As the muezzin’s call to prayer cuts through the muggy air hanging over Islamabad, a black sedan glides to a halt at a home in my neighbourhood in the heart of Islamabad, a few hundred metres from the mosque. There is a hurried transaction, something cylindrical wrapped in a newspaper is thrust through the window, some money changes hands and the car glides away.
Just another sale for my friendly neighbourhood bootlegger, a man who keeps a lot of people in Islamabad in high spirits. God knows they need it too.
The house looks like any other in our upmarket neighbourhood, a two-storey structure with a small lawn and a low wall running round it. No indication whatsoever of what goes on within. There’s nothing even disreputable about it.
When my wife and I first moved into the neighbourhood in September last year, I had often been struck by the young men who hung around the house – some clad in the trademark shalwar-kameez, others in bright T-shirts and jeans, and almost all wearing well-groomed long hair. All fiddling with expensive mobile phones, lounging on the road the day long, doing very little.
I often wondered what they did for a living – they never seemed strapped for cash, and yet never seemed to do anything.
It was our maid Nargis who dropped the ball several months later – “Don’t you know? They’re bootleggers (Yeh toh sharabein bechte hain).”
It was then that my wife and I began noticing the SUVs and cars that would drive up, especially in the evenings. Some with excited young couples clearly looking like they were getting up to mischief, others with bored-looking middle men. The same furtive exchanges every time, but at the same time, no real effort to hide the liquor being sold.
I had heard somewhere that bootlegging in Pakistan was usually handled by non-Muslim minorities but a taxi driver I regularly use exploded even that myth. I once asked him about the bootleggers in my neighbourhood and he quipped with a smile: “Saare Kalma-padhne waale Musalmaan hain.”
Of course, I often have my wife in splits when I remark as I pass the bootleggers: “Aaj toh, Mashallah, bumper sale hui hai.”
For a country that has officially been “dry” since 1977, alcohol isn’t very difficult to come by in Pakistan. Under the law, alcohol can’t be drunk by 97 per cent of the country’s population.
The famous Murree Brewery caters to the remaining three per cent, comprising Christians, Hindus and Parsis. Besides bootleggers, some of the well-heeled depend on friends in the diplomatic circuit.
The late Minoo Bhandara, whose family owns and operates the Murree Brewery, once remarked, “I think 99 percent of my customers are Muslims.” Just not very openly of course.
(Footnote: Interesting thoughts by Nadeem F Paracha on the alcohol ban here.)