Interview with a bartender: Where does prohibition start and end?

Published: March 26, 2012
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In the business for 30 years, man shares the ins and outs of bartending in Islamabad.ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

In the business for 30 years, man shares the ins and outs of bartending in Islamabad.ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

ISLAMABAD: “Scotch and soda” says the man at the bar, as he places a fresh drink in front of a client, who like most of our interview subject’s clientele, is a member of the city’s economic elite.

Naseer, a familiar face among the booze-swigging community of Islamabad, has been a bartender for almost 30 years.

All those years back, Naseer was a helper at a German High Commissioner’s residence. However, after observing and assisting the regular bartender plying his craft, he soon managed to become well enough versed in the art to fill the vacant position at the South African High Commissioner’s residence.

Regardless of prohibition set during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1977, there remains a sizeable liquor market in Pakistan. About 4% of Pakistani population is non-Muslim, mostly Christian, and are eligible for alcohol permits and can buy up to 100 bottles of beer or five bottles of liquor per month, although these limits are not strictly enforced. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to order alcohol in restaurants and hotels that have liquor licenses, mostly those in five star hotels, and foreigners can also apply for alcohol permits.

Loopholes in the prohibition law gave rise to the lucrative black market, which in turn have created many job opportunities for those with the right service skills.

Although he is also available for ‘dry’ functions, Naseer says he serves at about 18 parties and other events every month where alcohol is served. “The alcohol is provided by whoever hires the bartenders, not the bartenders themselves.”

Naseer charges about Rs3,000 per party and Rs2,000 for a wedding-related functions which are usually dry, or where the number of bar loyalists is usually much lower.

On the volume of business, he commented that there are months where business is quite slow and work is hard to come by.

The bartending network is based on individuals and not small companies. His son, Fayyaz, 32, a travel agent by day, is also a bartender by night. Fayyaz shares that he enjoys bartending as it exposes him to people of various backgrounds and nationalities, something he would normally never get to do.

The father-son duo shared that if a very big party comes up, bartenders are hired on an individual basis and word of mouth from other bartenders. The system is thus dependent on relationships within the tight-knit community as business is based on communication and strong ties rather than competition.

Naseer candidly shares, “I feel that if one is interested in pursuing a better life, they become quick learners.”

Naseer also feels that bartending is definitely higher paying than one as an attendant, is more socially respectable, allows a degree of flexibility and allows him to make use of his Matric degree. “Plus, with my mornings free, I can go fishing whenever I want.”

Even though Naseer and Fayaz are very proud of their profession, they are also aware of the stigma attached with alcohol in Pakistan. Although they are both teetotallers, they feel they have no right to judge anyone’s personal decisions.

Naseer points out that in all his years of mixology, he has observed that even though it is frowned upon or forbidden in different religions, alcohol consumption is ultimately a personal and social action rather than a religious one. “There are many lower-middle class Christians who don’t drink and lots of rich Muslims who do.”

A few may look down on bartending in Pakistan as it arguably facilitates an illegal activity, but an individual who makes the choice to consume or distribute alcohol is not necessarily guided by religious inclinations, but how acceptable it is in their socioeconomic surroundings and to their own personal faith.

The relationship between alcohol consumption and distribution is a very complicated one as it is not only based on religion but religiosity, socio-economic status, nationality, socialisation, and of course, personal preference.

The example of Naseer and Fayaz shed an interesting insight into these factors and shows that prohibition doesn’t make matters black and white.

* Edited by Vaqas Asghar

Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Mar 26, 2012 - 10:05AM

    Alcohol should be legalised in Pakistan.

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  • Mar 26, 2012 - 10:22AM

    Personally i would allow use of liquor for all, let everyone have access to it..

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  • Bold9k
    Mar 26, 2012 - 10:55AM

    Lets see..

    Alcohol is legal is Turkey, Dubai, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Morroco,… Why is Pakistan the Thedekar of Islam beyond me

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  • Ethan
    Mar 26, 2012 - 1:15PM

    prohibition Always results in higher percentage of abuse of the prohibited product.

    Prohibition produces a criminal element that is a bigger blight on society than the actual good that the prohibition “intended” do.

    Legalize it! tax it, regulate it and you will see a true change. a hiden/prohibited drinker (much like a food dieter) will always over indulge and drink to excess for fear of not being able to readily drink againg. that will also increase the incidence of drunken domestic abuse and an other ills that prohibition try’s to curtail.

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  • Qamar Awan
    Mar 26, 2012 - 1:48PM

    @bold9k you didn’t mention saudia and other countries which are practicing Islam and only mentioned few liberal countries which having average Christians population larger than Pak.
    and for ET what is your agenda btw..

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  • MarkH
    Mar 26, 2012 - 1:54PM

    Prohibition concerning alcohol just means more work for law enforcement. It’s been tried other places and it almost always results in people turning criminal and making more money from it than they would if it were legal rather than abstaining.

