2:54am

Wed June 6, 2012
Revolutionary Road Trip

Once Tolerated, Alcohol Now Creates Rift In Tunisia

Originally published on Thu June 14, 2012 12:07 pm

Over the next couple weeks, NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road Trip across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves as they write new social rules, rebuild their economies and establish new political systems. Steve and his team will be traveling some 2,000 miles from Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, across the deserts of Libya and on to Egypt's megacity of Cairo. In this story, he looks at the friction that has developed over alcohol in Tunisia.

The other night we stopped at a Tunisian hotel, a clean and modest place with features that reminded me of an old Holiday Inn where my family stayed as a kid. At first it seemed the main difference was that, being in Tunisia, the hotel was next door to the ancient ruins of a magnificent Roman temple.

Over dinner in the hotel restaurant, one of my traveling companions ordered a beer, only to have a staff member in his red blazer inform us sadly that the hotel did not serve alcohol. Later, the staff member whispered more of the story: If we had only arrived sooner, he would have been able to serve the beer.

A few days before our visit, he said, conservative religious activists came to the hotel and objected to the serving of alcohol, particularly on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

These activists have been making news all over Tunisia, pressing bars and liquor stores to close. Hoping to avoid trouble, the hotel cut off liquor sales entirely. A cocktail shaker stood sad and unused on the shelf behind the vacant bar.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has gone from battling dictatorship to battling a broad range of issues, including alcohol. And it was just such a battle that led us to the city where the Arab revolts began.

It was in the town of Sidi Bouzid where fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi, feeling abused by the police, set himself on fire. A sculpture today marks the spot — a simple fruit vendor's cart, shown knocking over the chairs of Arab rulers.

Sidi Bouzid has established its place in history, yet today it's an uneasy place and, increasingly, a hard place to get a drink.

Alcohol is legal and publicly consumed in Tunisia, but it is becoming a point of friction as Tunisians try to figure out what kind of country they want to build in the wake of the revolution.

Protests Against Liquor

As we are shopping in Sidi Bouzid, one unemployed man comes up to tell us that he has an undergraduate law degree, but has been looking for work for a year. We ask if his friends are also out of work.

"All of them," he says.

As devoted Muslims, he says, he and his friends have joined protests against two local liquor stores.

Even during the era of the Prophet Muhammad there was liquor, he says. But people in this town started complaining, saying that a man could not walk with his wife here with the drunken people walking around.

The new provincial governor became involved. One store owner agreed to move, but the other resisted the pressure.

The store owner's brother came to this spot, confronted the protesters, and fired a shotgun, leaving pockmarks in the wall of the yellow mosque next door.

So the protesters burned the home of the liquor store owner.

The provincial governor, Mohammed Mansour, says police are reluctant to stop such disputes, having been accused of corruption in the old regime. And citizens are all too eager for a fight.

"This is the kind of mentality of post-revolutionary Tunisians, and they're still living in this period of the revolution when they think they can do everything, and I understand that," says Mansour.

A Source Of Friction

Almost everywhere we've been, we've heard stories of bars and liquor stores forced to close.

News of all this has spread to bars that remain open — like a dim dive in Tunis called JFK. Here, political activist Ramy Sghayer sipped a beer while "Killing Me Softly" played on the sound system.

He finds his friends here, along with green bottles of Celtia, a Tunisian-made beer, which the bartender opens one-handed by knocking them against the side of the table.

The bar is conveniently near the place where protesters, including Sghayer, brought down Tunisia's ruler last year.

Now he's dismayed that, in his view, Islamists are ruining his dream of a free Tunisia.

"I respect these people as citizens that have the right, for example, to exist," he says. "But I don't respect their ideas because we want our country to advance, not to go back in history."

Sghayer is no fan of the moderate Islamist party now in power, Ennadha, though it should be noted that the government is not calling for a ban on alcohol.

Sghayer thinks that even Islamists wouldn't dare.

What role does alcohol play in this country's culture and in its life?

"It's fundamental," he says. "You cannot abolish alcohol in Tunisia. Tunisian people are breathing oxygen and alcohol."

Since Tunisia's revolution, the company that brews Celtia has reported sales have actually increased.

And that company is a state-run enterprise. That means that technically the Islamist party now dominating the government is in the brewing business.

