Booze-And Bliss-In Beirut

Article excerpt

Byline: Lawrence Osborne

In a place steeped in religion, a drinker finds his faith.

At Le Bristol, as soon as I am alone and the lights have come up, I order a vodka martini shaken and chilled with a canned olive speared on a stick. I am resolutely solitary at the hotel bar at 10 past 6, and the international riffraff have not yet descended upon its stools. It is l'heure cocktail, and I am content. The birds are still loud on Rue Madame Curie and nearby Rue Al Hussein, and as yet there are no hookers strolling the carpets. I am alone, I think to myself, on my little lake of slightly gelatinous vodka. I am alone, and no one can touch me. I am haraam. In Arabic there are two words, often rendered as haram and haraam in English, that are etymologically related but distinct. The former refers to a sanctuary or holy place; the latter to that which is sinful or forbidden.

i like the Bristol, which lies so close to the Druze cemetery of Beirut; I occasionally wander there if no one has picked me up or a conversation has not dragged me down. The Druze drink alcohol, and no disrespect is possible. I also like the hour of 10 past 6. When I touch the rim of the night's first glass, I feel like Alexander the Great, who speared his insolent friend Cleitus during a drinking party.

The Bristol's bar is half hidden in that anxious lobby where men in dubious suits eat honeyed cakes all day long. It is an exercise in discretion. The businessmen who sit here late at night do so with tact, because not all of them are Christians. In Lebanon, which is still 40 percent Christian, alcohol is legal and enjoyed widely. I sit at the end of the bar, and my second vodka martini comes down to me on its paper serviette, with the olive bobbing on the side. Salty like cold seawater at the bottom of an oyster, the drink strikes you as sinister and cool and satisfying to the nerves, because it takes a certain nerve to drink it. Out in the street, beyond the revolving glass doors, a soldier stands with an automatic weapon staring at nothing.

At dusk the first addicts drift into the lobby: soon there is that syrupy commotion of the bar stirring to life as light fades out of the outer world. Subtle intoxications take over. I look over the bottles of Gordon's and Black Label and Suntory and Royal Stag, the brand names ever prevalent in the East, and then at the tongs idling in an ice bucket and the Picard ashtrays and the barman's geometric black tie. How universal in its format the bar has become. It is like a church whose outposts are governed by a few handy principles. The stool, the mirror, the glasses hanging above by their stems, the beer mats and the wallpapers that have been chosen from suppliers to morticians. Everywhere in the world these shrines have emerged, and everywhere they exist the cult of intoxication advertises itself with jukebox music and screens filled with faraway football games and the bottles filled with liquids inspired by the Arab alchemists and chemists who 800 years ago gave us al-kohl--a sublimation of the mineral stibnite designed to form antimony sulfide, a fine powder that was then used as an antiseptic and as an eyeliner. Was it the fineness of powdered kohl that suggested the fineness of distilled alcohol, as some lexicographers claim? Or was it the way the "spirit" of stibnite was sublimated into that powder? Either way, in these dens we spend much of our time forgetting what we are.

alcohol is mentioned a mere three times in the Quran, and its use, though frowned upon, is not always explicitly forbidden. The hostility to wine in the holy book, if stern, does not seem especially ferocious. It is drunkenness, rather than alcohol per se, that provokes the prophet's ire. The first mention of wine in the Quran's traditional chronology, in the very first surah, known as "The Cow," is this: "They ask you about drinking and gambling. Say: 'There is great harm in both, although they have some benefits for the people; but their harm is far greater than their benefit. …