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  • Thames Fisher
    Mar 26, 2012 - 2:22PM

    Alcohol is available in Pakistan , citizens buy as they want , even though law says its only for non muslims . Good one can drink in boundries of his or her house and go to sleep for 8 to 12 hours , get up next day go to work , do his job its nothing wrong in that , i will call him a peacefull Pakistani citizen like any where else in the world any civilized country.
    But on other hand if after few drinks your attitude to your fellows change and you disturb others in any form then I dont think even all Mighty will like My fellow Pakistanies drink be happy live and let live God Bless

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  • Waqas Butt
    Mar 26, 2012 - 3:15PM

    If rape gets permitted in all countries, should it be declared legal in Pakistan ?. It is shameful that in mere in 14 centuries, our morals are degraded to an extent where bad doesn’t looks bad anymore, and we never feel ashamed.

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  • Anon..
    Mar 26, 2012 - 3:44PM

    @everyone above
    it is a myth than legalising alcohol makes things better. Yes the prohibition spawns a black market, but keeps the consumption confined to an elite who can afford to pay of the police if they get into trouble. Have you seen the statistics of alcohol abuse in Europe and especially UK in the last 10 years? There has been a sharp hike in alcoholism and alcohol abuse, crimes resulting from alcohol and deaths related from liver diseasse. In some countries alchohol liver related deaths are overtaking cancer deaths. So forget the religious point. from a social and health point of view, this is the last thing that should be freely available in society. It’s bad enough that majority of Pakistanis are addicted to smoking (some of the highest rates of smokers compared to european and other countries) now we want to unleash the problems of alcohol too?
    No thank you. Let the elites keep enjoying this vice illegally, after all they can also afford the health costs that arise from such indulgence.

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  • anonymous
    Mar 26, 2012 - 3:50PM

    alcohol should be legalised and liscences issued for the import of alcohol through legal channels and retail outlets to be set up across the country. Only once the availability of alcohol is present across the country will the frustrated people of this country learn to lighten up.

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  • R.Khan
    Mar 26, 2012 - 4:57PM

    I do not drink but strongly feel that it should be legalized in Pakistan. Cash starved government will earn revenues which is lost to bootleggers & smugglers. Get real & start living in 21st Century.

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  • Safvan
    Mar 26, 2012 - 5:42PM

    You are mixing two things in a very wrong way. Rape is unacceptable because it is forced sex with someone. You are NOT forcing any one to drink alcohol. Taking alcohol is a personal choice. Yes it is true it is not allowed in Islam as per many specialists of the religion but there are millions of Muslims that take it and there are hundreds of Muslim women who are raped every day too. If you want to take religion only then both are bad. If you want to take social norms without religion then alcohol is acceptable, rape is not. If you want to take science into consideration then high consumption of alcohol is bad for the whole body and rape is bad for the psychological structure of the human mind. There are no black or white answers here. Society tends to choose the most suitable or the least damaging of habits. @Waqas Butt:

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  • Activist
    Mar 26, 2012 - 8:15PM

    I’ve worked with several very prominent activists in Pakistan, people who have campaigned for the supremacy of law above all else. Other than 3 or 4 of them, the rest were regular consumers of alcohol. Now, I understand their viewpoint (and the viewpoint of a lot of the people commenting on this article) that “alcohol should be legal”, that “consumption of alcohol should be a personal decision, not to be controlled by the state”, that “use of alcohol should be allowed for all”, and similar viewpoints. However, in spite of all these reasonings and arguments, the fact that alcohol is currently illegal according to Paksitani law does not change. The fact that you are very simply breaking the law of Pakistan when you consume alcohol does not change. If you’re unhappy with the law, by all means protest against it, speak out against it, to have it changed. But as long as that law isn’t changed, it will still be a law, and it will still be imperative for me and you to abide by it (along with all other laws of the country) as responsible and law-abiding citizens.

    The 3 or 4 activists I mentioned, who refrained from alcohol, did not do so because of religious or moral reasons. They said, and I salute them for saying this, that “it would be sheer hypocrisy for us to blatantly and boldly break the law of Pakistan, even though we think it isn’t right and that it should be changed, and then advocate the supremacy of law above all else. We are trying to gather public support for the abolition of this law, but as long as that doesn’t happen, we will still respect it as a law of our country, and will abide by it.”

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  • Arslan
    Mar 26, 2012 - 11:08PM

    The decision of drinking or not drinking alcohol is purely a personal one and no one has the right to dictate anyone else on weather they should or shouldnt drink. For most of us religion dictates this decision. But that doesnt mean the followers have to do the same and become watchdogs on other people who might drink. If religion commands something that doesnt necessarily mean the followers have to enforce it on each other as well. Religion is a personal thing and should be kept that way.
    That said, in my opinion removing the ban on alcohol will have more benefits than losses. Government regulates the imports and so gets the greater chunk of profit that is currently going to bootleggers and black market dealers. I say make it expensive, and not just any expensive. Make a can of beer worth 500 from its current price around 250-300 from bootleggers. Take a bottle of vodka to 5000 from 2500. My point is this money can be used to give subsidy on other commodities i-e bread, sugar, vegetables etc that are necessities of the common man. So lifting the ban still doesnt make it common enough to increase the incidence of liver failures or traffic accidents. And yes less people die every year from drinking poisonous(desi) alcohol .I guess most of us can live with cheap bread and expensive alcohol.

