Should alcoholic beverages be made more easily available in tourist spots?
The issue of a bar is a sensitive one in Bangladesh, or perhaps in any Muslim nation. While we have been raised with the idea that anyone who drinks alcohol is a sinner of the worst kind and a wicked person, in the real world, I find that those who drink alcohol socially are often better than those who don’t.
For starters, drinkers tend to have tolerant outlooks as opposed to insular views held by many non-drinkers. But this is just a general statement. There are countless non-drinkers who have secular ideas and do not find fault in someone else having a drink.
The issue at the moment is not about the drinking habits of Bangladeshis but the access to alcohol for foreigners and the availability of alcoholic beverages in tourist spots.
A Tom Collins by the beach
Tourism experts have rightly said that once there is a valid bar at a resort/hotel, the number of patrons will go up, along with the revenue. There is no denying that since Bangladesh is a Muslim country, many foreigners are hesitant to ask for a drink even at a bar outside Dhaka, fearing an untoward incident or public backlash.
While working for a foreign mission in Dhaka, I once took a team of Europeans to Cox’s Bazar on an official visit; during dinner, a male foreigner casually uncorked a bottle of red wine.
When he asked to pour the drink for others, the foreign women declined. A journalist’s percipience told me that while the women had a desire for a drink, they suppressed it since they were out of Dhaka’s diplomatic area and in relatively unknown territory.
Bars are needed in holiday spots unless, of course, it’s a halal holiday package. Alcohol-free holiday packages attract visitors in several Middle Eastern nations, though the main patrons are mostly citizens of other Arab countries.
The halal holiday package may take some time to take off in Bangladesh because tourists who want to take such holidays are from wealthy Arab nations who are mostly at ease in other Arab states where the infrastructure and culture are not too dissimilar.
Alcohol still projects depravity
The rather dubious social position of alcoholic beverages needs to be deconstructed. The Bengali word for alcohol is mod, which still carries negative connotations. As youngsters in the 70s and 80s, we saw movie villains drinking alcohol in their shady dens, and the nouveau riche drinking to the displeasure of their conservative families.
"Chi chi, tumi mod kheye eshecho?" (Shame! You’ve had alcohol?) is possibly one of the top ten clichéd lines from Bangla movies. The inevitable celluloid answer would be: Ha, ha ami mod kheyechi (Yes, yes! I have taken alcohol). Still today, during marriage proposals, a common question from the prospective bride’s side is: Does the guy have any bad habits? That “bad habit” refers to drinking. In the very insular social template, a person frequenting clubs is quickly marked a reprobate.
The common understanding is that, if a person drinks, then they will obviously visit red light areas or dancing chambers.
Shockingly, in the early years of the 80s, when codeine-based cough syrup, Phensedyl, was slowly and insidiously corroding the young, many parents took consolation in saying: “Oh, it’s just a cough syrup, and won’t be as harmful as alcohol.”
Countless families initially dismissed Phensedyl addition as just a peccadillo.
The hypocrisy is that, while on the surface drinking is denounced, in the real world there are bars scattered all over the capital. As an example: I live in Elephant Road, and within a five mile radius there are seven bars. Obviously, most do not have large illuminated sign boards, but those who drink know where their favourite spots are located.
This double standard is similar to the attitude we project about women, modesty, and sexuality. There are countless women who work as independent escorts during the night, only to adopt a very conventional orthodox persona during the day. Many women are completely content with what they do because the pay is top notch and they only choose five star hotels where security is high.
Since alcohol is available for the locals, there should not be any reason why tourist spots cannot have licensed bars.
Follow Maldives and Malaysia
To counter the hullabaloo from conservatives, the examples of Malaysia and Maldives -- two favourite tourist destinations -- can be put forward. During a visit to Malaysia around 20 years ago, I was surprised to find that an arrow pointing to the Qibla was marked distinctly on the hotel room ceiling while the mini fridge was loaded with a variety of fruit juices and alcoholic beverages.
In Malaysia, beer is found even in small stores and often does not fall within the bracket of alcohol anymore. The point is -- those who want, will get the drink, and those who don’t, need not look in the sections selling alcohol.
In Maldives, the capital Male is a dry city but once you go to the resorts, anything from vintage wine to the best single malt is available.
When tourist spots lack enough bars, there will be an underground market selling low quality products. In Cox’s Bazar, the norm in the 90s was to sell smuggled alcohol from Burma. Often without labels or expiry dates, these dubious drinks triggered terrible headaches.
The downside of too many bars is that, unless regulated, social disorder becomes inevitable. Therefore, the permits should not be given all at once, but in stages and only when it’s clear that patrons of the bars are behaving themselves.
For starters, the top hotels in Cox’s Bazar, Sylhet, and Kuakata may be given permits with a probation period of six months. Once the authority is satisfied, the permit may be extended for two years.
The time limit will motivate the owners of the bars to contain rowdy behavior and other excesses. In case of reports of unruly behaviour or other occurrences, permits may be suspended with support from district administrations.
To end on a lighter note, Compton MacKenzie once said: “Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whiskey makes it go round twice as fast.”
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.