Tuesday, 2 March 2010


"Teacher," Mehmet tells me, a pained look on his face, "I don't drink. Muslim peoples never drink."

This is too much for me. I lean closer. "Every single Muslim doesn't drink?" I ask, raising my eyebrow.

Mehmet is quite dark, but he actually blushes. "Maybe some drink," he admits.

Our class has been discussing health and habits like drinking and smoking. My students, 95% Muslim, are generally very open about drinking. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that at least 80% of them drink, some of them quite heavily. And yet there are always a handful who will come out with this party line about Muslims not drinking which is little more than wishful thinking.

"Do you drink?" I ask Ergun, sitting across from Mehmet.

He flashes me a broad grin. "Yes! I drink every night." Mehmet looks even more pained now and I don't blame him. Drinking every night won't help Ergun get his homework done on time. And I don't even want to think about his liver.

Later, I run into Mehmet outside in the corridor. "Teacher, I never drink," he says. I believe him. He is a shy, hardworking, conservatively dressed boy. If someone had asked me to point out the real teetotalers in the room, he'd have been number 1 on my list.

"My family never drank either," I tell him.

He looks amazed. "Really?"

I nod. "Really."

"But I think all Americans drink."

Bless him: just like I used to think all Muslims didn't drink.

"Not all of us drink," I say. "My parents never touched alcohol."

"But they drink sometimes?" I shake my head, but I can see doubt in his eyes.

I always have a hard time explaining to people just how teetotal my parents were. When it came to non-drinking, we'd have fit right in with the strictest Muslims, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists. It's particularly frustrating to try to explain this to my Muslim students. But all Americans drink! they say. When they think of Americans, they picture the tourists they've seen, people on vacation, whooping it up in bars. And they all watch Hollywood movies and American sitcoms.

Hollywood movies and sitcoms used to bewilder us in our family: all those befuddling references to cocktails. The mention of strange kinds of alcohol: vermouth, gin, grenadine. All those people getting drunk and making fools of themselves! Drinking was as foreign to us as it is to my strictest Muslim students.

"Teacher, do you drink?" Mehmet asks me now.

I nod. "Sometimes. But I don't drink much," I say lamely. Which is true: I've never gotten the hang of it. To quote the Imam Al-Bayhaqi, I am not happy with my mind when it is sound, so why should I corrupt it even further? That's pretty much my attitude: I'm not looking for ways to get rid of grey matter.

Mehmet understandably looks confused. "So your family drinks a little."

No, that's not it. I might have a glass of wine twice a month now. For my family, that was right on the brink of alcoholism. "I drink a little now," I tell him, "but my family never drank." He looks a little doubtful.

I wish I had time to tell Mehmet how shocked I was at age nine to find that my friend's parents had beer in the refrigerator, that her father had a beer every night when he came home from work. Or about my aunt Margaret throwing out vanilla flavoring because she read the fine print and found out --gasp!-- there was alcohol in the ingredients. Or the time we visited San Francisco when I was ten and saw our first drunk people and didn't understand why they were walking that way. Or the first time I flew at age seventeen and brought home the complimentary bottle of wine (because, to tell you the truth, I didn't know what else to do with it; it seemed a shame to throw it out, but it didn't occur to me to drink it). I wish I could tell him how my mother saw it and was close to tears: how did I know that one taste of wine might not tip me right over the brink? In our house, wine wasn't far behind heroin as a dangerously addictive substance.

"My mother HATED alcohol," I tell Mehmet, making a long story short. "She was afraid I would start drinking when I went to university."

"Hojam," he says, his eyes brightening, "my mother afraid too!"

I watch Mehmet hurry to his next class and I smile to think of his mother worrying about such a hardworking, thoughtful boy turning into a dipsomaniac. Somehow I don't think he's the drinking type, though as my mother used to say, You can never tell.

Fingers crossed for Mehmet. If I had more students like him, I'd never drink at all.



Angela said...

Another great post! *raises a glass*

Miss Footloose said...

Loved your story! How difficult it is for all of us not to be seduced by generalizations and stereotypes.

If only we all could travel more and learn to unlearn our prejudices and preconceived notions about other people and culture. If only. Well, you're doing your bit in your class room.

Your story reminded me of the reaction I got from the husband of our maid in Ghana when I told him that our teenaged daughter worked as a "mere" waitress to earn money for things we were not going to pay for. We were rich people, weren't we? And our daughter had to earn her own money? Well, yeah!

AnneB said...

Grenadine? Isn't that a medical school somewhere in the Caribbean?

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Thank you! (That's only grape juice you've got in that glass, right?)

Miss Footloose -- I spend my life trying to fight both my own tendency to stereotype and everyone else's; it's like my own religion. My classroom is as close as I'm going to get to a pulpit unless someone cracks and agrees to represent me.

