“I know how to get cheap alcohol in Qatar,” Brian, my Uber driver said in response to my sympathies for those attending the dry World Cup in Qatar. “As for the quality of the booze, I will let you and your liver be the judge. But mine is still functional.”
The rain was thinning out outside Gateway Mall, along Mombasa Road, but the Suzuki Swift’s windows remained foggy. I stared at the wipers dancing on the windscreen, throwing water down the blue bonnet as we waited for a friend. My Uber driver stole glances at the 750ml bottle of Johnnie Walker black label cradled in my hands. Our eyes met. He spoke immediately. “In Qatar,’’ he started, ‘‘that probably costs 14,000 Kenya shillings.” The bottle cost me 2,650.
Reading the shock in my eyes (if you know me, you know how indiscreet my eyes can be), he quickly explains that there are cheaper options even in Qatar. However, you must really be ‘thirsty’ to find this cheap liquor. Never mind the tough alcohol-prohibition laws. “I was deported to Kenya last year because of alcohol and ‘other reasons,’ which I will tell you about later,’’ he said. ‘‘To drink alcohol in Qatar you need to know the right people and the right places,”
Brian tells me he loves alcohol, but alcohol loves him even more. The type, brand, or alcohol percentage is meaningless to him. If it can get him drunk, he says he will delightfully indulge.
Qatar instituted an alcohol ban in all stadiums for the entirety of the World Cup period. And shocking as it was to the rest of the world, Brain said it came as no surprise to him and his friends.
“In fact, I had a plan before my unceremonial exit from Qatar to make a few coins showing people how to drink in Qatar,” he says, letting out laughter so easy to the ear.
Brian said drinking in Qatar has always been an arduous task. Qataris are not allowed to sell, buy or drink alcohol, it is haram. But if you are foreign and rich enough, you can get a special licence from the Qatar Distribution Company (QDC). As a migrant driver, Brian said he failed the QDC eligibility test at the salary question that requires one to be earning at least 3000 Qatar rials, slightly more than KSh.100,000. He made a fraction of that.
“Even if I chose to spare my entire salary, I still would not afford the licence. Back home, how much I made was unimportant. I earned way less working as a makanga on the nganya’s plying Jogoo Road but I could still afford the finest 40 percent proof of Kenya’s Blue Moon Vodka, Kenya Cane, or Gilbeys Gin,” Brian explained passionately.
Brian insists that It would be incongruous to tag the cash he was left with ‘a salary’ after the vehicle owner, driver, traffic cops, set members, and gas stations took their cut.
‘But it was still enough to knock me out cold. In my motherland, finding alcohol is never a problem,” he noted
In Qatar, Brian said the only other way for a driver on minimum wage to get access to alcohol was by buying from the QDC licence holders. But even that wasn’t cheap. The most affordable drink was Rostov Vodka which retailed at least KSh.8,400 for a 350ml bottle. If you are one with the gift of the gab, you could get it for slightly less at KSh.6,730.
“Before my bedmate, Kimani, taught me the ropes. I paid the full price for the bottle of Rostov a couple of times that my pocket could afford,” Brian recounted, “Though relieved that I could access it, I felt pain. No, it wasn’t bitter. Back home, the KSh.8,400 was enough to get me like five bottles of the 750ml Gilbeys mzinga, even more, if you know the right chuoms.”
But the suffering was short-lived.
In his second month in Qatar, Brian discovered Mungei, a drink brewed locally and mostly sold among migrant labourers. He said he was loitering around the Industrial area in the current Labour City. Labour city located in the outskirts of Doha was set up to host millions of migrant labourers. The migrant workforce in Qatar is estimated at 2 million, against a paltry 350,000 Qataris that has made it necessary to import labour for building the massive stadiums and hotels for hosting the 2022 World Cup. Brian said an Indian man who seemed to have read his thirst for a drink approached him and with a heavy accent asked,
“How many bottles do you want?”
“Bottles? Two,” Brian said.
“60 rials. Cups? How many?” he asked, putting out his hand to receive the money.
That was a quarter of what he had been spending on Rostov and Brian said he quickly changed his mind and asked for one bottle and two cups instead to taste the ‘waters’. The Indian barked the orders back to a young boy who stood a few metres away. Brain placed 30 rials on his darkened labourer palms.
“If you are a drunk, you don’t need an explainer to know someone is selling you some black-market alcohol. I just didn’t expect an equivalent of Chang’aa,” said Brian.
A smile on his lips quickly turned into a grin from ear to ear as the memory of his excitement returned to him. Brian said he could not contain his excitement after confirming that it was alcohol in the one-litre unsealed bottle camouflaged as Rayyan water. The sound of cars honking jerked Brian back to the road. For the four minutes we had been stuck in the traffic leading to Nyayo stadium, the 36-year-old had taken us to Qatar. Even when he resumed the trip, his voice remained excitedly loud.
“I took the first sip and immediately picked up my phone to call my roommate Kimani and Moses, whom I met at work. Sh1010 for a whole litre of alcohol, you need a party for such a discovery. They got both there in under 10 minutes,” he exclaimed.
Typically if you want to find Mungei, Brian said, one needs to look out for an idle crowd squatting in large open spaces, next to old cars and car wash areas. The sellers do not hawk their goods but only bring the bottles after a purchase is closed. The clients sit on stones in small groups holding their tumblers. Either their buyers know them or they know their buyers, whichever way, this business is thriving in the area.
After gobbling down the first tumbler, Brian said they reminded themselves that in this foreign country, it is illegal to drink or be drunk in public and could result in a prison sentence of up to six months and/or a fine of up to 3,000 rials or deportation. But for a country with zero tolerance for certain offences, Brian and his friends were more worried about being deported, so they took the party home.
“Well, I still got deported, albeit 10 years later,” he said, his mood suddenly falling as his reality crouched up in the 3,840 mm long Suzuki Swift driving an Uber a continent away from Qatar. It was during the Covid-19 pandemic and Brian was tired of staying at home after the government imposed curbs on movement and cancelled gatherings of more than four people. So when Kimani called one Friday in February last year to inform Brian that there was a Kenyan party going down and that there would be lots of alcohol, he couldn’t let the chance pass by.
“In fact, I asked to join the organising committee to make sure there was lots of alcohol,” he said.
In Qatar, like most Islamic countries, weekends start on Thursdays, as the Muslim faithful prepare for Friday prayers. For Christians this means the holiday starts off early which Brian says marks the beginning of sherehe.
“Sherehes are better when I am on the planning committee. I detest alcohol shortages when Mungei is Sh1010 away,” he said boastfully.
Brian reminisced how great the party started and would have ended had the cops not burst into the room where about 50 Kenyans were and stopped the reggae.
“We were all arrested and detained. All this while, we prayed to be fined hundreds of thousands that we didn’t have,” he said.
That remained a prayer as Brian and all the Kenyans who attended the party were deported on grounds of breaching Covid-19 prevention guidelines.”See why I blame Mungei?” Brian posed as he pulled up outside a court on Kirichwa road at my destination. We parted with a tip, a five-star rating, and cues on how to drink in Qatar.