Drinking Tehran dry

Wendell Steavenson
20 January 2003

Driving on the highway to the south of Tehran downhill at 150 km an hour. Two hours ago this road was static jam; now it is free-flowing dodgems threaded with suicidal motorbikes that are pure anarchy roaring down pavements and revved up the wrong side of a dual carriageway, arching in all directions at intersections. For their drivers, all lights are green, but according to a friend of mine who drove by a motorbike roadkill last week, their blood looks like Ribena.

Alireza was driving, swigging arak out of a hip flask, racing past police cars by the side of the road. I was laughing because it felt like being 16 and taking your friend’s father’s new sports car for a spin in the Virginia suburbs and then crashing it, like being at school and drinking Martini out of orange squash bottles in front of the prefects, like being cool and defiant. Vast murals of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei painted on the blank ends of buildings flashed past along the highway. Khomeini looks like the stern headmaster; Khamenei with a pair of square glasses and a slightly bemused expression looks like the woodwork teacher.

I giggled and then we swerved to miss an Afghan street kid who had mistimed his run across the road. I told Alireza to slow down. ‘Fuck them,’ said Alireza, which is his favourite phrase. ‘Maybe people drive so badly in Tehran because they are all drunk,’ I ventured, vile arak fire breaking out a sweat in my stomach. ‘I mean, you can’t, after all have a “no drink-driving” campaign, if there’s not supposed to be any drink.’

We arrived at the restaurant, an Azeri place far downtown, with musicians holding large jingly tambourines. Alireza poured arak into our glasses of tea under the table. He was quite drunk and not very subtle and the waiter caught us which was very embarrassing.

Raise a glass to the Armenians

Drinking in Iran is like prohibition in America. The quality of alcohol is terrible and the amounts consumed are large. The cocktail was invented during prohibition; fruit juice to mask the medicine taste of bathtub gin. I think about this when I am pouring cherry juice into a glass of ‘excellent dry gin’ (certainly not excellent at all) that comes smuggled in little foil packets like a Capri Sun orange drink. The vodka that comes in cans is a little better, but the common arak is sheer moonshine hooch, clear and vile, probably nothing more than pure alcohol and water (when I put a plastic coke bottle of it in the freezer a frighteningly large portion of it froze). It tastes like something you really shouldn’t put in your mouth; more like something you put in your car as antifreeze.

Sometimes this old trite analogy about bad booze is not funny. Once I was looking through a friend’s family pictures; there, clustered around her wedding, were a load of cousins and aunts, and a single squinting uncle. ‘He’s a very nice man,’ she said sadly, ‘but he went blind after the revolution from drinking bad alcohol.’

So we add cherry juice. Once I went to someone’s house and he gave me a glass of red wine, ‘local homemade’ he said laughing, pouring a pink glass. ‘It’s quite sweet but nice,’ I told him. ‘It’s just alcohol and cherry juice,’ he replied, ‘best I could do.’

There are households I know where they make their own wine and not half bad at all; the spirit of Shiraz lives – and not just at the Australian First Secretary’s shindigs. The rest of us have to rely on Armenians, of whom there is a sizeable population in Tehran. They are Christians and therefore allowed to drink wine ‘according to their traditions and religion’ at certain Armenian clubs and compounds. They are also the most active bootleggers; call up, come round, bottle of Turkmen vodka for forty bucks (apparently), cans of very dented McEwans export for three dollars each.

Mostly, though, this is very expensive. At a party there is usually a punch which is made with whatever clear stuff can be found, sprinkled with pieces of apple and tangerine – a sort of lethal fruit salad. The vat is always drunk dry within an hour; prohibition has cut through the niceties of sipping, you pile as much as you can into your own glass, drink it fast and go back for more before it has run out. The proportion of arak to cherry juice is seldom delicate either: there’s a litre on the table and six people drinking it like mercenaries. The glass is three-quarters filled with arak, then cherry juice enough to get it down. It is curious to me that I do not miss the after-work glass of wine every evening, but that on an end-of-the-week Thursday night will drink as much as I can to be drunk. I don’t even like being drunk and the local distilled arak hangover is a truly unpleasant mealy chemical glow. But I am worried about the supply running out and I want more.

Christmas drinks at the British Embassy (Ah! Real diplomatic bag Gordons gin!): a waiter who asks, ‘What will you have, madam?’ It is an official function; one should be polite; one should smile and make small talk and contacts. ‘Four gin and tonics very quickly.’

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