People used to ask us why our daughter worked too. Many people seem to think that unless you're very poor, you'll want to shower your children with gifts and generous allowances. Not a chance of it. Even if we were millionaires, we'd expect our kids to work. And boy, would I love the chance to prove that.

AnneB -- If it were, nobody in my family would go near it. Even rubbing alcohol made us nervous.

Postman said...

Okay, so I'm a dipsomaniac. Sue me.

(I'd never heard that word before! You taught me a new one! HOORAY!)

You know, I figure I'm losing braincells right and left, but if I keep practicing that violin, learning Korean and how to fly, I reckon I might be breaking even.

Another intriguing post from afar. Fundamental Islam sounds no different than fundamental Christianity: no booze, no corruption of the mind.

My folks are the same way, by the bye. Even if they were swimming in dough, they'd expect us to be out of the house by age 18 earning our own. I'm glad they do, it's made me a great deal more humble.

Blythe said...

Throwing out the vanilla is pretty hard core.

I'm afraid we all default to stereotype sometimes. I wish I didn't--I always feel lazy when I do.

Apropos almost: Have you read http://www.zahrasparadise.com? The comments about almost-Auntie Miriam's drinking are very interesting


Kim Ayres said...

With the CFS I'm tired and fed up with a blurred mind enough already. Anything more than a small glass of wine and I become completely useless, and I really don't like that feeling.

But I never was a heavy drinker - I suffer from extreme hangovers very easily, and they far outweigh any possible enjoyment I might have had from the drinking.

For all the different forms of self medication I've indulged in, alcoholism was never going to be a problem for me

MG Higgins said...

Is it possible we're sisters? Your parents were just like mine--not only did they not drink, alcohol was something akin to devil worship. It. Was. Not. Done. But for some bizarre reason, my mom, in her later years, decided she wanted to try a Margarita at a Mexican restaurant. She drank the whole thing, got a huge buzz, and ordered one on every subsequent visit. She never explained her change in philosophy and I never asked.

Robin said...

Love it! What a sweetie!

When I was in college, I was friends with a guy named Mike, who was a math genius. He'd help me with advanced calculus. (He ended up getting a PhD in math at Cornell.) He was also a bit of a druggie. He wanted me to "do shrooms" with him. He bought the drugs, and we were sitting in my dorm room with the drugs on a napkin on my floor, and I suddenly thought, "This guy is so much smarter than you. He's got gray matter to spare. You'd better conserve yours, Dummy." And I told Mike he'd have to go destroy brain cells with someone else. I still sometimes think, "Phew!", and that was 25 years ago. My dying brain cells must be thanking me.

Mary Witzl said...

Postman -- I was being tongue-in-cheek there, you know. Some of my best friends are REAL dipsomaniacs, as in a bottle of wine a night. And my husband would drink every cocktail you could whip up, but then he has extra grey matter to spare.

Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims have a lot in common. Of course there are plenty of ways they're different, but then Christians have Baptists and Methodists and Mormons and so on and Muslims have Shi'ites and Sunnis and so on. We're as good at finding ways to disagree with each other as we are at overlooking all the ways we're the same.

Blythe -- Aunt Margaret WAS hard core when it came to non-drinking (and a few other things). People think I'm joking about the vanilla essence, but I'm dead serious.

I've just visited Zahraparadise -- thank you! I've bookmarked it. The comments on that site show that the hardliners of the world can't control the behavior of everybody else, even with the considerable support of a government.

Kim -- Oddly enough, I DO like the feeling, but the taste of alcohol is hideous, the nutritional value is negligible, and it costs a lot of money once you get hooked. Plus there are just too many other great things out there to be addicted to, right? Coffee, for one. And chocolate...

MG -- It's not easy, is it, growing up teetotal? We were always terribly grateful to meet other teetotalers; it was like we were strangers who spoke the same language in a country full of intimidating foreigners.

We may well be related, especially if your mother went for Margaritas (tequila is the one of the few things I can drink, if I have enough ice and orange juice). I'm impressed that your mother actually tried alcohol. If my mother was ever tempted, I never saw the slighest sign.

Robin -- Ooh, shrooms! We could swap some stories. I'm older than you, so when I went through youth, drugs were thick on the ground.

For me, the best argument against drugs was the dealers. They were generally the nastiest, most calculating bunch imaginable -- the worst sort of businessmen. It was my great fortune to meet a couple of them when I was young and impressionable, and their awfulness stopped me from wanting to buy any of their wares. Even though 'shrooms and marijuana was seen as natural, the dealers were the same old sharks, and for me, a great deterrent.

Good for our remaining grey cells that we held out, eh?

Sarah Dooley said...

LOVE this post!

