In defence of Murree Brewery

Unhappy hours
Posted by Nadeem F. Paracha (Dawn Blogs)

I have been fortunate enough to travel across Europe and much of Asia in the last seven years. One learns so much by engaging with a variety of cultures, cuisines and people, but, at least with me, there always comes a time (as a visitor in a foreign country), when I start craving good old Pakistani/Indian food.

In 2005, while traveling across Holland, Germany and France, the pangs and cravings for desi food struck me in the middle of a busy shopping district in Paris. Luckily, almost at once I was able to spot a restaurant whose doorman was dressed in a traditional Pushtun dress. I don’t exactly remember the name of the place, but on inquiry, I was told it was owned by two middle-aged gentlemen – one an Indian (from Bangalore), and the other a Pakistani (from Lahore).

What’s more, the waiters too were a colorful sub-continental mix: Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. It was a fantastic environment, and I was able to speak Urdu/Hindi for the first time during my brief stay in a city where people even struggled with English. It was a joy looking at a menu that I could actually understand.

After ordering some biryani, nihari and a couple of rotis, I turned to the drinks section in the menu. I was delighted to note that the restaurant was also offering Indian beer, which I ordered right away

Lighting myself a cigarette, I waited in enthusiastic anticipation. It took just five minutes for the waiter to bring in the beer and lo and behold! I looked at the bottle and it was Murree Beer!

It was a pleasant little surreal moment discovering Pakistani beer in Paris. I at once called back the waiter and asked him what was the name of a Pakistani beer brand doing under ‘Indian Beers’ on the menu?

The middle-aged man was from Pakistan (Punjab), and he gave me a puzzled look: ‘Sorry, what did you say?’ he politely asked.

From Urdu, I switched to Punjabi: ‘Friend, this is a Pakistani beer brand …’

But before I could continue he interrupted: ‘Sir, goras (Caucasians) usually ask for Indian beer … you want an Indian brand?’

‘Absolutely not!’ I said. ‘I love Indian beer, but Murree has its moments too. Ask your bosses to put it under the heading of ‘Pakistani Beer,’ will you?’

Murree Beer is made by Murree Brewery Co., Pakistan’s oldest (and now only), tax-paying brewery. It was established in 1860 near the famous resort town of Murree in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan. In the 1920s, the brewery was moved to Rawalpindi where it still stands. In the 1960s, Murree, which until then was famous for its beers, introduced Malt Whisky, and by the early 1970s, Murree was also producing vodka and gin.

Before prohibition on the public sale of alcohol was imposed in Pakistan in April 1977, various foreign whisky and beer brands were available in bars, liquor shops and clubs in the main urban areas of the country; but Murree remained to be the leading (and most affordable) brand.

In fact its popularity (especially among young urban middle-class Pakistanis) was such that it started to advertise its beer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hoardings and billboards carrying images of Murree Beer went up, mostly in Karachi, with the biggest being a neon sign put on top of a six-storied building in Karachi’s Lucky Star area in the shopping vicinity of Saddar. This sign was also stoned and damaged by a passing procession of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami supporters during the 1970 election campaign.

In the 1970s, Murree was competing with various imported beer and whisky brands, but it continued to do well because it was mostly catering to a growing middle-class market to whom imported alcoholic brands were an expensive luxury. There were a few other local brands as well, but none of them survived the ban on alcohol that was, ironically, imposed by the secular government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in April 1977.

Though voted into power through a free and fair general elections in 1970, by 1977 Bhutto was facing a full-fledged protest movement led by a coalition (PNA) of anti-PPP parties. The leading PNA parties were all conservative politico-religious groups – (i.e Jamat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema Islam and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan) – all of whom had taken to the streets after accusing the Bhutto regime of rigging the 1977 elections.

PNA protests were mostly driven by right-wing students, small traders and shopkeepers, supported by industrialists many of whom had been bitten by the Bhutto regime’s ‘socialist’ policies between 1971 and 1974. The bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois youth who had overwhelmingly supported the PPP’s socialist promises in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had now turned rightwards, looking for ‘Islamic laws’ (Shariah), which the anti-Bhutto alliance promised to implement.

