Agadez – Rocking It Out During Ramadan

Many travellers avoid visiting Muslim countries during Ramadan, because it’s really quite boring. Most restaurants are closed, the fasting faithful are in a bad mood, and all entertainment is postponed until after Eid Al-Fitr.

In Agadez, the scarce offerings were enhanced by the overall lack of tourists. With only one hotel and two restaurants open, we survived on olives, tuna and water during the day, and found one restaurant that made a decent omelet at night.

As the only non-Africans in town, every single souvenir salesman made us their target. They invited us to tea, and scolded us if we did not want to buy anything. “I haven’t sold anything in three years,” they would say. “I have to eat.” And, more interestingly: “First I want you to buy something from my friend’s shop, then come to my shop to buy things,” as if it was our responsibility to feed the whole town.

But after sunset, the town shifted gears and came alive. Behind the night market, a bar with live music rocked out even during Ramadan! A local band, with the musicians rotating every few songs, was playing for an all-male audience. As in any bar in any Muslim city in West Africa, the only women present were prostitutes; some girls with traditional dresses and headscarves, and others with tight, see-through tops and mini skirts. The men, however, had shred their daytime pajama-looking outfits and were sporting western-style jeans and t-shirts.

The band, Agadez Ouriganes, joined the floor-level “stage” one by one. Around ten o’clock, there would be just one man plucking his guitar, and a drummer softly beating his djembe in time. As the night moved on, a singer would walk up to the microphone and start humming a whining tune, reminiscent of a Chinese folksong. Then a bassist would join, and a saxophonist, a percussionist. The tunes would expand, slowly but surely, from a simple beat to a full-powered African symphony with tropical undertones, Asian essence, lead in the ebbs and flows by the guitarrist. As the musicians entered and exited, the rhythms stayed intoxicating, strong, powerful. Amazing.

Once in a while a man would step onto the dance floor and dance for a minute or so. Their style seemed inspired by the camel’s walk; stiff legs kicking, trotting, and the body swaying from side to side. Cool, self-assured moves, perfectly in tune with the music.

The black sheep of Agadez, including us, loved this oasis from the otherwise strict environment outside. Beer was flowing. There was not a single Coca Cola in sight. And whenever anyone entered the bar, they would walk around the room, shaking hands with everyone. It was heaven in hell.

We could only imagine how this place would rock during non-Ramadan nights!

Where the Wild Men Drink

Open a door to any local bar in Sri Lanka and you will see men drinking. Alone or in pairs, they stare deeply into their pint or bottle of arrak. The bars may not be the nicest, or even very clean, but in a small town like Kandy or Polonnaruwa where there’s nothing else to do, a cold beer on a hot afternoon is a good way to while away the boredom.

You sit down to nods and smiles. A lady is always welcome. Just as you start relaxing, you hear murmurs. Loud voices. You look around to see where the noise is coming from, but none of the men around you is speaking. Then you realize: the sounds are coming from downstairs.

Almost every bar has one – a tori-tori. It’s where the poorest, most alcoholic brothers get together to satisfy their thirst. Drinking god-knows-what from large plastic jugs, they sit on hard chairs, in row after row, gulping their pain away. And it’s not just any kind of plastic jug, it’s one of those big colored ones used for milk, or perhaps to measure flour. Is it because they might break a glass? Or just because no glass is big enough to hold what they are drinking?

Some tori-tori’s are slightly better. Instead of in the basement, the wild men are shown to the back room, away from the public eye. There they order quarter-full bottles or half-full bottles of cheap arrak, which they finish in minutes before getting on their motorbikes and speeding away.

The men in the front room laugh and shake their heads. As if saying; “I’m not there yet. I can still control my drinking.”

And still, they finish their large glasses of liquor in seconds. No, they’re not ready for the tori-tori.


Not yet.

Where Women Must Not Enter

“You must finish your drink and leave.”

The young man looked like he wanted to kill me. He wasn’t joking, and he wouldn’t back down. The feminist in me itched to laugh in his face and keep drinking, just to annoy him. Ever since we had entered the bar, he and his friends had made it clear that they did not want me there. It was a guy-kind of bar, a hide-out. And of course, there were no other women in this bar.

We found this bar by sheer coincidence. In religious Varanasi, bars are scarce. Devout Hindus don’t drink, nor do serious Muslims. Your only option when you are thirsty for a pint is to ask your guest house to scoot to the market to buy beer for you, or take a rickshaw to a far-away hotel bar. We were on our way to one of the established bars when we noticed a sign saying “Chilled Beer,” and a doorway covered by a curtain. It was too tempting to resist.

As if someone had hit the pause button, everyone stopped and stared at us.
“We only serve beer here,” said the man closest to us.
“Great! Can we have a Kingfisher, please.”

We knew exactly what we were doing. It was a men’s dungeon; a stinky, filthy place, where all dozen customers were either drunk, stoned or both. Just the kind of place we like.

Eduardo poured the beer into a glass, lifted it in a salute to all. “Cheers!”
Most of the men lifted their glasses and smiled at him.
Then it was my turn. I filled my glass, lifted it a salute and said “Cheers,” just as Eduardo had. Silence. Not one man cheered me back.

We were shown to the back room where we sat down on a cardboard box and smiled at the men sitting across from us. They smiled back and asked the usual questions about where we were from, how we like Varanasi, etc.

That’s when my would-be-murderer turned around, his eyes bleeding with anger.
“I don’t think they want me here,” I whispered to Eduardo in Spanish.
He didn’t believe me. But just to make sure, he asked the guy who seemed to be in charge:
“You don’t mind my wife being here, do you?”
“No, of course not!”

My nemesis didn’t agree.
“You should leave now!” he hissed.
We ignored him and ordered another bottle on the insistence of the others. Just to show we didn’t care.

The stares grew harsher, meaner, more frightening.
“Women don’t come to this bar,” said the woman-hater when he realized I wasn’t getting the hint.
“Really? So maybe it’s good that I’m here, so you get used to being around women.”
“No. It’s not good.”
“Well, maybe it is.”
At that point Eduardo was elbowing me to shut up. I was irritating the hell out of this guy. And I did it on purpose.
My enemy turned to Eduardo.
“If you would have come here alone, it wouldn’t have been a problem.” He wanted to make sure he wasn’t insulting my husband – a man.
“But she cannot come here.”

The angry guy and his friends made up some story about drunk guys coming in to this bar later, and that it might not be safe for me. We had heard of a recent group rape in Delhi where the victim had died and knew that women were at risk in India. But from the looks I had received, I knew these guys were not worried for me. They were furious that I had dared to cross the line and had trespassed into their male-centered territory.

Having made our point, we finished our second beer and shook hands with everyone including the angry boys. I can only hope that in the spirit of Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, a seed was sown, however small. Because if you just accept discrimination and don’t make a fuss, things will never ever change.