwait, that bottle will cost you 100 Kuwaiti Dinar, which may not sound like much til you know that one dinar equals $3.43—so that bottle will cost you $343.00 here, if you’re lucky enough to have the social connections to get it. For the unconnected, it’s down to the beach to get poisoned like the Londoner. Yep, one of the big features of Prohibition that people don’t get is that it creates a King Rat scenario, where shy folk suffer and sleazy fixers think they’ve gone to heaven.

And the happiest of all are the cops, especially the drug cops. They’re making a fortune. One of my friends, a police captain, boasted that he started the day with a good belt of whisky. I asked if that ran into money: “No, no, I take it from criminals!” He was honest, at least, which puts him way ahead of any American drug-cop sleaze I ever met.

Kuwaitis—real Kuwaitis, citizens, not just people who live here—can bring anything through the airport without interference. One of my colleagues was standing behind a Kuwaiti in full regalia, waiting for the metal detector. The Kuwaiti’s big duffel bag clinked when the Filipino airport worker picked it up. He looked queasily at the Kuwaiti, and—figuring this was a little too blatant to ignore, and he had to go through the motions—picked it up and started to open it. The Kuwaiti said, “There is nothing there for you,” and the Filipino zippered that thing right back up. The Kuwaiti walked out of there, clinking like a wino shuffling into a recycling center, and nobody bothered him.

Of course there’s one last resort for the unlucky alkie with the wrong citizenship and no fixer skills: Make your own. But from what we hear, that doesn’t tend to work out very well. There was an explosion upstairs last week, an explosion that had a distinct Merlot stench. Somebody I won’t name had tried to use the good ol’ “grape juice plus yeast” recipe, and something had gone wrong. Even when these DIY wino kits work, they taste like spiked vinegar because brewer’s yeast is, of course, illegal, so you can only use baker’s yeast. This does not give you the kind of stuff that Depardieu and Putin share a joke over. This Breaking-Bad stuff isn’t nearly as easy as the TV makes it look. My cop friend tells me some locals, who don’t even want to bother with weak homemade wine, try to distil their own hard stuff, which accounts, he says, for a good number of the raw facial scars you see around here. It seems there’s nothing like flaming moonshine to alter your face for the worse.

The larger point, and I suppose my little Thanksgiving theme means I gotta supply one—well, it’s pretty damn obvious: What y’all call “the horrors of drugs” aren’t drug horrors at all. They’re the horrors of Prohibition. So, when you make booze illegal like the Gulf countries are doing, you get every single atrocity that gullible news consumers in the West associate with “drugs” happening with good ol’ alcohol, the stuff you’ll be gulping to help you deal with your horrible kin this Thanksgiving. Every single one: people rotting in prison, even getting capital punishment, for a preference with no moral implications at all; people poisoning themselves in the hope of a few hours’ high; sleazy dealers selling lethal stuff because it’s cheap to get; cops who are straight-up alcoholics themselves, confiscating the stuff from “criminals” to pass around to their friends; other cops getting rich by selling it back to “criminals” with more savvy; locals sucking down all the booze they can hold because they have a double-dealt immunity from the laws imposed on us nobodies; wanna-be Walter Whites maiming themselves and not even being able to report it for fear of the cops…I could go on and on, but it’s pretty obvious.

So this Thursday, when you’re on your third Chardonnay (and still having trouble not throwing a drumstick at your Libertarian uncle) remember: that glass would be a felony over here, because there’s no logic, no justice, no sense at all to the crap we blather about “drugs.”

And then, folks, when you’re done havin’ a good deep think about all these serious-type issues, how ‘bout you GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!