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

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power