A Special Tunisian Drink

We decided to pour one more drink in a more contemplative place.

It's the business of Jacob LaLoush, who says he runs the only kosher restaurant in Tunis. He returned to his native Tunisia after spending years abroad in Paris.

"I divorced there and I came back here because I have a Jewish mother. You heard about the Jewish mother?" he asks.

We wanted to know about his restaurant, which he now runs with his mother.

He's part of a shrinking Jewish community in Tunisia, which used to be substantial, but now numbers fewer than 2,000. Jews were among many waves of people who've come to this spot on the Mediterranean coast.

"The people here come from all over the Mediterranean countries," he says. "All the people who arrived here brought with them their traditions, their recipes."

His menu draws on everything from Middle Eastern traditions to foods brought centuries ago from Spain by Sephardic Jews.

The menu also includes a Tunisian original — a drink made from figs, called bukha.

"It's a kind of Tunisian vodka. It was the basic drink in all the Jewish feasts," says LaLoush, who cannot drink any more because of medication.

And non-Jews have come to drink what's become known as a distinctive Tunisian national product. He goes to the freezer and comes back with shot glasses and a small green bottle, white with frost.

"When I put this bottle on my table I feel free," he says.



Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne with David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're continuing our journey from Carthage to Cairo, a revolutionary road trip through nations affected by the Arab Spring. And we've come today where the Arab revolutions began. It's a town in Tunisia called Sidi Bouzid, and it was here that a fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi, to protest the police, set himself on fire.

A sculpture now marks that spot. It's done in stone. It shows a simple fruit seller's cart, knocking over chairs, which represent thrones of dictators who've lost their jobs in the Arab revolutions.

We've come to this town to tell a simpler story, but one that reveals a lot about this country and about the way that it's evolving. You can say it's a story about democracy or a story about seeking justice, but when you distill it down to its essence, this is a story about alcohol, about drinking in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The story begins right around the corner, on a street lined with fruit carts where Bouazizi used to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible), banana.

INSKEEP: The smell of peaches and apricots drifts all along the row.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Do you want a big bag, a vendor asks a customer, and then turns to tell us that not much has changed for him since Tunisia's revolution. Mainly inflation has driven up the price he must pay for fruit. Local unemployment is about 20 percent. As we're shopping, one unemployed man comes up to tell us a story. He says he has a law degree, but has been looking for work for a year.

Are a lot of your friends also out of work?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: All of them?

And then he describes what he and his friends are doing while unemployed. As devoted Muslims, they joined protests against two local liquor stores.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Even during the era of the prophet, there was liquor, he says. But people here have been complaining. A man can't walk with his wife here with the drunk people harassing them. One store owner agreed to move. The other resisted the pressure. The store owner's brother came to this spot, confronted the protesters, and fired a shotgun, leaving pockmarks in the yellow minaret of the mosque next door. So the protesters burned the liquor store owner's home.

The provincial governor Mohammed Mansour(ph) says police are reluctant to stop such disputes, having been accused of corruption during the old regime. And citizens are all too eager for a fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through translator) This is the kind of mentality of post revolutionary Tunisians. They're still living in the period of revolution when they think they can do everything, and I understand that.

INSKEEP: Liquor is suddenly a flash point as Islamists gain more power in Tunisia. Almost everywhere we've been, we've heard stories of bars and liquor stores forced to close. News reports say two liquor stores were burned in Tunisia's northwest. At our hotel in still another town, the staff informed us they'd just shut down the bar, after religious conservatives complained.

News of all this has spread to bars that remain open, like a dim dive in Tunis called JFK. Here, a political activist, Ramy Sghayer, sipped a beer while "Killing Me Softly" played on the sound system.

RAMY SGHAYER: This bar, yeah, it's my favorite place in the center of the town, you know.

INSKEEP: He finds his friends here, along with green bottles of Celtia, a Tunisian-made beer, which the bartender opens one-handed by knocking the bottles against the side of the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CLINKING TOGETHER)

INSKEEP: Not only that, the bar is conveniently near the place where protesters, including Sghayer, brought down Tunisia's last ruler. Now he's dismayed that, in his view, Islamists are ruining his dream of a free Tunisia.

SGHAYER: I respect these people as citizens that have the right, for example, to exist, but I don't respect their ideas, because we want our country to, let's say, to advance not to go back in history.

