When I think of a vacation during which all I want to do is wear a swimsuit and be rude to my liver, I typically think of Mexico, the Bahamas, or perhaps even Spain. I think of sunny, warm locales where you can run around half-clothed, party with abandon, and dance on the bar while the locals cheer you on between tequila shots.
I most certainly do not think of Egypt.
Now, I’m sure the Egyptians don’t quite want a bunch of American college student spring-breakers running around Cairo yelling “Chug! Chug! Chug!” They do, however, want our business. Egypt’s tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou (which I would like to point out is the name of the bird from the Lion King, although that really has nothing to do with this particular topic), recently held a press conference about his desire to increase tourism in Egypt in the coming year.
Due to rioting and general unrest following the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak’s government, Egypt has seen a lull in its otherwise blossoming tourism industry; tourism is an important part of Egypt’s economy. Afraid of violence against foreigners and lack of access to key sites, tourists have turned to other Middle Eastern countries for their vacations. Zaazou aims to change this. Egypt’s long-term target for the tourism industry is to reach 30 million tourists and $25 billion in revenue by 2022. It is ambitious, but changes in local attitudes and international stereotypes might do the trick.
In order to increase revenue, bring back the tourists, and bolster the economy, Egypt plans to use one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to bringing people together:
“Bikinis are welcome and booze is still being served,” said Zaazou in his statement to the press earlier this week.
Well, party on, Egypt.
Local groups and religious organizations protesting the presence of foreigners in Egypt have exacerbated much of the decrease in tourism. It has long been a tradition in Islam to reject alcohol, although it is unclear when this became the case. Historians believe that alcohol actually originated in the Middle East, and the word alcohol might actually be based on the Arabic word ‘al-kohl,’ which refers to an eyeliner made of powder and alcoholic substances. Alcohol is mentioned in many old Middle Eastern writings, and wild parties were apparently held in the home of the Islamic caliphates.
Although Islam has several tenets that call upon followers to respect their body and not to ingest toxins, alcohol was regularly referenced in Islamic texts. It is likely that the political Islam movements in the 1970s led some countries to ban alcohol and implement severe punishments for Muslims found with any sort of intoxicating substances. It is generally agreed upon that this move reflected the anti-West movement in Islamic countries during this time period.
Despite the implied ban on alcohol in Islam, recent estimates claim that at least 5% of all Muslims consume alcohol regularly, usually behind closed doors in the privacy of their own homes. In certain areas, some alcohol is permitted, as long as it is not made from grapes or dates, two ingredients that the Qur’an mentions; a common ingredient used by Muslims to produce alcohol is raisins. Generally, though, the Muslim world tries to stay away from intoxicating substances.
America tried that once too, during the Prohibition years of the early 1900s, and we all know how well that worked out.
It seems that Muslim countries are experiencing similar issues. Last year, Iran’s health minister released a statement addressing the country’s burgeoning issues of drunk driving and alcoholism. Iran, one of the strictest Islamic countries, reportedly has over 200,000 diagnosed alcoholics and estimates claim that nearly $75 million American dollars worth of liquor are smuggled into Iran each year. According to the BBC, sobriety tests over a one-month period in Tehran had a 26% fail rate, which is nearly three times more than that found in cities of similar size in other countries.
Iran, where women are both legally and culturally discriminated in the country’s strict patriarchal society, is unlikely to change its attitude on alcohol. I highly doubt that they will be hosting a wet t-shirt contest or inviting scantily-clad women to resorts and beaches anytime soon. Perhaps, though, they’ll soon have to face the elephant, or shall we say the tequila bottle, in the room.