01-12-2000

The life of a gyros salesman; Pravo looks beyond the popular snack to the university graduate selling it. And, the world's biggest beer drinkers are developing a taste for wine. Just a couple of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

 

This week Pravo magazine examines the life of a member of Prague's modest Arab community. "One kebab please," says a customer near Hradcanska metro station, unaware that the dark-skinned man with jet-black hair, thick goatee beard and fiery expression has a degree in economics and philosophy. "Philosophy and serving kebabs are quite similar," says 34-year-old Jordanian Muneer Albakkar. "You spend time with people, listening to their opinions, their problems," he says in passable Czech. "Philosophy isn't about sitting in a corner and thinking."

Every day, around 10 am, Muneer opens his kebab stand near the Hradcanska metro station. The beer drinkers arrive for their first pint of the day. Passers-by stop for a quick snack. The drunks ask for their first shot of whisky or vodka. Regulars call him by his nickname 'Marko'--the name of a neighbourhood in his home town of Amman, the capital of Jordan.

"Tradition was tying me down," he tells Pravo, explaining why he left his mother country. Even though he went to mosque regularly, his free-spirited attitude and resistance to authority quickly made him the black sheep of the family. "Fancy a drop?" says Marko, holding out a glass of spirits, strictly banned under Islam. "You'll be telling me next that you've learned to eat pork here as well," jokes the reporter. "Want to try a bit?" responds Marko, holding up a piece of bacon. "Smoked to perfection. Czech, of course."

Marko came to the Czech Republic nine years ago for a two-week visit to relatives. He's been here ever since. He was beaten up by skinheads as soon as he arrived in Prague, but the experience didn't deter him. "They were just trying to tell me something, but didn't know how," he says philosophically. Since then he's had no problems. "Czechs are friendly people. When you're nice to them, they're nice to you."

Tall, dark and handsome, Marko found the Czech girls especially friendly. After getting a job in an Arab bakery, working for 3,000 crowns a month and a place to live, he met and married a Czech girl. But the marriage didn't last. "I started enjoying life, having fun like I'd never had before. Drinking, gambling on the machines. Czech girls are great: understanding, loving, direct. They love life. I can't even remember how many there were. In Jordan you're allowed to have as many wives as you can feed. It's the same in the Czech Republic. Only it's not written down on paper."

Marko works seven days a week, and won't take a day off until Christmas, says Pravo. He says he can't wait to play with his six-month-old daughter and two-year-old son from his second marriage, to a 20-year-old Czech girl. "My time belongs to them. But Czech girls still chase after me."

There was nothing in the stand when he rented it, says the magazine. He borrowed enough money for a grill from a friend. "Arabs stick together. When we need something, we help each other. But you pay back your debts on time. It's a question of honour and reputation." Every few minutes a friend stops by the kebab stand, and there follows a short burst of Arabic. "But we don't have anything to do with the Arabs who sell drugs in the centre."

"Many people mistakenly confuse Prague's Arab community with drug dealers," says police spokeswoman Eva Pokorna. "These make up a tiny minority, a handful of gangs who work together regardless of nationality. Otherwise there are no problems whatsoever with the Arab community. Most are businessmen, company representatives, diplomats, civil servants or students," she tells Pravo magazine.

"I'm never going back to live in Jordan," says Muneer Albakkar, nickname Marko, who left a a middle-class family with a four-storey house in the centre of Amman. "I've got used to a different way of life. Freedom. That's what life's about."

 

The Czech Republic is famous for its beer. And Czechs leave no-one in any doubt that Czech beer is good beer; they drink more beer per capita than any other nation in the world. Yet over the last ten years, wine has gained increasing popularity here. There are occasions when a pint of well-chilled lager is unbeatable, but many Czechs have found that their present lifestyle warrants quality wine rather than beer, and they're developing a taste for it. That goes for people with a higher education and income, for whom a knowledge of good wine has become a social necessity.

Although Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, has always produced good wine, it is only in the past ten years that winemakers are turning the business into an art, establishing vintage wine cellars and selling high quality wine to connoisseurs. In the past the local clientele for top quality wines was restricted to the communist elite and a small group of people who were making big money. Today there are thousands of people willing to pay several hundred crowns for a bottle of good wine and hundreds who would not consider buying anything but the best.

Wine-growing and drinking has become a popular topic. While Czech television is running a second highly successful educational series about the subject, Tyden magazine has devoted two pages to one of the top men in the business: 47-year-old Milos Michlovsky. Michlovsky is one of Moravia's leading wine experts. He produces wines which are served at Prague Castle receptions, savoured by visiting presidents and kings.

Like other Czech wine producers, Michlovsky studied wine-making in the former Soviet Union. In the seventies, when closed borders prevented him from travelling to France or Italy, that was the best tuition available and Michlovsky says it was quite an education. The study trip opened up new horizons, he told the magazine. The country may have been poor but the former communist government was investing a large amount of money into new technology, the study of genotypes and cross breeding of grapes. They seemed to be producing every known wine under the sun, although in restricted quantities, Michalovsky says.

He returned to his homeland to head the one and only grape cross-breeding institution in the country, devoting his time to study of genotypes, climatic conditions and insecticides. Shortly after the fall of communism, Michalovsky left the academic sphere to set up his own winemaking firm called Vinselekt and established a small plantation for cross-breeding. The latter is not a profitable business--it's a hobby that I can now afford, he admits. His cross breeding programmes swallow up an average 5 million crowns annually, which amounts to a tenth of his firms' annual profit.

According to Michalovsky, the money is well invested. "When we join the EU we will need a very good brand of wine of our own," he says. As for the quality wine he sells, he's not afraid of future competition. "Our wines are excellent and are much cheaper than similar Western brands but they lack promotion," he told Tyden. Helena Bakerova of the Prague Wine Society agrees, rating Vinselekt products among the best she's ever tasted. Half of the wines on the Czech market are imported, but because high-quality imported wines are terribly expensive, most shops stock medium-quality imported brands. Those who know something about wine, know that they can get better quality Czech wine for the same price.

For years, wine carrying the prestigious Vinselekt label only found its way to 'select' clients: Prague Castle, the best Czech restaurants, the best clubs. Today you'll see them in good wine shops and on occasion even in some hypermarkets. "Just a few years back I swore that no wine of mine would ever appear on a hypermarket stall. I wanted an exclusive image," Michalovsky says. "But you can't swim against the tide. Too many potential customers shop in hypermarkets, and now I' m proud to see them pick my brands when I shop there myself," he concludes.

01-12-2000