On a New Year’s Eve in Dhaka, Bangladesh, many decades ago, my cousins and I, already giddy at being allowed to stay up past the magical hour, stealthily ran around the living room draining the dregs of the celebratory champagne from the grown ups’ abandoned flutes. Back upstairs, we giggled ostentatiously and staggered around in an innocent facsimile of what we took to be inebriation. In this officially dry corner of the world, it was a truth secretly acknowledged that alcohol existed and that people drank it, at times to excess. Growing up I was surrounded by many a devout gentleman who enjoyed a hearty peg or two and saw no conflict between their identities as whisky connoisseurs and as Muslims. We knew that some of our white-collar parents partook at parties and corporate events, where white suited bearers carried around silver trays lined with regiments of glasses. We also knew that even though men were allowed to discreetly imbibe, the same rules did not apply to women. Girls were told with depressing repetitiveness that a drunk young lady was unacceptable, unattractive and downright unmarriageable. However, once in possession of the social legitimation shield of marriage, women could daintily sip cheeky glasses of wine, safe in the knowledge that everyone knew that they weren’t really ‘drinkers’. There were of course those who among us deeply disapproved, deeming it impious, offensive and unIslamic, but they existed peaceably side by side with those who deemed a nightly beverage a right.

Alex Rowell, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Poetry of Abu Nuwas, Hurst, London, 2018

Fast forward three decades, and plus ça change! While the country is still officially dry, shining a light under the hood shows us that the reality is still less straightforward. The upper classes still imbibe with ease in their homes and their elite institutions; safe in the access and protection afforded them by their money and power. In the villages, many farmers still drink their homemade toddy after a hard day in the fields; and in the cities, shops in the know still sell cheap hooch to the hard working common man. The increasingly religious middle class, attempting to hold the moral fabric of the nation in their hands, decry the ruinous effects of alcohol and ‘too much’ modernisation. In keeping with winds of Islamic conservatism sweeping many secular and tolerant Islamic majority countries, these latter voices seem louder of late. 

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