In Search of a Bar in Islamabad

While traveling on assignment to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, Lawrence Osborne seeks out one of the city's more risky evening activities—drinking—and discovers that in this religious and dangerous city of one million inhabitants, the number of bars can be counted on one hand.

islamabad smoking illustration lawrence osborne peregine honig

I originally went to Pakistan on behalf of Playboy, with a brief to write something about the Murree brewery and distillery in Rawalpindi. Of course, I told my hosts that I was the emissary of an American ladies’ magazine, which they accepted graciously and no questions were asked. In the end, I found myself enjoyably alone in the capital, extending my stay day by day because I didn’t want to leave as ardently as I had expected to. Fear itself was not enough to make me run. It was a city I ended up rather liking—especially on those hot, dry days when I could venture into the countryside around it. Though in hindsight this was not the wisest way to go.

With the rise of Islamic militancy, bars are obvious targets across the Muslim world, and for years, with grim fascination, I have been following the mass murder of humble tipplers in suicide attacks from Bali to Islamabad itself. When the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital was destroyed by a suicide truck bomber on September 20, 2008, fifty-four people were killed and 266 were seriously injured. No one doubted that the Marriott’s famous bar and its long-standing association with alcohol were one reason it was hit so viciously. In 2007 another suicide bomber had killed himself in a botched attack on the same hotel.

There is therefore an undeniable thrill about getting liquored up in Islamabad. The possibility is very real that as you sit discreetly sipping your Bulgarian merlot from a plastic bag, you will be instantly decapitated by a nail bomb. You might even be shot in the head for the simple crime of drinking. Your chances of dying in this way are not astronomically high. But nor are they astronomically low.

The girls in saris brought us our haandi curries with exquisitely tense expressions, and I asked Mr. A if I could suggest—it was just an idea, I’d heard it could be arranged—a glass of wine.

His eyes opened wide. “Glass of wine, na?”

I also whispered: “They can do it sometimes, no?”

“They can?”

He beckoned over a waitress and spoke with her in Urdu.

“Wine?” she said to me in English.

“Just a glass.”

The businessman began to squirm a little.

The waitress, too, leaned in to whisper: “We cannot. Not even in a plastic bag. How about a fresh strawberry juice?”

“Watermelon, too, na,” the businessman suggested hopefully.

“They call it natural Viagra.”

“All right.” I sighed. “I’ll take a fresh strawberry juice. On the rocks.”

The waitress whispered even lower: “Sir, there is a bar downstairs. You can go after dinner.”

“Bar?” the businessman hissed.

“Yes, sir. There is a bar. In the basement.”

When she had gone, my friend frowned.

“It may be true. But it may not be true. I cannot come with you either way. They will never allow a Muslim in. I would be arrested.”

I asked him what the punishment would be if he were caught sipping a Guinness with me in the Serena bar.

“It depends, na,” he said glumly. “It could be prison.”

“Prison?”

“Prison, sah, or a good thrashing.”

Islamabad is the capital of a nation of 160 million people and is itself a city of about a million. And yet, my companion assured me, the number of places where you could get a drink could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. There were three open bars in the entire city, and only about sixty outlets for alcohol in the entire country. In the capital, aside from the secret basement bar of the Serena, there was a bar called Rumors in the Marriott Hotel. And there was reputedly a bar in the Best Western, though he had never been there. Outside the city, there was a luxury hotel in the hill station town of Murree called the Pearl Continental, where—again, according to rumor—there was a bar that enjoyed views of the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir. He had heard of a friend of his enjoying a gin and tonic there, once upon a time. There had also been a bar, he added, in Islamabad’s alter-ego twin city, Rawalpindi, in a hotel gloriously named the Flashman. But the minister of tourism had vindictively closed it down.

The noose was tightening around the city’s bar culture. There were bars of sorts inside some of the foreign embassies, but they were accessible only to the diplomatic corps. There was a UN Club, with access similarly restricted, and there was an Italian restaurant called Luna Caprese, popular with Westerners, where, as dark gossip had it, they would bring you a glass of wine from a bottle hidden inside a plastic bag. They wouldn’t show you the label, but they would pour you a glass, and you would pay for it separately so that it didn’t show up on the restaurant’s books.

“Is it popular?” I asked.

He looked infinitely sad. “It was—until it was bombed.”

After dinner my friend made a rather desperate gesture with his hand and walked off, wishing me a “pleasant drink.”

I doubled back through the echoing arcades to a grand staircase near the Dawat that plunged down into an altogether different part of the hotel. There was not a soul there. I went down, slipping on the polished marble, and as I came into the immense underground gallery, a rather magnificent figure suddenly appeared, a bellboy of sorts done up in a beautiful white uniform with gloves and a turban.

“Where,” I whispered, “is the bar?”

“Bar, sir? Bar is here.”

And he executed a magnificent and regal flourish, indicating a pair of doors around the corner. I thanked him, and he bowed, moving with glacial elegance up the staircase. I looked around to make sure I was alone, a pervert approaching his darkest desire, and moved quickly up to the unmarked doors. I pushed the doors, and they merely rattled: the handles were tied together with a padlock. I shook them, but they didn’t yield. It was not even nine p.m., and I realized that it  as going to be a long night of strawberry juices.

A portion of this article was reprinted with permission from The Wet and the Dry, by Lawrence Osborne, copyright 2013. Published by Crown, a division of Random House LLC.

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A celebrated novelist and journalist, Lawrence Osborne is the author of six travel narratives and a recent novel, The Forgiven. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, the New Yorker, Forbes, Harper's, and several other publications. He lives in New York City and Bangkok.

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