Abu Haidar tries to keep a low profile and there is no sign on his shop, the first liquor store to reopen in Mosul since the jihadists were beaten back.
But it’s hard not to notice the steady stream of customers walking out with black plastic bags filled with Turkish beer, Iraqi arak liquor and cheap whisky.
The young man said he could get up to 1,000 customers a day at his tiny shop in an industrial area of east Mosul, which the Iraqi security forces retook from the Islamic State group in January.
Alcohol never completely disappeared from the city which for more than two years was the de facto Iraqi capital of the “caliphate” IS proclaimed in 2014 over parts of Iraq and Syria.
But drinking was an expensive and dangerous hobby.
“You only had smuggled alcohol — this bottle used to fetch 50,000 or 60,000 dinars,” he said, holding a quarter bottle of whisky.
“For a litre, you’d pay… up to $100.”
Now prices have returned to their pre-IS levels, and the quarter bottle costs around $5.
“In the afternoon it gets very busy here,” said Abu Haidar, standing behind his counter as he served more customers.
“For three years, people were deprived of it yet they had been used to it before. There used to be bars, clubs and casinos. All of them were closed and only now are people returning to drinking,” he said.
His shop is stacked to the ceiling with alcohol, the same selection of ouzo, arak (a regional anise-flavoured spirit) and obscure brands of cheap vodka and whisky that can be found in Baghdad or in the Christian quarter of the neighbouring Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
FEAR NOT GONE
Two large top-loading refrigerators were filled with cans of beer, including Miller, Heineken and a wide selection of Turkish and South Korean brands.
Abu Haidar himself could barely tell one from the other: liquor shop owners in Iraq are usually Christians or Yazidis, but he is a Muslim and says he was convinced by a friend to invest in what looked like a good business opportunity.
A semblance of normality returned to east Mosul relatively quickly after Iraqi forces flushed out the last pockets of jihadists four months ago.
But while few attacks have occurred, many residents believe supporters of the now crumbling “caliphate” have blended back into civilian life and are still among them.
Abu Haidar kept glancing worriedly at the street for fear of an attack by remnants of the jihadists’ dreaded “Hisbah” religious police.
While many customers refused to be interviewed, let alone photographed or filmed, Karim Jassem had no such compunctions.
“I feel so relieved — there were a few illegal stores recently and people selling from their homes, but this is a proper licensed shop so it’s cheaper and we want it cheaper,” he said.
But Jassem also spoke with fear on his face of the risks he had to take under jihadist rule.
“I was afraid. I would drink and by 11:00 pm leave my friend’s house and drive home using the back streets,” he said.
“All my friends drink, you know. I’m from Nur neighbourhood and I won’t say that all the people in Nur neighbourhood drink… but all my friends drink.”