It had almost been four weeks that I haven´t touched a bottle of alcohol when Vahraz, a charismatic young singer from Shiraz, invited me to a day trip to Ghalat – Iran´s notorious booze oasis. I had heard many stories about that 2´500 year old village. It is located remotely at the hillside of Sorkh mountain and became famous for its underground wine production and placid bars in the local´s basements and roof tops.

In the shadow of Sorkh mountain: Ghalat. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)
A village of resistance: Ghalat. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)

Located 30 km outside of Shiraz – the hometown of Syrah (one of the worlds most popular grape variety) – the villagers who once honorably resisted the Mongolian occupation had somehow managed to resist the enforcement of Iran´s strict alcohol policies as well.

A risky business

Getting drunk is usually quite a risky business in the Islamic Republic. Drug related convicts who can not come up with the expensive fines are likely to get whipped in public.

Therefore, drinking usually only takes place at private parties behind closed doors. In Ghalat, however, Iranians can break free from the strict religious rules and consume alcohol in public without the fear of being punished by the State Security Forces. Accordingly, the ambiance was in high spirits as we drove off from Shiraz in the car of Vahraz´ friend.

An ominous visitor´s tax

After a 30 minute ride we eagerly arrived at the entrance gate of the village where two locals were collecting a visitors tax. “They say it is for renovating the village but look around man, everything is falling apart,” explained Vahraz´ friend who was driving the car, “but everyone around here knows that they use the money to bribe the police.” Indeed, the village had not been maintained very carefully. Even the mosaic on the minaret was crumbling apart and many of the old houses were laying around in ruins.

Low maintainance: The minaret on the mosque. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)
Low maintenance: A ruin in front of the crumbling minaret. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)

The inhabited houses however, where the locals had set up their bars, were pouring on an inviting charm. We entered the group´s favourite bar whose owner welcomed us with a big smile that opened up around a missing tooth. We ordered an apple mint hookah, two bottles of the bittersweet red house wine and a round of aragh shots that tasted like rocket fuel but proved to be highly effective.

Rising tensions between the villagers

After some glasses of wine Salman, the owner of the place, joined us and I had the chance to talk with him about his business. “Most of the village´s revenue used to come from our wine production. In the past years, however, we suffered some serious droughts which diminished our turnover”, Salman explained in a regretful tone. The owner revealed that some of the younger farmers started planting marijuana in order to compensate for their losses. They can sell one kilogram for 3´000 Euros which is quite a lot of money around here. The lucrative marijuana business brought along new tensions between the feisty dealers. Bribing the police is not a new phenomena in Ghalat. But as Salman explained, some of the young marijuana dealers supposedly started using it as a tool to fight competitors:

“Some policemen take bribes from dealers to take out their rivals.”

The competition between the younger marijuana dealers became more aggressive during the past years. Their fights sometimes even ended up in violent clashes between the groups, frightening away some of the customers and attracting the attention of the authorities.

Reminiscing the peaceful days

Salman hopes that these profit-oriented schemes between the young dealers will come to an end soon: “I’m sick and tired of the police roadblocks, the arrests and the violence. I miss the peaceful days when people just sold wine.” So far, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the villager´s business with the prohibited substances. It seems that even in the Islamic Republic the government has to acknowledges the people´s need for a recreational drug use. However, it is possible that the government will have to change its stance if the dealers won´t be able to come to terms with each other and continue to stir up unnecessary attention. It would be a shame for Iran´s wine enthusiasts if they had to loose their booze oasis to the hot temper of a couple of marijuana dealers.