My parents were the same way until after their children were all grown. Then, for reasons that escape me, my mother started sipping blackberry wine at a Solstice party and the next thing you know, she's made 50 bucks reading Tarot. Now they both drink on occasion. So I guess it's true that you never can tell.

But then they were never hardcore enough to throw out the vanilla.

Bish Denham said...

My experience was just the opposite of yours. Booze is cheaper than food in the VI. You can buy it (not just wine but all hard liquor) in the grocery store. So I grew up with alcohol in the home and knew a lot of drunks. (I'm very good at spotting an alcoholic.)

Even though I was allowed a small glass of wine at special occasions from the time I was 5 or 6 years old I didn't turn into an alcoholic and today I hardly drink at all.

Charles Gramlich said...

My parents were not big drinkers. My dad drank a beer occassionally, on special occassions. But all my brothers and I drank beer like it was going to run out before we got our share. These days I don't drink very often, though

Helen said...

Oh Mary - this just made me realise how old I'm getting. I would much rather a cup of vanilla (aghast) tea, a good book and a long, cosy sleep than a good drink (most days)!
Mind you, there is something truly lovely about a glass of red wine in front of an open fire.
And I would never have guessed that you were American.........

Mary Witzl said...

Sarah -- Thank you.

Blackberry wine! If my parents HAD gone for alcohol, it would almost certainly have been something interesting and homemade -- and cheap. (I'm pretty sure that cost was a factor. It usually was.)

Not only was my aunt hardcore enough to throw out vanilla, she read the fine print on fruitcake packages and was suspicious of chocolate covered cherries, certain that it would encourage the innocent and unsuspecting to 'go for the taste' and be tricked into addiction.

Bish -- My husband argues that kids can't learn how to handle alcohol if they're denied it, so he would definitely agree with you. I watched our kids sampling my husband's wine when they were younger and I tried not to think of my mother.

To this day I am AWFUL at spotting alcoholics. So much so that when the mother of one of my kids' friends took to calling me late at night for silly reasons, it was another friend who had to point out that she had a drinking problem. My kids are a lot less naive about alcoholism and substance abusers than I was.

Charles -- Beer and boys are a classic combination, aren't they? Weirdly, I craved beer -- just one taste! -- when I was in labor with our second daughter. After she was born, my husband brought me a beer and I didn't want it. My loss, his gain.

Helen -- I don't think it's an age thing! The truth is, I've always preferred tea, cocoa, orange juice, etc., but I didn't have the guts to admit it. Now I figure, what the heck, so I've outed myself.

Yes, we are fellow colonials! Do I sound Scottish? If you could hear me talk, you'd have figured it out sooner!

Dale said...

Wonderful post. Love your question (a true teacher question!) "every single one?"

I grew up in a teetotal household too; this is all very familiar to me!

kara said...

sadly - when someone tells me they don't drink, i look at it as a challenge.

Anne Spollen said...

Muslims in America do sometimes drink - we have Muslim friends who drink and serve champagne at parties. However, their parents, who were not raised here, never drink.

Throwing away the vanilla? Wow.

I think I've been to one too many Irish wakes...

And I nominated you for two awards. Come see.

Mary Witzl said...

Dale -- Thank you for visiting my blog, and thank you for those kind words.

Are you still a teetotaler? Most of us get converted, more or less. Wish I could make some of my students a little less interested in alcohol.

Kara -- Heheh. That was what my Aunt Margaret felt when she met drinkers. I witnessed a few extremely embarrassing encounters that make my ears red to remember even to this day.

AnneS -- Awards, plural? Wow, thank you!

Second generation Muslims in the U.K. tend to drink too. Their parents and my parents would cry together.

I suspect that my mother was such a strong teetotaler because for some of her relatives, life was just one long Irish wake. Because of that, the vanilla got dumped and all fruitcakes were suspect. Odd, isn't it?

Robert the Skeptic said...

My father was a alcoholic and brought a lot of grief and pain to our family; a lot of bad memories.

I decided early on that I would never drink. Then I went away to college and decided that just because my father could not handle alcohol doesn't mean I can't. I over did it a few times and suffered the hangover as my penance. But I never smoked nor even tried any of the recreational drugs available to us as children of the 70's.

I like a rum and ginger ale, and I make a pretty smooth Cosmopolitan. I quit at the buzz. It is one of the few pleasures in life I enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I love this post!
When we were moving into this house, our Muslim landlord, intrigued by husband's name, said, "Oh like Gordon's gin! Do you know that?" and proceeded to describe the label to us. "But I don't drink, alhumdulillah," he said! Uh, yeah right! I'm used to the denial. Most Moroccans won't admit to drinking, but you see them buying it in the stores.
And my family of origin was like yours! I must admit to loving red wine though. I could happily drink it every night.

Dale said...

