Ramadan and alcohol: Hypocrisy or identity? Freedom or disrespect? Law or religion?

Over the past few days, quite a debate has been going on the Jordanian blogosphere about the police’s closing of Books@Cafe. The story of the closure was told on 7iber.com by the owner of the restaurant Madian Al Jazerah. So far close to 240 comments have been posted on that story. I have rarely seen such an intense reaction on a Jordanian blog touching upon the sensitive issues of freedom, religion and identity. The restaurantuer in question says his restaurant was indeed licensed by the government to open AND serve alcohol in Ramadan (as a 3 star touristic establishment), and that the closure was done an arbitrary manner that contradicts the law.

Jordan’s tolerance and pragmatism are a well known traditions. But Ramadan in Jordan has some “special rules” that show that Jordan is uneasy about its own tolerance during that time of the year when, suddenly, mosque attendance jumps up to six folds. Closing restaurants and banning the sale of alcohol in Ramadan is a sort of “soothing pill” that gives people the feeling that religion is being “respected”.

This reminds me of another, rather strange, rule that forbids giving an alcohol sale license to any establishment within a circumference of 300 meters or so around mosques. Looked at in a humorous way, it seems as if alcoholic drinks can send out some “bad frequencies” that affect the purity of prayers in mosques. But what this really is about is the attempt by the state to create a “psychological buffer” between things that are seen by many as contradictory.

Discussing such a topic opens up all the unresolved files of the Arab and Muslim world: collective religious identity vs. individual rights of non-muslims or even muslims. The legitimacy of laws. The interpretation of Islamic Sharia. Tolerance for “non-believers”.. The list goes on.

But here is what’s interesting: the debate is no longer one confined to books written by obscure intellectuals. It is moving to a more popular level.

“Closed for Maintenance” (see the video above) is a short documentary by media designer Ibrahim Owais, who, armed with a DV cam, asked people around him, Jordanian and foreigners, what they thought about the closure. He also managed to interview the restaurant owner too. If anything, this film show the diversity of opinions on the matter and the intense reactions it can stir up in some.

NOTE: An English subtitled version of the film will be available soon. I will post it here too.

NOTE2: For a very interesting framing of the issue and a “reaction to the reactions” to the 7iber post read what Black Iris had to say.

10 Responses to “Ramadan and alcohol: Hypocrisy or identity? Freedom or disrespect? Law or religion?”

  1. Ibrahim Owais Says:

    Thanks for posting the film …
    the movie above is with subtitles right now … the old one was replaced on ikbis with the new one, so you don’t have to post another link for it.

  2. PH Says:

    It’s an interesting documentary, although I feel that the people interviewed were in the immediate circle of contacts of the guy who did the short. Although I probably already know what the street feels about this, I’m still curious to know what do they have to say.

    But about identity, I find it interesting that a few guys insisted that being a Muslim, means that my identity is an Islamic one. It’s as if my identity is shaped by one aspect and only aspect. Sorry, but I think my identity is much more multi layered than to be defined by being a Muslim. It’s also interesting, that there is this unspoken agreement, that being a Muslim means that by default, you do not do certain things, like drinking alcohol. And any person who does that, is regarded as part of a small minority (when really, such is not the case). It’s also interesting, how there’s this “either you are with us, or you leave the country” mindframe. I never knew that being a Jordanian citizen meant that I also have to be a “Good Muslim”, what does being Jordanian have to do with being Muslim? Also, what is this nonsense of “you’re allowed to do whatever you want abroad, but here you need to stick to this unspoken code of conduct”? Seriously, doesn’t this sound too much like Saudi Arabia to you? Jordan has always enjoyed this “Shami” culture of tolerance, and only in the past decade we’ve witnessed the rise of this Wahhabi mindset here.

    I also feel that the main focus (at least to me), which seems to be missing, is that Books@Cafe had a permit to operate in the month (that’s to answer the guy’s question on why did it remain to operate till the 21st; it’s because they already obtained necessary paperwork and documents to operate). According to the law (which i have read), you need to pay up 5000JD in advance to pay for the permit, and that’s quite a hefty sum really for a small business. So the matter on hand is that abiding the law in Jordan does not seem to be enough, because there are vigilantes that believe they are above the law, and when they are not happy about the law, well, then they can just barge it and lay down the law themselves.

    Also, there’s an issue pertaining to timing, why did the crackdown take place towards the end of Ramadan, is the Minister of Interior trying to save face? Who had pressured him? Doesn’t such a move set quite a dangerous precedent for not only social freedoms, but for how serious is the government towards promoting stuff like tourism? Especially that a good number of places that were closed down do not serve alcohol in the first place. Why would a tourist want to visit a ghost town (Amman), when in Beirut (or even Israel) you can have a delicious meal in Downtown along with a beer?

