As the pungent smell of fermenting raisins wafted
through the Supplementary Medical and Technical Materials Industry
Establishment here, Said Anwary spread a stack of yellowed bottle labels on
his polished desk and recalled what this decrepit factory on the edge of
Kabul made in its heyday.

“Whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, grappa, peach liquor, white wine, red wine —
and, of course, brandy, the most famous of them all,” he recited. “We were
so good, we could hold our own against the best in the world. And we can do
it again.”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, this distillery — then known as Afghan-Clemd
— was renowned around Central Asia for its sticky brown brandy, and for
the wines of Kandahar grapes that won a gold medal in Bulgaria.

Since then, Afghanistan has become one of the world’s most pious Muslim
societies. And, while the radical Taliban theocracy is gone, President
Hamid Karzai’s new Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan still welcomes
visitors with a stern warning that all alcohol and pork products, both
forbidden by Islamic law, will be confiscated at customs. The one thing the
plant is officially allowed to produce now is medical and technical alcohol.

Mr. Anwary’s open campaigning to start making brandy again shows just how
far Afghanistan has already moved from its harsh recent past. The
distillery’s limbo status is also proof that, after decades of brutal
jihad, the country is a long way from the level of tolerance it displayed
before Afghanistan’s gentle monarchy was overthrown 31 years ago.

The state-owned distillery was established with Italian help during the
reign of the last king, Zahir Shah. In 1968, he outflanked religious
objections by saying the booze it produced would be sold only to non-Muslim
expatriates. But as the distiller was betting, Muslim Afghans quickly
became the main customers.

Under Mr. Anwary, Afghan-Clemd’s top executive from 1977 to 1986, the
distillery rapidly expanded to become one of the main revenue sources for
the Afghan state, contributing as much as $60 million (48.7 million euros)
a year. The zenith came under Soviet occupation, as Kabul’s Communist
rulers fought against Islamic “prejudices” and U.S.-backed Islamist
guerrillas known as the mujahedeen. At the time, Kabul was relatively
peaceful, and the city’s streets — where pale-blue burkas are common today
— were filled with unveiled women wearing high heels and miniskirts. Mr.
Anwary was selling 5,000 bottles of liquor a day…

Indeed, a casual visitor to Kabul wouldn’t guess that this is officially a
dry city. With police only occasionally enforcing alcohol laws, and with
thousands of aid workers, U.N. staff and other expatriates exempt from the
booze ban, imported drinks — and pork chops — are openly served in dozens
of city restaurants. ISAF even runs a special Kabul supermarket where any
non-Afghan can buy duty-free liquor by the case…


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