Mary, up through my thirties I drank some. I don't now, but mainly because it disrupts my sleep patterns so much that it's not worth it anymore. (I'm also a Buddhist, and it's against the precepts for us, as it is for Muslims. But I doubt that would stop me from having a beer, if I could get a good night's sleep afterward.)

Eryl Shields said...

I love wine, and cocktails, and beer, but alcohol kills me these days so I have to avoid it as much as possible. It's very annoying and I still succumb sometimes but invariably regret it the next day, and for several days afterward.

My parents both drank, my mother drank a lot: we found crates of empty whisky bottles secreted around her house after she died. At least she had something she still enjoyed, is what I thought.

Falak said...

Loved this story! I come from a teetotal household but having seen a number of alcoholics and addicts among friends and acquaintances I have come to detest alchol and drugs. I think like you said I'd prefer being addicted to chocolates and the little joys in life:).

Merry Monteleone said...

Generalizations are funny, but it's also kind of amusing the generalizations we're inclined to make people believe are true. No Muslims drink, strikes me as very like, no Catholic girls have sex before marriage...

Either that immaculate conception thing is a lot more common than we're led to believe, or someone's fibbing :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- It's interesting that you made this choice consciously. I know that my family's extreme anti-alcohol attitude stemmed from alcohol abuse problems in our extended family.

I've over-indulged myself a time or two (mainly in Japan where everybody seems to drink), but I quit at the buzz myself. And because I hardly ever drink, that buzz can be achieved after only a tiny bit of alcohol. I am the world's cheapest drunk.

Rum and ginger ale, though? Whoooaaa.

PN -- You've no doubt seen this too, in Morocco. What I have noticed is that some Muslims have that party line for non-Muslims -- "We never drink" -- which they will stoically defend even when there is solid evidence to the contrary right in front of them. It's like Christians insisting they always turn the other cheek or obey the Golden Rule because it is part of our Christian ethics to do so. If only!

I don't hate wine (I used to), but I'd far rather have a glass of orange juice, especially if it's freshly squeezed.

Dale -- I've had insomnia all my life, so I know exactly how you feel. I used to run five miles and swim one mile a day just because it was the only way I could be sure of a good night's sleep. Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but it definitely doesn't help you STAY asleep.

Eryl -- The older I get, the worse it affects me too! I don't know whether that's bad or good. I suspect my parents would be thrilled.

I think I told you the story of P's grandmother and how her children and grandchildren found whiskey bottles all around her house after she died (she'd been strictly forbidden). Like you, most of her kids were happy to think she'd enjoyed that illicit whiskey, taking the odd snort as she sat there, knitting or playing solitaire.

Falak -- I sometimes think we've either got the addiction bug or we don't. I'm so glad -- and lucky -- I don't and I bet you are too!

For me the little pleasures are huge and numerous: a good book, freshly squeezed orange juice, going for a swim, real Mexican food, strong coffee, sunrises and sunsets, boiled potatoes and yoghurt, ripe tomatoes, a really good curry, a hot shower on a cold night, sleeping in, broiled fish, chocolate and almonds... And few of them cost as much as alcohol.

Merry -- You are so right. Christians do this too, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, with each sect spouting its own particular party line. There is a tendency to try and show others how good your own group is, confusing the guidelines with the actual practice. The truth is, we're just human beings with all the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of our race.

Marian said...

My parents allowed me to have half a glass of wine on special occasions or if we had a dinner party, and I think that desensitized me towards alcohol. It wasn't this mysterious Forbidden Fruit, it was just something I had a little of on social occasions.

So I never got drunk in college and when my friends and I go out to a pub, I have one or at the most two glasses of wine. That's my limit.

The only time I've drunk more was when I was on an intercontinental flight. Economy class seat, screaming babies... I was exhausted but couldn't sleep. Then the stewards came around with little bottles of wine.

I took one, drank the whole thing and slept from New York to Dubai.

Miss Footloose said...

Marian, your parents common sense attitude sounds familiar to me. I grew up in Holland and although we didn't have wine with dinner as a routine, it was around and we could try alcoholic beverages when we wanted to. It was never made to be something forbidden, but something to learn about and of course to understand the risks of overindulging.

Drinking was never a big deal or a temptation. Now I just enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. We raised our kids the same way, and one of them doesn't drink at all except the occasional sweet umbrella concoction on a night out.

Mary Witzl said...

Marian -- I am so envious: if drinking wine could make me sleep through the night, I'd definitely drink it.

Your parents' attitude towards drinking is also my husband's attitude, and I can see its merits. But when I hear my eldest talking about tying one on the night before, I marvel at what different upbringings we've had. And hope that my parents weren't right about our genetic tendencies.

Miss Footloose -- I really do hope our girls end up like yours! I've tried not to let my attitude taint them, but it's not easy. It seems I've got a teetotal heart.