Skip to comments.Morocco’s uneasy truce with alcohol
Posted on 02/12/2009 2:01:04 PM PST by forkinsocket
MEKNES, MOROCCO // Four years ago, frustrated by the hidebound viticulture of his native France, the winemaker Stephane Mariot decamped to make his name on the free horizons of Morocco.
In France, the big wine firms are reluctant to experiment, said Mr Mariot, 35, today the chief winemaker at Celliers de Meknes, Moroccos largest winery. Here, every year I can try out new techniques.
With 55 million bottles produced yearly and more than a dozen new appellations created in recent decades, the Moroccan wine trade is dynamic and growing fast.
That is good news for Mr Mariot and others employed by Moroccos wineries and for a tourism industry geared towards European visitors. But the trade-off is an easy availability of alcohol that remains controversial in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Grapes arrived in Morocco more than 2,500 years ago with Phoenician colonists, who planted vineyards in the plains rolling gently up to the Atlas Mountains. Next came the Romans, whose provincial capital, Volubilis, stands in ruins near modern day Meknes. Its inhabitants exported wine to slake the thirst of Rome itself and mosaic scenes of Bacchanalia covered the floors of their villas.
After a plague wiped out Moroccos grapes in the 19th century, French colonists brought replacements. Today, the descendants of those French vines make up such Moroccan appellations as Guerrouane, Beni Mtir and Celliers de Mekness award-winning Les Coteaux de lAtlas.
Wine also helps drive Moroccos economy, said Jean-Pierre Dehut, the head of exports for Celliers de Meknes. The company is the most sought-after local employer, with about 6,000 full-time staff and an extra 1,000 hired for the autumn harvest.
Although some top positions at Celliers de Meknes are held by foreigners, the owner, Brahim Zniber, and most employees are Moroccans.
At the companys main facility, a château near Meknes, paintings of Moroccan country life hang in the wine-tasting hall and a Muslim prayer room stands in the garden. For many staff, going to work each day means reconciling their jobs with their religion, Islam, which considers drinking alcohol a sin.
Im a practising Muslim and I would never drink alcohol, said one château employee, who asked that her name not be used. But there are 6,000 people here who have jobs, who live comfortably because wine exists.
Several kilometres away across the vineyards, Mohammed Belkoura, until this month the mayor of Meknes, takes a similar view.
Morocco is a tourist destination and it makes sense to produce and sell wine, said Mr Belkoura, a member of the Islamist opposition Justice and Development Party, which is known by its French acronym PJD.
Tourism is Moroccos largest industry, with 7.4 million visitors last year and government ambitions to increase the number to 10m by 2010. The vast majority come from Europe.
However, Mr Belkoura said the Meknes region has been trying to shift agriculture from grapes to olives.
Olives are better for the health, even more lucrative than grapes and dont pose a problem with respect to religion.
Islam clearly forbids drinking alcohol, said Mohammed Raouandi, a member of Moroccos High Council of Ulemas, or religious scholars.
If a Muslim drinks, the government can punish him, Mr Raouandi said, and afterwards he will be punished by God.
Far beyond the fields of Meknes, the whiff of sin troubles some Moroccans working in the countrys fancy hotels, restaurants and bars.
Im not comfortable with alcohol and Id leave this job if I could, said Hannae, 23, a hotel bar waitress in the capital, Rabat, who is helping support her parents and three siblings. But right now I need the work.
While alcohol is intended for non-Muslim tourists, there are inevitable Muslim customers.
Across town at Le Comptoir, a posh French restaurant, the manager Jamal Latifi is surveying the floor from a seat beside the bar. Large paintings in the windows block the view inside from the evening crowds strolling down the avenue.
Three quarters of my customers are foreigners and I stock all the best Moroccan wines, Mr Latifi said. But just look around the room and you see Moroccans drinking that wine, too.
Technically, Mr Latifi and his Muslim customers are breaking the law, which forbids selling alcohol to Muslims and prohibits them from drinking it. But Mr Latifi said police seldom intervene except on Muslim holidays and in cases of booze-fuelled rowdiness. That angers Moroccos Islamists, who say the law should be more fully applied.
If non-Muslims want to drink, thats fine, but not Muslims, said Mustapha Ramid, who heads the parliamentary group for the PJD.
However, the heavy policing required would infringe on the openness of Moroccan society, said Khalid Naciri, the communications minister. Theyre asking us to behave like a dictatorship, but weve chosen liberty.
Over at Le Comptoir, Mr Latifi is bemused by yet another hassle-free night. Ive been in this business for 35 years and I still dont understand it, he said. But I guess its a kind of tolerance and thats what makes this country strong tolerance.
Islam - Hashish, opium and heroin are all OK. Sex slaves OK. Drinking camel urine OK.
Add killing non-believers, extortion and lying to that list.
Yeah, well I’m a wine snob and usually only drink California wines. They’re really better than those french ones.