Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Forbidden Yet Tolerated Wine of Morocco

There have been a lot of articles out there about Morocco's high wine production. It is news because technically Morocco is supposed to be a country of Muslims. But Western media seems to be quite naive about the varying degrees of faith and practice of Islamic values in the kingdom. Here is an article from the Independent on Muslim leaders in the country speaking out on alcohol production and use in Morocco.


Moroccan imams demand crackdown on drink

In a country that sells 40 million bottles of wine a year, religious authorities target Muslims who flout the alcohol ban

By Elizabeth Nash

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Islamic world has long had mixed feelings about wine: Muslims are supposed to abstain, but countries from North Africa to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond have for centuries cultivated vineyards. And today, wines from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and even Syria are flourishing, with sales and quality improving every year despite opposition from conservatives. In Morocco, production exceeds 40 million bottles a year, challenges Bordeaux for quality, and generates some €45m a year for the Rabat exchequer.

But Morocco's conservative Islamists are fighting hard to curb the country's enthusiasm for the fermented grape, causing a painful tug of interests as the Muslim kingdom strives to open up to the West. Stringent laws ban the sale of alcohol to Muslims, but you can buy wine in any Moroccan supermarket. The drinks section is separate from the main area, but always bustles with activity as people openly leave with bottles clinking in their hands. "Morocco is a free country, and everyone can buy what they want," one supermarket manager said.

As the country prospers, and welcomes millions of European visitors, it discreetly flouts the booze ban. In restaurants, Moroccans enjoy drinking wine with their meals. But curtains are drawn on the windows, bottles are kept from view and glasses may be tinted to disguise their contents. If police visit, Muslim diners are advised to say they're consuming soft drinks.

Islamists in the Justice and Development Party (PJD), who have a sizeable parliamentary presence, want to stop this easygoing approach, and enforce the ban on alcohol sales to Muslims imposed more than 50 years ago by French colonial rulers. The party's MPs propose to ban advertisements and promotional festivals for alcoholic drinks on pain of huge fines or imprisonment. The government recently introduced a drink-driving law, acknowledging for the first time that alcohol abuse exists.

But hardliners are combating a dynamic industry that flourishes amid the palm trees and high desert plains around Meknes, on the northern fringe of the Atlas mountains. Wine-making provides jobs for thousands, and produces wines enjoyed by more than seven million foreign visitors a year. The Phoenicians planted vineyards here 2,500 years ago; then came the Romans who founded the nearby capital, Volubilis, exported wine to Rome and created mosaic floors for their villas with scenes of Bacchanalia.

Les Celliers in Meknes, Morocco's biggest winemaker by far, developed vineyards abandoned by the French after independence in 1956. A local entrepreneur, Brahim Zniber, bought the vines, extended them to more than 5,000 acres, and made a fortune. He now plans to create Morocco's first "wine therapy" spa resort, with grape-based creams and lotions.

Les Celliers, complete with chateau, produces everything from plonk to a champagne-like sparkler, Pearl of the South, and a high-end claret, Chateau Roslane, aged in a vaulted cellar packed with oak barrels imported from France. The winery sells 27 million bottles a year. Just two million bottles are sent to Europe or the US, which – even accounting for thirsty Western tourists – means huge quantities slip down Moroccan throats.

Two years ago, Meknes hosted a French-style wine festival, half-heartedly endorsed by the town's PJD mayor, Aboubakr Belkoura, which caused outrage among conservative Islamists. "Morocco is a tourist destination and it makes sense to produce and sell wine," says Mr Belkoura, who stepped down as mayor in January under pressure from his party.

But Mohammed Raouandi of Morocco's High Council of Ulemas, or religious scholars, insists that Islam clearly forbids drinking alcohol. "If a Muslim drinks, the government can punish him," Mr Raouandi said recently, "and afterwards he will be punished by God." Nowhere in the Koran, however, is alcohol expressly forbidden.

Some reconcile the conflict as best they can: "I'm a practising Muslim and I would never drink alcohol," said one chateau employee. "But there are 6,000 people here who have jobs, who live comfortably because wine exists."

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