In the many anti-Bhutto rallies in Karachi and Lahore, protesters also attacked bars, nightclubs, wine shops and cinemas, denouncing them as symbols of the ‘unIslamic Bhutto regime.’

PNA leadership maintained that not only had the Bhutto regime’s socialism undermined Islamic culture and law, it had also failed to offer equality and relief to the poor. The PNA leaders insisted that only Shariah could guarantee justice and economic wellbeing to the poor – even though, ironically, the PNA alliance and movement was being financed by a number of anti-Bhutto industrialists and, as some political commentators claimed, by theJimmy Carter government in Washington with which Bhutto had had a falling out over Pakistan’s then nascent nuclear ambitions.

Fearing a toppling and, more so, a military coup by the Army, Bhutto decided to hold talks with PNA leaders and if need be, hold fresh elections. For this he also agreed to close down the nightclubs, bars and wine shops, outlaw gambling, and declare the Muslim holy day of Friday as a weekly holiday instead of Sunday.

But just as a compromise between Bhutto and PNA was in sight, Bhutto’s own hand-picked General, Muhamad Ziaul Haq, toppled the regime in a military coup and imposed Martial Law on 5th July, 1977.

An admirer of conservative Islamic scholar and Jamat-i-Islami chief, Maoulana Abul Ala Moududdi, Zia declared that it would be he who will give Pakistan a Nizam-e-Mustapha.

Zia used ‘Islamization’ as a political process. His puritanical and at the same time Machiavellian interpretation of Islam had contributed considerably to the rise of fundamentalism, obscurantism and retrogression.

Obviously, the ban on alcohol stayed put but Zia added severe punishments (for Muslims) on selling and consuming alcohol. The non-Muslim Pakistanis now required a license to buy alcohol, which nonetheless was allowed to be sold (only to non-Muslims) in ‘licensed wine shops’ mainly in Karachi, the interior of Sindh and Islamabad.

Apart from the fact that more than 90 per cent of the customers of these ‘legal wine shops’ were Muslims, the 1980s and 1990s also saw a dramatic rise in cases of heroin and tranquilizer addiction. What’s more, though quality Murree brands are available in these shops, their prices have risen, leaving many lower-middle and ‘underclass’ Pakistanis consuming inferior and dangerous ‘home made’ alcoholic beverages sold by shady bootlegging mafias operating in improvished areas of urban Pakistan.

Also, ever since the ban on alcohol, liquor smugglers and dealers have been turning a profit with contraband alcohol. Trucks bring vodka in from China across the mountains along the country’s northern border, while ships unload cargos of beer and Scotch whiskey from Europe on its southern coast.

Though the disruptive growth of heroin and bootlegging mafias has been a natural consequence of the long ban, the irony is, ever since the 1980s, the number of chronic alcoholics in Pakistan has almost quadrupled.

On the other hand, though there were no heroin addicts in Pakistan until the late 1970s (the first registered case was reported in 1979), by 1985 Pakistan had the second largest population of heroin addicts.

Also, today there are more alcoholics in Pakistan than ever before – an emergence that has triggered the opening of various privately run alcohol detox centers in the country’s main cities.

Murree Brewery is one of the biggest tax-paying companies in Pakistan. Ever since 1977, it has survived the various waves of imposed piety and convoluted expresssions of state-sanctioned ‘Islam’, which, on most occasions, has only managed to spell political, cultural and even spiritual disaster in Pakistan.

Most Pakistanis usually remain silent on the issue of the ban on alcohol and the mostly negative affects that this ban has had on a society in which the consumption of alcohol (among large sections across all classes in both urban and rural areas) remains to be a common occurrence and habit.

Of course, the conservative elements simply refuse to look for a more moderate solution, whereas others have suggested that the lifting of the ban will not only gradually rid the country of bootleggiong and heroin mafias, the rate of alcoholism and the deaths and disease caused by inferior quality liquor in the large shanty towns of the country will come down as well.

The truth is, if the risk of being lashed, getting arrested or harassed by the police didn’t stop so many Pakistanis from getting a drink during the oppressive Zia years, why would they stop now? There will always be a lot of Pakistanis who will continue to drink and this should be left as a matter between them and God. The state or any self-claimed imposer of ‘God’s writ on Earth’ should remain away from an issue that has only been complicated and disruptively manhandled in the name of both law and faith.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and