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Source: FT

Jul 13, 2023

Photo Info: Iranians pour bottles of alcohol into a fountain in Washington, DC, in May 1979, after the Islamic republic banned its consumption © Larry Morris/Washington Post/Getty Images

Iran’s relationship with alcohol is reaching a tipping point

An artist’s death has raised questions about the dangers of the black market for liquor


“When you pass by my tomb, ask for grace; It’s a shrine where the drunkards abound,” reads a poem by the legendary Persian poet Hafez.

These lines encapsulated the mood at the recent funeral of Khosrow Hassanzadeh, a prominent Iranian artist whose work was exhibited the world over. His death earlier this month, the result of alcohol poisoning from drinking aragh, a popular Iranian moonshine, shocked friends and peers.

Nowadays, many Iranians are angry at the Islamic republic’s ideologically motivated alcohol ban, which has existed since 1979 and ensures the continued flow of a dangerous black market supply of drinks.

What has long been seen as pragmatism towards drinking — or at least turning a blind eye — is increasingly becoming unwieldy. Strong public demand benefits the illegal multibillion-dollar business of importing alcoholic beverages and facilitating their production inside Iran, but a lack of regulation leaves ample room for things to go wrong.

There is also widespread speculation that regime loyalists who back the Islamic decree might be sabotaging these bottles of illegal liquor, to discourage consumption of alcohol. Local media has reported a sudden rise in deaths and loss of sight resulting from alcohol poisoning in recent weeks.

Iran’s police chief, Ahmad-Reza Radan, has rejected the possibility of an organised sabotage attempt by Islamists, instead saying: “those who consume alcoholic drinks should know that some risks await them”. Hassanzadeh, who was just 60, lost his sight and slipped into a coma before passing away 10 days later.

Aragh was an essential part of his lifestyle as an artist. His partner, Shahrzad Afrashteh, who is a friend of mine, tells me that his was “not a death in vain” — rather, it was part of his dedication to an ancient Luti tradition.

The ritualised practice of aragh is part of this tradition whereby men of honour salute each other each time they have a shot “by lowering their glass until they reach the floor, as a show of complete self-abasement and humility to the other”, she explains. “It is in this context that Khosrow’s drinking of aragh must be seen.”

Speakers at Hassanzadeh’s funeral highlighted his contribution to Iran’s art scene, and celebrated his life. But at least one attendee was shaken by the implications of the tragedy for those who survive him. “I look at my glass and ask: ‘Khosrow! Did you really die from drinking this? Where the hell do we live?’”

Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iranian authorities cannot enforce the anti-alcohol law too strictly, as doing so would mean punishing millions of people every day. But nor does the government have the self-confidence to embark on reforms that would mirror laws in Turkey, where drinking is permitted. Iran’s political establishment fears that such a move would threaten its ideological identity and incur the wrath of loyalists.

This attitude is not just true of alcohol policy. The obligatory hijab is not enforced in the streets of Iran nowadays, following the Woman, Life, Freedom movement last year and the deaths of hundreds of protesters. But this state of affairs is precarious — women with uncovered heads never know if they will be let into certain public spaces, such as metro stations.

Navigating the online world is also full of contradictions. The use of popular applications such as Instagram is banned, but the country’s leaders regularly use these platforms and they are widely accessible through VPNs — indeed, Instagram influencers are even urged to pay tax on their earnings.

For many artists, aragh is now linked to Hassanzadeh and the culture he was dedicated to keeping alive. It is hard to imagine that his passing will frighten Iranians into giving up a long tradition of drinking, about which endless poetry has been written.

But on a hot summer evening in Tehran last week, guests at a private reception were slightly nervous when cold cocktails made with aragh were served. The host convinced everyone that he had made the liquor himself. “We all should make our aragh and wine and beer at home from now on,” said one guest. And many agreed.

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