RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — This conservative city is known for its army generals and fundamentalist mosques. Yet in a cluster of brick buildings in the center of town stands a family-owned brewery that has somehow survived more than a century of adversity.
Established in 1860 to quench the thirst of British troops, the brewery has withstood riots, shutdowns and severe restrictions, including laws that for more than three decades have put alcohol off-limits to the vast majority of Pakistanis.
Today, Murree Brewery offers a window into the contradictions of modern Pakistan, where secular practices endure in the face of rising religious fundamentalism.
“Most people, they drink beer, but they don’t tell,” said Yasin Sadiq, 47, the chief brewer, who as a Muslim is legally barred from drinking his creation.
Under Pakistani law, non-Muslims and foreigners who obtain a special government permit may buy small amounts of liquor and beer from licensed sellers, most common in the southern metropolis of Karachi, where there is a large Hindu population.
But it’s common knowledge that some Pakistani Muslims drink. Empty beer cans are a common sight in trash-strewn gutters. Bars at luxury hotels don’t always demand to see permits, and Muslim drinkers can procure alcohol from bootleggers or willing Christians or Hindus. Former president Pervez Musharraf is only one of several Pakistani leaders widely known to have had a penchant for whiskey.
That laxness bothers lawmakers such as Khurshid Ahmed, a senator with the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, who says the government doesn’t do enough to enforce a ban he says Islamic law requires. In a nation where conservative Islam is gaining influence, that is the kind of stance Isphanyar Bhandara, the brewery’s 37-year-old chief executive, said he must carefully dance around every day.
To prosper despite the ban, the Bhandara family has added whiskeys, gin, rum and vodka to their offerings and developed juices and soft drinks as an insurance policy. To circumvent a ban on alcohol export, they secured an agreement with an Austrian brewer to produce their beer in Europe.
And the brewery keeps a low profile: It does virtually no advertising for its alcoholic products.
That has not always been easy for the operation, named after a nearby resort in the Himalayan foothills. Murree Brewery was burned to the ground in 1947, during the riots that broke out during Pakistan’s creation. Partition from India cost the brewery access to many clients who lived across the new border.
The biggest hurdle came in 1977, when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol consumption among Muslims, who make up 95 percent of Pakistan’s population. To Bhandara, the move was pure Pakistani politics — a leader seeking to appease religious conservatives and distract the population from a less-than-stellar governance record.
“The leaders we’ve had over the years, they’ve always misused religion by stirring up the masses,” Bhandara said. “Alcohol is the easiest child to whip.”
The move wasn’t enough to rescue Bhutto’s political career. He was hanged a stone’s throw from the brewery a couple of years later.
Today, Murree Brewery is a bustling operation that employs about 700 people. While Isphanyar Bhandara is Zoroastrian and therefore not subject to the alcohol ban, nearly all of his employees are Muslim. Many interrupt their work to heed the call to prayer and walk to a nearby mosque.
Sales on the rise
Bhandara said sales — which totaled about $30 million in 2008 — are on the rise, although he declined to offer specifics.
From the office where he used to play as a child, Bhandara conducts his business much as his father did. He, like his father, greets visitors by offering them tea, coffee or whiskey — even in midmorning. He said he is lobbying the government to lift the export ban but also focusing on developing new products.
On a recent Saturday, he hosted representatives of a flavoring company to discuss a new energy drink. After quietly listening to the pitch and posing questions alternately in English and Urdu, Bhandara delivered his verdict. If the ingredients proposed were too expensive for him to make a 30-cent drink, he wasn’t interested.
“The price has to make sense,” he said