Out of Pakistan: Nursing a toothache while the bar boor looks for a brawl

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The Independent Online
PESHAWAR - For some reason Muslim countries seem to sublimate the absence of alcohol with cake - plenty of it. No luxury hotel in Saudi Arabia is complete without a cake shop which would have a Viennese matron loosening her girdle, and the Pakistanis are equally partial to their gateaux.

In Peshawar's Pearl Continental hotel, however, there is more to sublimate than elsewhere. The coffee shop in the foyer, past a sign which tells 'bodyguards and gunmen' to leave their weaponry outside, stocks a mouth-watering array of cakes, but the Pakistanis who patronise it seem unable to take their eyes off a large, forbidding door in the corner. This is the entrance to the only public bar in the country.

Non-Muslim foreigners, as the official jargon has it, are permitted to drink in Pakistan. The Murree Brewery, run by Parsees, has been concocting excellent beer and gin, passable vodka and something resembling whisky for well over a century. Getting through the maze of regulations before you can start pouring its products down your gullet is another matter.

At least you can indulge your vice in company in the Pearl's Gul (Flower) Bar, unlike other luxury hotels in Pakistan, where one is compelled to drink in one's room. But it remains necessary to complete an intimidating form, demanding your passport number as well as your religious affiliation. There are further restrictions, of which more later. Most foreigners based in Peshawar find it easier to join the private American Club, although the drying up of US support for the Afghan mujahedin and the resulting departure of American aid officials, spooks and diplomatic hangers-on now means that the largest national contingent at the club is British.

Two years ago, however, the fight against Communism in Afghanistan was on the point of success. In Peshawar, Islamic moderates and fundamentalists were fighting to shape the victory to come. Street assassinations were rife, radicals were attacking Western aid groups seeking to educate women or spread Christianity, someone machine-gunned foreign women shamelessly exposing their bodies by the Pearl's poolside and I had a toothache. Unable to lay my hands on any other pain-killer, I steered my way through the glances of envy and disapprobation and pushed open the door of the Gul Bar.

Inside is a small room with a handful of tables, a bar in the corner and windows obscured to shield the scenes within from passers-by. I sat down at the bar and surveyed my fellow drinkers. In one corner was a large group of fit- looking African men, whose attention, like mine, was directed to the two other tables. Front and centre was a rough-looking man with the unmistakable accent of Birmingham (let us call him Les), drinking with his Irish mate, Mick. Les was ceaselessly taunting two young Americans in the other corner, who turned out to be studying Urdu on State Department scholarships. Like him, they had adopted the local dress of shalwar kameez and sandals, but as Les was making clear, he did not like the look of the diamond ear-stud one of them was wearing.

I completed my form and asked the barman for a gin and tonic, only to run into the next peculiarity of drinking in Pakistan. 'No, sir,' was his reply, 'you have to order by the bottle.' Nothing seemed better calculated to encourage over-indulgence and confirm the suspicions of those outside the door that alcohol turns men into beasts. While everyone else was drinking beer - I reluctantly followed suit - Mick and Les had already downed a bottle of gin and were well into one of vodka, inspiring the Brummie to fresh invective. Mick's half-hearted appeals to his friend to lay off and drink up were unavailing.

Most of the time the Americans tried to ignore the insults to their country, their sexuality and their alleged cowardice in refusing Les's demands to come outside and fight. Every time their tormentor seemed about to lose interest in such unresisting prey, however, one of them would make a badlytimed request to him to leave them alone. The Africans looked on with anthropological interest.

The confrontation went on and on, killing conversation and preventing me from reading my book. At last the vodka was finished, and Mick dragged his friend off to scandalise the citizens of Peshawar, though not before restraining a couple of drunken lunges towards the Americans' corner table. Everyone else got talking in the atmosphere of relief they left behind. I asked one of the Africans what brought them to Peshawar: 'Adventure,' he said. Were they seeking to go into Afghanistan with the mujahedin? Eventually they explained that they were military pilots from Kenya and Tanzania, receiving training from the Pakistani air force.

The barman, the only Pakistani to witness the affair, called time soon afterwards. As I paid up I sought to assure him that not every Briton drank as heavily or behaved as badly as Les. 'Oh no, sir, he is Swedish,' said the barman. 'He has lived in Peshawar for many years. We know him well.' Where 'Les' had learnt to curse like a natural-born Brummie remained a mystery, but at least he made me forget my toothache.