Alcohol in Pakistan The Politics of Boozing

The front line of the struggle against fundamentalism in Pakistan isn't in the mountainous border regions. It's in the country's permit rooms. Alcohol is sold there -- and customers dream of the West.

By Uwe Buse

Alcohol is a touchy subject in Muslim countries -- here, booze is destroyed in Jakarty prior to Ramadan.

Alcohol is a touchy subject in Muslim countries -- here, booze is destroyed in Jakarty prior to Ramadan.

Temptation awaits at the end of a ramp, in the murkiness in the back corner of an underground garage. There are two holes in the wall, each covered with bars. Both though, the small one and the larger one, have enough space for an arm to reach through. A man sits behind each window, waiting for business. It's as simple as that, and yet these two nondescript little holes in a parking garage wall represent a place of beginnings, a place of hope.

Devout Muslims call it "a disgrace for the city," Ilyaz Rassar calls it "an opportunity" and Pakistan's government bureaucrats call it a "permit room." This permit room, one of about 60 scattered throughout the country, is in downtown Multan, a city of shrines and mosques in eastern Pakistan -- a city otherwise known as the City of Saints.

The men behind the bars are selling alcohol to non-Muslims, a practice that's entirely legal and sanctioned by the government. Under a system that could be dubbed Prohibition Light, this permit room sells four brands of beer, vodka, Silver Top gin, Doctor's brandy and malt whiskey. There is a purchase minimum for beer -- five cans -- at 200 rupees, or about €3 apiece. A bottle of the cheapest whiskey goes for about €30.

All of the alcoholic beverages sold here are produced in the country. The beer is brewed at the "Murree Brewery" near the city of Rawalpindi, the country's only brewery -- a holdover from colonial days and a concession to Pakistan's Christians and Hindus. This domestic liquor industry sells its products in the country's permit rooms from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., every day except Friday.

Memories of London

It's 11 a.m. and half a dozen men wait at the two windows -- a civilized group who know and greet one another, speaking in hushed tones. Ilyaz Rassar is a Christian with a Pakistani passport, a short, stocky man with thinning hair waiting in line and holding two folded-up moving boxes. Rassar, who visits the permit room once a week, says he is "mainly a businessman," and that he has relatively little interest in religion.

Rassar comes to this place to do business, of course, but also because he knows that he can speak freely here. He says he has never seen a fundamentalist here. In fact, coming here feels a bit like being back in the West. He once visited London, a place he says he liked, especially the pubs and the beer. The permit room, which he says brings back memories of his time in London, serves as a European outpost and a tiny glimpse of a future Rassar and others like him would love to see become reality in Pakistan. Rassar is a member of two minorities here in Pakistan: Christians and fans of the West.

Rassar keeps a stamped permit issued by the Pakistani government in his jacket pocket. It allows him to buy 100 bottles of beer or 5 bottles of liquor each month. When he reaches the first window, he presents his permit and gives the man his order. The man disappears behind the bars and Rassar goes to the second window, pushes a bundle of money through the hole and returns to the first window, where 30 bottles of liquor are standing on a table. Rassar unfolds his boxes.

And the extra bottles of liquor?

"Oh," says Rassar, "they trust me here. I'm also buying for Christian friends." He says that he'll present their permits later. Rassar smiles, and the man behind the bars smiles with him. Nobody really believes the story about the friends and the permits -- it's likely just a tacit agreement between two businessmen trying to make the best of an imperfect situation.

"Eat, drink and be Murree"

Laws severely restricting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages were introduced in Pakistan in 1977, and liquor smugglers and dealers have been turning a profit with contraband alcohol ever since. Trucks bring vodka in from China across the mountains along the country's northern border, while ships unload cargos of beer and Scotch whiskey from Europe on its southern coast. In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, diplomats from African countries run a discreet service, turning the contents of their embassies' liquor cabinets into cash. Permits -- for those who need them -- aren't hard to come by. In fact, there's even a market for permits.

The Pakistani state has always turned a blind eye on the practice, especially now, under the country's current pro-Western President Pervez Musharaff, although a ban on alcohol advertising remains strictly enforced. Indeed, the head of the Murree Brewery assumes that although 99 percent of his customers are Muslims, hardly anyone is likely to know his company's advertising slogan: "Eat, drink and be Murree."

Ilyaz Rassar and his accomplice on the other side of the bars say Musharraf is a "good man" -- that he even drinks the occasional glass of Scotch in the evening, after a long work day.

"We must help the man wherever we can," says Rassar. He's referring to the threat to Musharraf's power from the country's strongest opposition party, which is controlled by fundamentalists. Musharraf, says Rassar, has absolutely no control over tribal regions in the western part of the country. Under these circumstances, he adds, drinking alcohol is a political statement in Pakistan, a declaration of one's opposition to growing fundamentalism -- in short, an act of patriotism. Those who drink, he says, smiling again, are in fact expressing their support for the president, freedom and the West, and their opposition to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Then he packs his bottles into his two boxes, and two helpers carry the merchandise out to his car. Rassar says: "We will win. We will convert the Muslims to alcohol."

He could be right.

In its most recent annual report, the Murree Brewery reported a 37 percent jump in hard liquor profits over the previous year.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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