How many districts are there in Rawalpindi - Dialogue with the Islamic World

About 96 percent of Pakistan's residents are Muslim, most of them with a deep internal relationship with their religion. One might think that this is not a predestined terrain for a company that brews beer and distills schnapps. But the story of the Murree Brewery, which today has its headquarters and facilities in Rawalpindi near the capital Islamabad, begins as early as 1860, when the whole region was known as British India and the country called Pakistan was still in the distant future.

Since Her Majesty's troops were already thirsty back then and it would have been too expensive to transport beer and schnapps from the Kingdom to British India, the soldiers simply had a brewery themselves in what was then the Murree hill station, now a tranquil resort near Islamabad opened. With the departure of the British and Pakistan's independence in 1948, this became an independent company.

Historic brewery on fire

At that time, the company had already expanded to other cities in the country, and the products were well received. In the chaos of the division of the subcontinent, in which up to a million people were killed, the historic brewery in Murree also fell victim to the flames; the plant in Rawalpindi is now the company's only location.

"We are extremely proud of our history and our products," says the company's managing director, Isphanyar M. Bhandara. The 47-year-old sits in the office of the brewery in Rawalpindi on a Saturday during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

The visit on this day is twice as extraordinary for Pakistan. Normally in the holy month of Ramadan, most companies shut down or at least only work to a limited extent during the day. In addition, almost all companies in Pakistan only have a five-day working week. In the Murree Brewery, on the other hand, work is also carried out during the month of fasting, six days a week.

On a tour of the extensive grounds of the facility, you can see modern bottling plants, modern brewing kettles, water filtration systems from Germany, laboratories for constant control of drinks and ingredients and perhaps the best-kept cellar in the country where the whiskey is stored. Around one million liters are constantly kept in stock, the oldest barrel dates back to 2003.

Bhandara's company has learned to adapt throughout the country's checkered history. When the country was founded in 1948, it was still a secular republic, it was only named "Islamic Republic" in 1956, and in 1977 Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto passed a law as a gift to the Islamic parties, which forever changes the identity of the brewery has changed.

A lucrative business

Bhandara proudly declares: "Until then, all Pakistani citizens could legally buy and drink our alcoholic beverages, even if it was incompatible with the commandments of Islam. However, the law stipulated that all Muslims, including foreigners, would not be allowed to drink alcohol in Pakistan We had to adapt and have diversified. Since then we have also been producing sodas, water, non-alcoholic beer and even jams. We had big problems at first to make up for the loss of sales, but today we are making money with these Products most. "

Bhandara belongs to the Parish minority in the country. Non-Muslims like the Parsees, Christians or Hindus are the only ones who are legally allowed to purchase alcohol in Pakistan. Together, these minorities do not make up five percent of the population. That means less than nine million potential customers for his company's alcoholic products.

The army is involved

Due to the privileged status and the good contacts of his family, Bhandara held the seat reserved for the Parsees in the Pakistani parliament from 2013 to 2018. The military is the most influential power in the country - and that benefits the brewery.

The army has no interest in losing sales and customers or even being closed, as many conservative Muslims demand: The military still holds a large financial stake in the company and makes good profits from the company's profits. For many years the brewery was even one of the fastest growing Pakistani companies; today it employs over 200 people at its headquarters in Rawalpindi alone.

"My employees roughly reflect society in this country, most of them are Muslims, as are my customers," says Bhandara while talking to his assistant and advisor, Sabih ul-Rehman, in the office. The former major in the Pakistani Armed Forces has worked for the company for many years and is responsible for visiting delegations from foreign embassies or corporate partners.

Ul-Rehman's services are in demand - because the brewery is located in a high-security area secured by the army with checkpoints, which is not accessible to the public. The reason for the exorbitant security precautions, however, is less the alcohol production than the fact that the chief of staff of the Pakistani army - after the president and the prime minister, probably the most powerful person in the state - has his place of residence and work exactly opposite the brewery. The company's proximity to the army cannot be overlooked in the literal sense of the word.

Passing the law

But how do you, as a national or foreigner, actually get hold of the brewery's alcoholic products? Since the ban in 1977 there has only been a very manageable number of hotels, restaurants and distribution channels where alcohol can be served and sold. If you add up all licensees throughout the country, you get a number well under 50. Karachi, for example, a city with almost 20 million inhabitants, has three to five alcohol shops, three hotels and only one restaurant where alcohol is served.

Officially, every licensee in Pakistan has to check whether the person is authorized to buy and consume alcohol. To do this, customers must obtain permission from the Ministry of the Interior. At least as a foreigner, however, you will not be asked for papers in the only restaurant in Karachi with a license - a Chinese one - or in the hotels or liquor stores.

The shop, where high-proof is sold, cannot be recognized as such from the outside, only the numerous small motorbikes parked in front of the door are noticeable. This leads into a small room with a barred counter, which is very crowded - around fifteen customers give the employees money while they wrap liquor bottles in Chinese newspapers and then in plastic bags.

The goods are sold quickly and discreetly, most customers are out of the store after 30 seconds, and nobody is asked for papers. When asked, the owner, a Hindu, confirms: "Of course most of my customers are Muslims, actually all of them. That's just the way it is in Pakistan. The brewery supplies us, and in the end everyone is happy with the sales."

Isphanyar M. Bhandara can easily live with the fact that alcohol is illegally distributed all over Pakistan. "All of our buyers are licensed and government-accredited to distribute alcohol," he says. "How they sell the alcohol and whether they really ask every customer for papers is their responsibility and not ours. We don't sell to end customers."

Philipp Breu

© 2019