    There are many matters pertaining to the topic, that are very important, and to people, as usual, it boils down to religion and customs. Which I find is very selfish. We took the matter in a personal manner, and forgot all about the rule of law and other important issues.

    Finally, I find it bizarre, how the majority are so protective of not rocking the boat, and are so obsessed with “respecting this month” and “respecting our traditions and culture”. Books@Cafe has become an “icon” (although icon is the wrong word to use) in Amman, because it defied several things that fall under “tradition”, and I am not talking about homosexuality here, but I am talking about offering a place that is open for everybody and anybody.

    No matter how you look like, what you are wearing, who are you with, you are accepted at Books. Such tolerance, and such openness cannot be found in any of Amman’s outings (probably La Calle and Las Tapas are two exceptions). And Books paved the way for such a culture, it doesn’t have a “couples only” policy, nor a “we kick out hafartal” policy, which most silly places in Amman adopt. Most places in Amman do not let women who wear the Hijab in. So I think that the critics of the place should ease up a bit, since Books is probably the only place where they can get in without hiring a prostitute disguised as a girlfriend! (You’d be shocked to know how many people do that).

    I think that Jordan is going through a bizarre identity crisis. We want to be pro-Western, but with an “Islamic” edge. We want to close down places, but still promote FDI. We want to float prices, but only if prices go up. We want to adopt a free market economy, but still allow the government to be patriarchal in its approach to handling finances. I think that we need to wake up, and realize that we cannot have everything, it’s about time we picked a side and stick to it. Because seriously, the dichotomies in this country will only let the country to shift into two dangerous extremes: A religious extreme, and a “liberal” extreme. History shows that the two are almost always bound to eventually collide, and I really don’t want to witness when s*** hits the fan in my country.

  3. Tara Says:

    What strikes me as utterly hypocritical of the Jordanian bloggers community is that so many people are pissed off over the non-existent ban of alcohol in Ramadan they are turning it into a yardstick of Jordanian tolerance.

    yet none of these self-proclaimed champions of tolerance are anywhere to be found in the incredibly offensive and intolerant debate about Muslim shiites.

    Let’s face it, we won’t know what tolerance is if it hits us in the face. it’s all about defending MY WAY and screw all others.

    That’s why the debate about Books is a phony debate. It has little to do with freedom of religion or personal freedoms. else you will see double the blog posts and comments in defense of Muslim Shiites. Were is the righteous indignation? Where is the outrage over the intolerant language being used in the press and on blogs? Imagine if this hateful debate was directed at Christians or even Jews.

    We are such lightweights. We like to think we are liberal and open minded. We throw terms like freedoms and tolerance left and right but our comprehension of such terms is limited to their impact on our welfare. It’s our freedoms and others be damned.

    Westernized Jordanians are a loathsome lot.

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  5. Osama Humeid Says:

    Exciting. but why only books@cafe? bcz maybe someone of the neighbours was annoyed and “wassel”? or maybe because it represents the westernized funky ammani dudes?.. well i say, close them all! or just leave it the way it is, teasing this thin red line between the two sides and showing the goverment without a clear statment is just silly to do!

  6. muhammad arrabi Says:

    I think we need to separate the 3 branches of the government. The policeman in this case acted as all 3:
    1- gave himself the right to decide what is “lawful” in ramadan – ignoring issued permits
    2- judged that the shop must be closed during Ramadan (it’ll take too long for a court to look into the matter)
    3- and of course executed the order.

    Even if we want to close all alcohol-serving shops in Ramadan, we must do it through the correct institutional framework we have. If there are contradictory laws between two ministries, then they must be debated out by the Parliament and/or the supreme court.

    finally, to Tara:
    what muslim shiite problems? did something happen against shittes in jordan? or is this in reference to Qaradawi’s statement? Just remember, tolerance does not mean agreement.

  7. Bubba Says:

    this whole debate surfaced how the Jordanian “Ammani” society has many hidden issues, like Black Iris said.
    the “kashra” (scowl) the everyone has, is caused by something, everyone keeps saying: “smile, smile, why are ammanis always frowning”
    my opinion is that this whole debate clearly shows the big gap that Black iris implied; that the ammani society has issues and that it is not much harmonious, actually it is not at all harmonious!!
    some will say: “the poverty or hard living”, fine, look at how Egyptians are 3asal, Brazilians enjoy life to the best, etc.. although most are very poor, and there is an even bigger gap (at least economical) than that in amman.. but our gap is on many more facets: economical, cultural, religious, social… and the Books@ debate showed that..
    this is my opinion!! and i’m free with it.. :)

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