Yemen’s hidden alcohol problem

Since alcohol is largely forbidden in this Muslim country, treatment for alcoholism is private, as government brushes it under the rug.

alcoholic311 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Yemen, Sana’a – It’s nine o’clock at night on a busy road on the outskirts of Sana’a and a man is waiting at the shadows. Samir, a 22-year-old university student, has been cruising in his car with his mates and has been engaged in a constant mobile phone negotiation with this man until finally, a location for the deal is made.
Samir halts his car. The man emerges from the shadows and quickly passes him a plastic bag containing two bottles of Stolichnaya vodka, wrapped in local newspapers and asks for the money. Samir gives him 12,000 Rials ($60) for both bottles.
In an Islamist country where alcohol is largely forbidden, just a simple transaction for a few bottles of vodka has a sinister nature of black alley contraband and fear. As much as alcohol is taboo, treating alcoholism is even more challenging since it exposes its sufferers to stigmas.
Samir, who spoke on condition his last name not be revealed, says he does not consider himself to be an alcoholic. He just has “to drink a few beers in the evening to be able to sleep.” A student at one of the Yemeni capital’s prestigious universities, Samir says he often skips classes to drink and was “stressed out” because of his father’s high expectations from him to get high marks and take over his family business. He both adores and fears his father and says his fear of not living up to his expectations makes him seek daily solace in alcohol.
He is not alone. According to Dr. Hisham Al-Nabhani, a psychiatrist at Al Amal psychiatric hospital, about six cases like Samir’s cross his door every month seeking treatment for alcohol abuse.
“They usually come after drinking for three or four years,” Al-Nabhani told The Media Line. “Most of them have high economic status, are the sons of military officers or businessmen who have money and therefore access to alcohol.”
Al-Nabhani said most of them had lived in Saudi Arabia for extended periods.
“This is where they picked up the habit of using alcohol. I know it is even more forbidden there than in Yemen but people tend to hunt after forbidden things,” he added.
Yemeni law prohibits the consumption of alcohol in public or public drunkenness. If caught, violators are sent to prison and not to treatment centers like the Al Amal hospital. What happens in private homes, however, is another matter and police do not as a rule search houses for alcohol. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, there are no religious police enforcing the Islamic ban on alcohol.
“If people drink at home, this is between them and Allah, not between them and the Yemeni law,” Dr. Al-Nabhani says.
Ironically, alcohol is relatively easy to obtain in Yemen. There is locally brewed vodka, called Baladi, named after the Arabic word ‘bilad’ which means country. Vodka, whisky, beer and gin is also smuggled in from Ethiopia or Djibouti and then sold through dealers. There are even towns such as Haima and Amran where whole streets are lined with little shops selling booze behind their iron doors. At first glance the shops appear like the average Yemeni grocery with cans of beans, washing powder and cigarettes lining the walls. But they have a clandestine side room where crates of Heineken beer and bottles of whisky of assorted brands can be found.
The shops are known by many, including government officials. A recent Wikileaks report quoted President Ali Abdullah Saleh joking with US General David Petraeus that he loathed drugs and weapons coming from Djibouti, but whisky, on the other hand was fine, as long as it was good whiskey.  Curiously, the report did not receive much media attention in Yemen despite fears in the foreign press that it could lead to a “Whiskey Controversy.” Yemen denied the quotes were made and the government-controlled newspapers and television channels ignored it.
Samir recalls how he and others seeking an alcoholic drink had ventured to the Russian Club, a nightclub in Sana'a playing outdated music but where alcohol flows freely, provided one is a foreigner. The club denied Samir and his mates entry since they were Yemenis.
“This is not up to the guy at the gate, it is up to us, for heaven’s sake,” Samir says angrily, recalling they went home and ordered a bottle of gin from a dealer.
Dr. Al-Nabhani believes that those coming to his clinic with an alcohol problem are only the tip of the iceberg and that the phenomenon is much more wide spread than the Yemeni public wants to admit.
“We only see the complicated issues where families bring the man to our hospital,” he says. “It is always men. I have never seen a woman here. They usually are brought after he starts beating his wife, his sons, his neighbours and the family was desperate for treatment.”
“It is there, so why deny it? The first step to treatment is acknowledgement, but in our society this is taboo. Furthermore, everyone in Yemen who seeks psychological or psychiatric help is considered insane, so this does not motivate people to go to a psychiatric hospital either,” he says.
Al Amal hospital checks in alcoholics for a two-week treatment, during which they receive medication, group and behavioural therapy. After they leave, they continue to receive medication and psychological treatment.
“But it only works with people who come voluntarily,” Dr. Al-Nabhani laments. “Those who are forced here by their families usually fall back again.”
The Al Amal hospital is funded by the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, a Yemeni charity founded by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, an influential Yemeni religious leader who is also on the United States lists of terrorists. This doesn’t bother Dr. Al-Nabhani or his colleagues since their goal is to deal with alcoholism, and stay away from religious politics.
Because officially there is no alcohol, there are no campaigns or any other public awareness programs. People only know about treatment programs such as the one at Al Amal due to word of mouth. For years, Dr. Al-Nabhani and his colleagues have tried to publicize their care, but they are not supported by the government.
“So we can only sit here and wait for people to come to us,” he says, adding sardonically that knocking behind the closed doors of Sana’a would likely lead to a seven-fold increase in alcoholism patients.
Meanwhile, young men like Samir continue to titter on alcoholism which raises the question: Would it not be better to legalize it and just sell it in the supermarkets so that things can be controlled?  Dr. Al-Nabhani is not so sure.
“First of all, access would be easier so we will have more drinkers,” he says. “Secondly, people think that if this were the case then Yemen would no longer be an Islamic country. As long as it is hidden, they simply think the problem does not exist.”