When I was only seven, there was a house across our home that intrigued and mystified my infantile mind. I felt it was a fairy house that remained cold and lifeless in day time and sprang to life with the setting of the sun.
I saw in my mind’s eye that it had some magic power that drew solemn and sane people into its stomach, spelled them and spat them out all out mad and insane. When mama had to go on one of her visits (mbtsah), she would ask me to look after our home until she or baba came back. At such times, I would sit at the window of our home overlooking the fairy house and watch in awe as people in our neighbourhood, polished and correct, make their way to it as if under spell. I used to spend hours into the evening attending to what went around the place as mama often ran late. And then, the house would spew them out, all nuts, kind of like Hailu, and our neighbourhood loony. I watched with horror as these men threw words and punches at one another and women hurled their shoes. Gripped with fear, I would duck into my home and close the window. It was after some time that I learned that the fairy house had a name: bar. Twenty five years later, as a man who has shed his childhood naivety and is guilty of occasionally being in it one too many times, I still hold the same sentiment. Although there is no old witch with wand at hand casting her spell on captive customers as my childhood imagination, there is a witch’s brew called alcohol that comes in these queer bottles and induces madness in us (albeit to varying degree).
Today, you see around and find that bars have become ubiquitous. They are one of the most pervasive businesses in the world. This is the direct reflection of the growing charm they have upon us. Every evening people from all directions flock towards them. We find in them a place of refuge from the suffocation of our daily chores. We go there to ‘chill out’. We sit ceremonially and on come these magic potions and we gulp them one after another and another and—. The fun is in drinking a lot until you reach this ‘blissful’ level, when we feel light in our head, light as a feather, which is a point of no return. You wish the evening to last, ‘just chilling’ until you run out of money or your senses. If the latter comes before the former, reason is banished and in its place reign folly and lunacy. This is when overwhelming generosity fills you up and you wish to buy the house a drink (If only we were as generous towards one another as drunkards are towards each other, the world would be a better place to live in) and every opposite sex in attendance is a spouse. In the vocabulary of the bar age we live in, this is only ‘harmless frolic’. You will just lose a few hundred, hard-earned money, and you might also catch the common cold called AIDS, that’s all.
At top of the hierarchy of drunkards are those we refer to as the first cousins to fishes: they drink like fish and feel like a fish out of water away from a bar. These are the hardcore, the lords and ladies of the ring on whose arrival horns are blown (this is not metaphorical in one bar in Asmara), and whose very blood have changed to alcohol (A mosquito drops dead if it bites them). They begin their ritual early afternoon and the ritual often runs for days on end. They go from one bar to night club and onto enda sewa and back again until they collapse. They sleep through the day or two, and when they wake up, they ask, “What month are we in?” Then, they cure their hangover, dust themselves off and rush back to the bar and start all over again. Thus, they drink the river dry.
What is even more alarming today is increasingly younger children are frequenting these bars. They begin their love affair with alcohol in their early teens. At times, you stumble into one of these bars, and you feel like you got into a student lounge in junior school. How quickly they transition from breast milk to liquor! Sadly, some start alcohol before they are born being off springs of these young alcohol addicted mothers who can’t stop drinking in their pregnancy.
Bar has become the place to be among the youth today. A curious question we ask ourselves is “Where do you hang out?” Hang out—‘to spend a lot of time in a place’—, a funny phrase, isn’t it? It assumes, first, that you spend ‘a lot of time’ doing nothing but relax on daily basis after the bare minimum day’s work. Anything else ‘sucks’. The expected answer to the question ‘Where’ is, actually, name of a bar, pub, or night club. Library or cafe is out of place unless you intend on seeming archaic or boring. The popular music videos we love most extol this view. Video clips of our popular love songs romanticize bar life. A good example is the recent song Ewala, roughly translates as rogue or unprincipled, where the singer plainly lavishes praise upon ewala and his bar life of pleasure.
A friend of ours, who is the most traditional of our ‘gang’, wished to take his new girlfriend out to some place nice.
“Where do you have in mind?” she cooed.
“Eldana,” he replied with all the excitement of his being. (It is an ice cream cafe).
He was in for a shock. She scowled at him as if he puked all over her. Written all over her face was the incredulous question, “Do I look like your baby sister?!” She was through with putting up with his traditional courtship after two night outings. We had to explain it to him that anyone beyond the teenage in this generation finds anything sweet aversive.
We feel a bar is like a pleasure boat that is meant to whisk us away from the humdrum of our daily life and take us on a little pleasure ride. There is no harm in that. The ‘pleasure’ we drive from them is cheap, though, that numbs our mind and arrests thinking, pleasure that borders on idiocy, which fades away leaving you ashamed and sick. We should, instead, aim for joy, pure and liberating joy, through stimulating activities such as reading something of interest, or engaging in deeply fulfilling acts of visiting the sick and grow up in mind and spirit. The little, harmless pleasure ride of liquor, on the other hand, besides being cheap, also has sinister repercussions. It infuses in us what is called ‘bar culture’: culture of being carefree, wastrel and visionless. Consequently, I fear, we have a generation of youth whose ultimate goal in life is to a clench bottle of liquor and get wasted. ‘Coz it’s cool!’ as they would say.