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  • Parvez
    Mar 27, 2012 - 12:14AM

    The excessive use of alcohol is bad just like unchecked power corrupts and uncontrolled greed is destructive. We are cautioned against excess on these and other vices but chose to observe the ban only on alcohol. Possibly because it is a substance and easy to ban while the others involve moral fortitude, a quality we refuse to cultivate. Is this not hypocrisy?

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  • Anon..
    Mar 27, 2012 - 12:26AM

    @activist
    Can you give me the names of the four lawabiding lawyers, cos as a lawyer who has moved in similar circles I have always found it a struggle to refrain from drinking alcohol, far from being a personal choice, I feel there is always a social pressure to drink inorder to be considered part of the true ‘activist’ legal crowd. You are right most of these activists lawyers dont stand by what they preach – which is upholding the law as it stands.
    But still will appreciate if you could name which lawyers were righteous in this regard.

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  • Musa
    Mar 27, 2012 - 2:37AM

    Basically if freedom of any kind is restricted it would create more temptation plus the hassles around criminality, enforcing it and so on…In a mature society there should be freedom to go to a bar or a church or a mosque, we all know alcohol is one of the most abused substance and choice should be left to the citizens. Pakistan is a hypocrite society and it will take a long time for us to endorse freedom and be civil.

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  • Pakistani Agnostic
    Mar 27, 2012 - 3:39AM

    I am studying in Canada and its not about breaking a law..as it is also forbidden to drink in public places here too yet people break it proudly..its about enjoying the drinks with your friends

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  • Maher
    Mar 27, 2012 - 10:03AM

    I think in 50’s and 60’s, alcohol was legal and they had bars in Khi for this purpose. People who want to drink can go to the bar. I think it should be legalized in Pakistan again with some eye on it.

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  • TT
    Mar 27, 2012 - 10:09AM

    as per pakistani constitution which is based on Quran , alcohol should be banned and necessary measures should be taken to stop illegal sale other than to the foreigners.

    the one who said it should be easily available, must go and learn teaching of Islam, if they are muslims. and if they are not they fall among the 4% category. with all due respect prior to making such remarks they must understand where they are living and which laws they are abide by.

    its not like muslims are involved in illicit sexual relations and consume alcohol, rather its more about they are responsible for their deeds, if someone is following wrong practices one can’t ask to regularize it among the nation. every individual is responsible for his her good deeds and each step taken toward good/bad deed and followed by others is always appreciated and blessed not only on the basis of muslim o non muslim but as a whole , as a society as a nation.

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  • Anonymous
    Mar 27, 2012 - 11:20AM

    I wish there was an “UNRECOMMEND” options :(

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  • Maher
    Mar 27, 2012 - 11:58AM

    @ TT .. Please don’t talk about Quran and Islam. WE ARE NOT A ISLAMIC COUNTRY Ok. We are A SO CALLED “ISLAMIC COUNTRY”. We all know that now a days alcohol is accessible and you can easily get a bottle. For your information do visit Lucky Star stop, Issa Nagra, Gulshan area, Johar area, Tower, Saddar etc. in the evening time (here I am not mentioning any porch areas like Clifton or Defence). Islam and Quran huh…. The fact is if these things are prevailing in our society it should be legalized.

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  • Khan
    Mar 28, 2012 - 1:02AM

    @Maher:
    Please show some respect, by not saying “HUH!” for something hundreds of millions like. You may drink all the alcohol in the world you like/

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  • Musa
    Mar 29, 2012 - 8:41AM

    @ TT With all due respect, you quoted the Pakistan constitution and it being based on Quran and Sunnah is the end of debated. Please open your mind and do not hide behind walls as societies grow with healthy debate. If your temptation is going to be irresistible just because something is in front of you rather than a bootlegger call away than we should probably question our beliefs.

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  • Ethan
    Mar 29, 2012 - 1:18PM

    No agenda, its just that prohibition is a lost cause unless you close all the makers down & crackdown the smugling of the product, and yes “forbiden fruit” is always the most tasty, and abused to the point of glutony (so lets be real about the solution that best allows to curtail damages by managing the “forbiden items” thats all
    @Qamar Awan:

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  • general
    Mar 29, 2012 - 7:21PM

    @Ethan;

    So if we have to manage “forbiden item” as you put it then what is your suggestion about Heroin, LSD, Marijuana and other forbidden narcotic/psychedelic agents? Should we allow people to use them too as they also cause addiction and body harm the same way alcohol does.

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