Faster, Cheaper and Stronger
On one quiet night in Beirut, while deciding what to do, one of my friends suggested we go to ‘Ahla Alam’. I could not argue that ‘Ahla Alam’, which translates directly into “the most beautiful world” but in context is used to say “the best of people”, did not sound appealing or tempting. To my surprise, it turns out that this place is Beirut’s very own drive-through alcohol store. My friends laughed as I exclaimed, “Isn’t drinking and driving illegal, let alone dangerous?”
After further inquiry, I found out that alot of Lebanese teenagers take refuge in this accommodating service. ‘Ahla Alam’ consists of a counter that overlooks the sidewalk, extending into a large archive of alcohol bottles and snacks that go hand in hand with a nice strong drink. What makes ‘Ahla Alam’ special is that you have a choice: you can either self-serve, or walk up to the counter and watch your drink being made, or you can order it from the young boy that walks up to your car, takes your order and brings the drink to you. 22-year-old Mohamad S., a tourism student at the Lebanese University (LU), said that there is nothing to do in Lebanon but get drunk; and he cannot afford to party in the night clubs, so he goes to “Ahla Alam.” A landscape design student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Mohamad H. explained that “it is the perfect solution; we can just stop at ‘Ahla Alam’ on our road trip, get some strong drinks for cheap, and continue on our way.” According to Walid B., a 23-year-old Adidas employee, it is more convenient to stop there since it is “faster, cheaper and stronger”. Magd A., a 21-year-old management student at the Lebanese American University (LAU), told me in an effort to relieve my concern that they don’t get “too drunk to drive”: “We know our limits and we don’t drink to the point of losing control; those that can’t handle their liquor should not be drinking and driving.” Mandy Assaf explained that it’s the only way to get drunk for three thousand Lebanese liras, although she knows her limits and would not drink to the point of losing control. Farah Ghannoum, on the other hand, has been to ‘Ahla Alam’ but would not be disappointed if they shut it down. “I just don’t bother doing anything about it; people believe in their best judgment and they need to reach their own conclusions,” she said. In a country where the youth are both bored and lazy, a drive-through alcohol place seems like a dream come true, especially one that fills a plastic cup with three quarters alcohol and one quarter anything else, seals it with a cover and tops it off with a straw; perfect for drinking while driving.
‘Ahla Alam’ opened 10 years ago. Fouad, the owner, who tried to remain as anonymous as possible, was a hotel management major until he came up with the idea. There are rumors that the reason Fouad’s drinks are very strong is because he uses bad, cheap alcohol. He said, “I know that there are rumors saying my alcohol is bad, but it is the same alcohol you drink anywhere else; there is just more of it in one cup.” Apparently, that is how Fouad has set himself apart from the other cheap alcohol venues.
I feel that ‘Ahla Alam’ serves as a reflection of the Lebanese mentality. Even when it comes to a drunken night on the town the Lebanese have found a cheaper loophole. ‘Ahla Alam’ does not discriminate; it serves the young and the old, the rich and the poor. Even the clubbers pass by ‘Ahla Alam’ before the club to “3abbe ras” or “fill their heads”, which means to get ‘nice and drunk’. Ryan K., an AUB student, put it interestingly: “’Ahla Alam’ is perfect for going to that event that you don’t want to go to but you want to be drunk by the time you get there.”
KunHadi and YASA, both organizations dedicated to youth awareness on road safety had absolutely no knowledge of the existence of such a place. Mr. Fady Jubran, one of the founders of KunHadi explained that there are legal actions that can be taken and the organization will further look into this. YASA explained that even though it is illegal to drive under the influence, and since this place facilitates, if not encourages drunk driving, it is a problem but the law enforcement officials in Lebanon turn a blind eye. According to YASA, “The risk of a road traffic crash begins to increase significantly at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.04 grams/deciliter and rises steeply after that for each small increase in BAC.”1 You would think that the illegal blood alcohol level was a figure widely available to the public but you have to be very persistant to attain it. After several calls to various members of the police and the Civil Defense and, after many promises that they would call me back with the figure , one of them finally told me that it was 0.05%, which is about 2 standard drinks, depending on your body size.
Out of curiosity, I asked Fouad if he has had any trouble with the law and he explained that he is not doing anything illegal. Since he owns the store, he doesn’t have a brand, and he does not sell anything under the table, the law has got nothing on him. He ended the interview with a calm smile saying that “if they have a problem, they need to talk to Almaza and Stolichnaya, not me.” The only restriction that is forced upon him is that no one is allowed to drink on the sidewalk in front of his store. That is his only rule and his loyal customers are happy to oblige. As absurd as it may sound to have a drive-through alcohol store, the Lebanese seem to love it.
This article was previously published in Hibr Lubnani newspaper