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Cocktails in Pakistan

In the Muslim world, a drink is never just a drink.

Jan 28, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 19 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN

People often refer to Dubai as the Hong Kong of the Gulf, but it's really more like Vegas. A sparkling, semi-independent emirate on the Arabian Sea, Dubai is where rich Arabs go to gamble, meet hookers, and drink. But mostly drink. Dubai is drenched with booze. The airport alone probably has more liquor stores per square foot than any building on the planet.

Which, of course, is the appeal. Certain Arabs love Dubai because it's not at all like where they live. Certain others hate it for the same reason. When you hear an Osama bin Laden sympathizer rant about the decadence and hypocrisy of the Arab ruling class, you can be certain he's picturing a nightclub in Dubai.

In the Muslim world, a drink is never just a drink. It's a dividing line, a declaration of cultural sympathies. Scotch is West, green tea is East, and if you want to know which direction a country is headed, take a look at its liquor laws.

Consider Pakistan. There are no liquor stores or Budweiser billboards in Pakistan. The national airline doesn't serve cocktails (but, like AA, does allow smoking). The airports have prayer rooms instead of lounges. Outside of clubs maintained by foreign embassies (the notably sleazy Chinese Club, for instance), there are virtually no bars. Islamabad has precisely one, a smoky, windowless room in the Marriott hotel called the Bassment. The staff is surly, and there's only one kind of beer. A sign on the door says, "For Foreign Non-Muslims Only." Even by the standards of hotel bars, it's a pretty unappealing place. On the

other hand, it's the only place.

I stopped in one afternoon to talk to the manager, a chubby, 30ish man named Hussain Abbas. So what's it like running a bar in a dry country? I asked. "We serve only soft drinks and snacks," he replied. Is that right? I said, taking a sip of my beer. He looked annoyed. "I repeat again, we do not serve alcoholic beverages."

It went on like this for half an hour, the manager becoming increasingly adamant and agitated--"We don't sell liquor here!"--as I made my way through two pints.

The weirdest part was, the manager didn't have anything to hide, at least not from the government. He wasn't doing anything illegal. The Bassment operates with state approval, a nod to the necessity of keeping the international press corps well liquored. He didn't fear a police raid. He feared his fellow citizens.

Booze is an emotional subject in Pakistan. Islam (according to some interpretations anyway) prohibits intoxicants of any kind. In contrast to hashish, which is made locally and is therefore widely tolerated, alcohol is seen by fundamentalist Muslims as a symbol of Western decadence. Many secular Muslims see it the same way, which may account for why so many of them serve alcohol in their homes.

Go to dinner at the house of an educated, affluent Pakistani and the first thing you're likely to be asked is: Would you like a Scotch? (Thanks to centuries of British rule, it's always Scotch.) This isn't a question so much as a statement. By offering you a drink, your host is signaling his sympathy with the West, and his contempt for Islamic fundamentalism. My country is being hijacked by crazies, your host is saying without saying it, but on some level I'm not playing along. In Pakistan, having a bottle of bootleg Johnnie Walker in your house is a subtle expression of rebellion and independence, the equivalent of wearing a thong under your uniform, or keeping a pet cockroach in your cell.

For many older Pakistanis, it is also an exercise in nostalgia. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan wasn't always so relentlessly Islamic. Thirty years ago, it was not uncommon for middle-class Pakistanis to wear Western clothes, go to night clubs, and send their kids to Christian convent schools. Religious minorities were tolerated. (In the '50s, there was even an operating synagogue in Karachi.) There was every expectation that Pakistan would continue to go the way of Turkey, an essentially secular country with a largely Muslim population.

That didn't happen. For a number of complicated and still-disputed reasons, the march toward Westernization halted in the late 1970s, as a succession of presidents made political alliances with the fundamentalist fringe. The cultural changes were immediate, and characteristically cosmetic. Women stopped appearing in public in revealing clothing. Men began shortening their trousers to a religiously acceptable length. (In Pakistan, floodwater pants are considered a mark of piety.) The country got prohibition.

Liquor had been restricted since the country was founded, but only sort of. Muslims could still buy booze with a doctor's prescription. This loophole was closed. In 1978, Gen. Zia ul-Haq shuttered all liquor stores. The next year, he passed a broad prohibition order. Thirsty Muslims turned to Christian bootleggers (who were permitted to purchase liquor with a permit) or flew to Dubai for the weekend.

These were especially tough times for Minoo Bhandara, the Zoroastrian CEO of the Murree Brewery, Pakistan's lone producer of alcoholic beverages. The company was founded in 1861 to supply British troops. In 1947, it was passed to Bhandara's family, which has continued to brew beer and distill whiskey for (increasingly limited) local consumption. If you were to write a cultural history of Pakistan, Bhandara is one of the first people you'd want to interview. But you'd have to find him first.

Getting into the Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi isn't easy. Some years ago the buildings were torched by a Muslim mob, and security has been tight ever since. There's a high wall around the compound and armed guards at the gate. Visitors are escorted to a concrete room while their credentials are checked. Photographs of the facility are not allowed, for fear they might wind up in the paper and incite violence.

Inside, the brewery looks more like a European colonial outpost than a part of modern Pakistan. The walls of Bhandara's office are covered with 19th-century lithographs of British soldiers on horseback. Though it was only 10:00 in the morning, he offered me a drink. I declined and asked him about the brewing business. He wasn't interested. He wanted to talk politics.

In a country where drinking is a political act, it's not surprising that the man who produces the drinks is political. And Bhandara is. He turned out to be by far the most outspoken person I interviewed in Pakistan. He wasn't afraid to savage religious leaders or the Pakistani government. (President Zulfikar Bhutto, who began enforcing prohibition before he was overthrown, "was drunk most of the time," Bhandara said.) Before I left, Bhandara handed me an op-ed he'd written explaining why Pakistan had "mollycoddled" creeps like the Taliban for so many years. He asked me if I could help get it placed in the International Herald Tribune. He seemed sort of desperate.

I admired him, but I couldn't help thinking he was reckless. If you run the only brewery in a nation seething with Islamic fundamentalism, do you really want to publicize your disdain for Islamic fundamentalists? Isn't that begging for another mob with matches? Bhandara pointed out the window. "The president lives across the street," he said. "Musharraf likes his Scotch." He meant it as a profound compliment.

Tucker Carlson, a host of CNN's "Crossfire," is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.