by J.W.E. Askew
Whether it is the sight of transsexuals strolling down the street, packed synagogues or mobs of people brawling with the police, Iran never fails to defy expectations. This is a country far more enigmatic than the land of flag-burning zealots its portrayed as in the West. Yet, beyond all these shocks and surprises, there is one activity that I found particularly thrilling, one in which I became an expert in while living there: buying beer.
Already I suppose there is a burning question on your mind: Booze? In Iran? How is that possible? Isn’t it supposed to be an Islamic Republic where alcohol, alongside anything else that brings joy to peoples’ lives, is strictly forbidden?
Well, despite the police, prisons and threat of lashing, the answer to your question is quite simple: with ease. Much like illicit goodies in Europe, alcoholic beverages, ranging from (fake) Heineken to homemade Cognac, can be purchased from street dealers. All you need is a working telephone, a thick stack of worthless Iranian Rials and a willingness to risk your sight.
However, until you find a “guy” – eventually, I found one who delivered vodka directly to my door faster than Domino’s and even had a chip and pin machine – chances are you’ll be drinking what comes from corner shops. Yes that’s right, you can buy alcohol under the counter, too.
Before you go looking like an idiotic tourist with a death wish, I must explain. This is not every corner shop. It is the dodgier variety. You know the ones. The kind in Europe that sell fags to children and have shelves laden with magazines displaying women’s outrageously hairy bushes (don’t pretend you haven’t seen them).
These shops typically sell beer. But this “beer” is not beer as we know it. It is more accurately described as non-alcoholic beer mixed with ethanol. A standard litre bottle of the stuff will set you back around 500,000 Rials (£1.80). It will contain a level of ethanol that ranges from flushed cheeks to instantaneous nausea. It’s dangerous, expensive and certainly no scrumptious English Ale, but it’s the easiest available means of fighting that delusional state where nothing makes sense and everything is dull; formerly known as sobriety.
The first time one of my Iranian friends led me to one of these shops I was aghast. “There?!” “In that shop opposite the fucking embassy,” I asked in disbelief, pointing at the armed policeman smoking a fag outside the entrance. For a moment, I stared dumbstruck at his dark green uniform, black military boots and shiny handcuffs, which I swear sparkled in the streetlight.
“You can’t be serious”.
Here was one situation I did not want to be in. If shit hit the fan, a quick phone call to mum would not sort this one out. Still, I was torn. Ever since my arrival, I had been staggering around the streets of Tehran in a vain search for something drinkable. Like a parched man in the desert, I would see beers floating on the horizon, only to arrive at a strewn can of Coke Zero at my feet. Things were desperate.
Sensing my indecision, not to mention serious case of brown trousers, a friend grabbed the money from my sweaty palm and strolled towards the shop. After an insufferable wait, in which I could almost feel the tingle of car battery that would be wired to my testicles in prison, he slinked out with two bulging bags, crossed the street and walked straight past the policeman. Now that I recall it,
these bags may as well have been a big sign saying arrest me. Who in their right mind buys 8 litre bottles of tropical flavored alcohol-free beer?
“How on earth did you manage that?” I quizzed him after we rendezvoused round the corner.
“Iran dige”, he shrugged.
All jokes aside, I soon tired of this state of affairs. I was sick of risking life and eye every time I wanted a tipple. Everything was difficult, nothing was ever easy. Then I realised that’s the beauty of it. In Iran, all we take for granted – be it meeting up with your girlfriend, having a cheeky beer or going to a party – is problematic. One must constantly fight, resist and stick a gigantic middle finger up to the authorities. This might sound like a pain to most (which it almost certainly is), through this struggle I had some of the most vivacious experiences of my life. As my Iranian friend used to quip with her wily smile and ethanol flushed cheeks, “freedom is a verb”.
 This word has no direct translation in English. It has several meanings and no Iranian’s definition is the same. In this case, it means that the answer to my question was so obvious it was stupid. It’s easy to buy booze in Iran.