The other night, schedules finally meshed, and a friend and I arranged to meet for a drink at a hotel near the soccer field where our kids were having practice together. It’s been one of those ridiculous logistics things – the night that I could have a drink, she’s busy, and vice versa. Meeting for a drink, in Abu Dhabi, means going to a hotel because Abu Dhabi is, technically, a dry country. Liquor goes against the teachings of Islam. There are no dive bars down the street or a corner pub where you can stop in for a pint. So if you want to meet a friend for a drink, you end up sashaying through some hotel lobby to one of the hotel restaurants or bars. I’ve been in more hotel lobbies in the fifteen months I’ve lived here than if I worked for an escort service.
Anyway. So this mom and I finally found a night when we could meet for our long-discussed drink; I dropped the boys off at practice; found my friend, and then we tried to find the terrace bar of the hotel: up an elevator, down a long hall, up another elevator, out a side door, and then: a lovely terrace on a beautiful evening.
“Oh no, ma’am,” said the waiter. “It’s Islamic New Year. No alcohol for twenty-four hours. Try our lovely mocktails, ma’am.”
I’m not a mocktail gal. Give me the real tail, or give me nothing. I had Pellegrino. With a twist. What a way to ring in 1434H.
Quite a change from the States or the UK, where almost any celebration is an excuse to drink your face off.
And yet, I think I drink more here than I did in New York. In New York, if we had a dinner party or something and friends brought over a bottle of wine, we might still have the bottle (unopened) two, three, five months later.
Here, in “dry” Abu Dhabi, I always have a bottle of white wine in the fridge; the cabinet in the living room bulges with booze. It’s weird. Is it the vague sense of taboo that fuels consumption? Is it that we have a friend whose day job is philosophy professor but whose hobby is making exquisite cocktails? Or is there some genetic trigger lurking in the blood that flips to “sauvignon blanc” when placed in the petri dish of expat-ness?
There are liquor stores in Abu Dhabi, but to shop there one needs, ostensibly, a liquor license. The license is free; you order it online, provide some verification (mostly that you’re non-Muslim and employed), and then in about a month you get an imposing package:
All you need in this package is this little card, which looks like an ATM card but has your picture on it:
Your monthly allotment is supposed to be some percentage of your salary, although the reports from friends of who gets to spend how much at the liquor store varies so widely that it’s hard to figure out what’s what. And then, of course, there are those shops where if you just pay cash, you can “forget” your license and nobody says anything. I mean, so I’ve heard; I don’t mean I’ve actually done that.
The license only gets used in liquor stores; it’s not used in bars or restaurants. Yes, yes, I can hear what you’re thinking “that’s like Big Brother watching over you; they know when you’re buying booze…” I guess that’s true. “They” do know, here, when I buy liquor. Of course, Amazon knows when I’m buying god-knows-what on their site – to the degree that they send me messages telling me what else I might like to buy; and so does iTunes; and so does pretty much every other online shopping emporium. Let’s face it: we’re all watched, mapped, dissected. If you have any doubts about that, just email David Petraeus. He can give you the low-down on being watched in cyber-space.
The drinking-and-driving laws here, I will say, are ferocious. Get into even the tiniest fender-bender and if you’ve got even a whiff of wine on your breath? You’re toast, dude. Thank god people don’t drink and drive, is all I can say. The driving here is bad enough without tossing drunks into the mix. Basically everyone I know adheres to the same principle: planning on a drink or two? Then cab it to your destination, cab it home.
And yet, because we’re in Abu Dhabi, irony capital of the world, the last time I went to the liquor store, where I had to order several cases of wine for a business party we were having, the cashier rang up my purchase on my credit card and then swiped my liquor license to see how much of my quota I’d used that month.
“Congratulations, ma’am,” she said. “You used up your limit, so you get a free bottle of wine.”