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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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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.