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IRAQ: Happy hour

January 30, 2008 |  9:56 am

Arak_2Many consider the middle-class neighborhood of Karada, in south Baghdad, to be a religious area because the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council 's headquarters is there. But it's also home to recreational clubs like Alwiya, Hindiya and Sharook, where people can enjoy an alcoholic beverage after a stressful day at work. (The clubs also have basketball and tennis courts and swimming pools, but many people visit purely for social reasons.)

The bars at the clubs are open only from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m, just enough time to grab a drink and hurry home before darkness and the curfew.

In Iraq, the most popular liquor is arak, a transparent, anise-flavored liqueur served on the rocks. The biggest arak factory is in Baqubah, north of Baghdad, but is also produced in other northern factories in areas with Christian populations.

When mixed with water, arak turns a milky white. It has a strong flavor and the scent of black licorice. One watered-down glass is strong enough to give you a high-flying buzz; a second will have you sobbing in your glass. A third can knock you off your stool.

It's customary for Iraqis to snack while drinking arak, to help soak up the liquor. The most popular appetizers are baba ganouj, hummus, tabbouleh and pistachios. This is followed by a decent meal with a meat entree.

Younger Iraqis prefer beer. The two most popular Iraqi brands — Faridah and Loiloa — come in large, 750 ml (25 oz) bottles. Most men drink five or six in a sitting. Western alcohol is also available, from draft beer to Johnnie Walker Black Label.

These bars offer a rare escape from reality, even if it's only for a couple hours.

— Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad

Photo: Iraq's favorite alcohol, the milky, anise-flavored liquer, arak. Credit: Saad Khalaf, Los Angeles Times

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