INSKEEP: Sghayer is no fan of the moderate Islamist party now in power, though it is fair to add that the government is not calling for a ban on alcohol. Sghayer thinks that even Islamists wouldn't dare.

What role does alcohol play in this country's culture and in its life?

SGHAYER: It's fundamental.

INSKEEP: It's fundamental?

SGHAYER: Yes. You cannot abolish alcohol in Tunisia. Tunisian people are breathing oxygen and alcohol.

INSKEEP: Since Tunisia's revolution, the company that makes Celtia, that Tunisian beer, reports sales have actually increased. And the company is a state-run enterprise, which means that technically the Islamist party now dominating the government is in the brewing business.

Let's pour one more drink in a more contemplative place. It's the business of Jacob LaLoush , who says he runs the only kosher restaurant in Tunis. He returned to his native Tunisia after spending years abroad in Paris.

JACOB LALOUSH: And I divorced there, and I come back here. Because I have a Jewish mother. You heard about the Jewish mother?

(LAUGHTER)

LALOUSH: Well, what do you want to know now?

INSKEEP: We wanted to know about his restaurant, which he now runs with his mother. He waved us to a table, even though the restaurant was closed for a Jewish holiday. He's one of the last members of Tunisia's Jewish community, which used to be substantial, but is now below 2,000.

In the past, Jews were among many waves of people who've come to this spot on the Mediterranean coast.

LALOUSH: We are a real product of the Tunisian melting pot. You know, Tunisia created a melting pot before the United States, now.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

LALOUSH: I mean that the people here come from all over the Mediterranean countries - from Spain, from Greece, from Turkey, from Palestine - and every people who arrived here bring with him his tradition, his recipes here and they trade together the new Tunisian.

INSKEEP: Is that diversity reflected in your menu?

LALOUSH: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: His menu draws on everything from Middle Eastern traditions, to foods brought centuries ago from Spain by Sephardic Jews. The menu also includes a North African original, a drink made from figs, called bukha.

LALOUSH: It's a kind of Tunisian vodka. It was the basic drink in all the Jewish feasts.

INSKEEP: Like at bar mitzvahs or weddings.

LALOUSH: The Tunisian Jewish love life.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

LALOUSH: ...love all the things, and love his mother also.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Non-Jews also drink bukha, which is found in other North African nations, like Libya, though, Libyans can't brag about it since it's a dry country. Tunisians have come to think of this as a distinctive Tunisian product.

LALOUSH: Yeah, do you want to try it?

INSKEEP: I thought you'd never ask.

(LAUGHTER)

LALOUSH: Just a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR BEING MOVED)

INSKEEP: He goes to the freezer, and comes back with shot glasses, and a small green bottle covered in frost.

Do you drink it all in one shot, or do you sip it?

LALOUSH: (Unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOT GLASSES CLINKING)

LALOUSH: You taste first and after, you in one shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGH)

INSKEEP: Ooh, it's excellent. It's cold. It's actually a very smooth drink. Yes. It's a very gentle drink. Is this green bottle on the table here with us a kind of symbol of a diverse Tunisia?

LALOUSH: This bottle - this green bottle - it's a kind of Tunisian resistance.

INSKEEP: Resistance, he says, to those who would take his rights away.

LALOUSH: When I put this bottle on my table, I feel free. I feel - yeah, free man.

INSKEEP: And Jacob Laloush, one of the last Jews in Tunisia, says he feels that way even though, because of medication, he can no longer drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Steve's Revolutionary Road Trip continues in Tunisia tomorrow. And for what we can expect, here's Steve with a sneak peek from the Island of Djerba.

INSKEEP: For centuries, pirates hid on this island. And for many centuries, it's been a haven for a Jewish community. We've come to a synagogue, a white stone building with blue shutters along the sides. Jews say a synagogue has been here for more than 2,000 years.

Inside, elderly men are praying. Outside, men with rifles are guarding this spot. Ten years ago, it was bombed. This spring, on the 10thh anniversary, Tunisia's new president came to this synagogue to reassure the Jewish community they still have a place in the new Tunisia. And we'll talk to the president tomorrow.

MONTAGNE: Steve is also sending updates about the food and drink he's trying on his trip to NPR's food blog, The Salt. You can find it at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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