SUDAN’S DATE-GIN BREWERS THRIVE DESPITE SHARIA
Three Sudanese men sit on the edge of a bed and watch intently as a clear spirit glugs into a four-litre container.
This is an Islamic country if you're caught drinking or they smell alcohol, you will be lashed
An araqi buyer
“A little more – it's not quite at the top,” one of them instructs the sisters who are pouring the illegal date-gin known as “araqi”.
The men are anxious not to be photographed in this small mud-walled home, where chickens are pecking the dirt floor, on the outskirts of Sudan's capital, Khartoum.
“This is an Islamic country – if you're caught drinking or they smell alcohol, you will be lashed,” one of them explains. Forty lashes and a fine is the usual Sharia punishment.
Once the men are satisfied the carton is full, they hand over 30 Sudanese pounds (SDG) (about $13, £9).
“They are regular customers; they come about once a week,” one of the sisters says after they leave.
“All of our customers are men and Arab, mainly Arab,” she adds.
She and her sisters – who range in age from 15 to 22 – work with their mother brewing araqi each evening, as the sun sets.
It has been a fairly lucrative way to make money since Sharia was introduced in 1983 – under then-President Jaafar Numeiri, and often women who have fled conflict in Sudan's non-Arab south and Darfur are the illegal brewers in the capital.
We have to pay between 150 SDG and 250 SDG if we're caught
The spirit, which is usually drunk neat, is made from fermented dates of which there is a plentiful supply in Sudan.
“Since we were conscious, our mother has been making it,” the oldest sister explains.
The dates are mixed with water and yeast and left to ferment for three days. Afterwards the liquid is distilled, producing about eight litres of spirit a night.
The family sells about four – sometimes eight – two-litre bottles a day.
Each night, the girls pack up the three stills and bury the small drums of alcohol outside the property.
“The police come about two times a week to check for alcohol,” say the sisters, who sit beside each other on the bed answering questions.
“We're scared of them. But if they find something outside the house they can't pin it on us,” they say, adding that they have eight eight-litre cartons of araqi buried at present and three small drums of fermenting dates.
The last police visit was the day before, but it was a month ago that their mother was caught brewing.
“We have to pay between 150 SDG and 250 SDG if we're caught.”
Many Sudanese believe drinking alcohol is part of their culture
This could change now President Omar al-Bashir has been re-elected. During his campaign last month he warned that alcohol-brewers should be whipped too.
My father, my uncles – they do their prayers and they drink
Maysara, araqi drinker
It is believed many in the police have been happy to allow the brewing to continue as they profit from fines and confiscated alcohol.
And following the 2005 peace deal between the mainly Muslim north and the south where the majority is Christian or follow traditional religions, Sharia law is not supposed to be applied to non-Muslims living in the capital.
Meanwhile many Muslim Sudanese object to a zero-tolerance towards alcohol, saying it is not against their Sufi culture to drink.
“I know people who are Muslim – they drink,” says Maysara, a regular customer who acts as my translator.
“My father, my uncles – they do their prayers and they drink,” he says, adding that he knows some alcohol-brewers from Darfur who drink locally-brewed wine and beer.
“They do Ramadan and they sell alcohol,” he says.
Maysara has been caught by police several times – and sentenced to about 160 lashes in total. The last time he was let off after he paid a bribe.
“I like it, I like drinking – why should I be deprived of drinking?” he asks defiantly – and insists that his photo is taken.
“It's always possible to be caught, but when I come here I don't worry because I know that I have never seen any problem here,” he says.
Dates are in plentiful supply and used to make wine and gin
And it also pays to buy the alcohol direct.
“The quality from the source is better because it's not mixed with water,” he says.
“Most people who sell in Khartoum they dilute what they buy from here.”
The third car of the day that draws up is more expensive than the others. The three men – two dressed in long white tunics, one in a pair of jeans – are from Khartoum's upmarket neighbourhood of Riyadh.
They sit down on the bed, accept some date wine and make small-talk before putting in their order.
But it is not only the middle-class from the capital who make up the clientele – brick makers along the Nile are some of the best clients, one of the sisters says.
And should Sudan become a secular state, the date-gin brewers believe it would not affect their trade.
“We can compete – no problem,” the sisters say.
Maysara agrees that it is not only its affordability that makes araqi appealing – whisky can easily be found in the capital for about $50 a bottle.
The taste of araqi is “unbelievable”, he says – with a great burst of laughter.