Moonshine flourishes in unlikely areas of Pakistan


A Pakistani official uses a steamroller to crush bottles of liquor in Karachi on June 26, 2012. The Muslim-majority population has been banned from drinking alcohol for 35 years. (Aseif Hassan/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
September 7, 2012

There is just one legal brewery in all of Pakistan, where the Muslim-majority population has been prohibited from drinking alcohol for 35 years. Yet the alcohol business is thriving in unlikely places, including Peshawar, the religiously conservative metropolis that abuts Pakistan’s tribal frontier.

After a lull caused by a militant crackdown, hundreds of small distilleries are active again in Peshawar and across the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. None is legal. They make a potent form of moonshine that can sicken, blind or even kill those brave enough to partake.

Islamist militant groups put the moonshiners out of business a couple of years ago by threatening those who made, sold or consumed the locally popular liquor called “tarra,” which is distilled from sugar cane and flavored with fruits and syrups.

But recently, those groups have lost influence in the region, bootleggers say, leaving an opening field for the contraband entrepreneurs. And since the hard-liners have stopped enforcing prohibition, more people are imbibing. Illegally run distilleries and bars are commonplace in and around Peshawar and in Khyber Agency, a tribal area within walking distance of the city. Distilleries set up in the tribal districts sell the liquor to locals and also smuggle their product to the rest of the country, those in the business say.

Abid Ali, who asked that his home town not be identified, has drunk alcohol for a decade — preferring imported varieties for his get-togethers but relying on the local blends when shortages exist.

“Some locally influential people have their own distilleries in their own areas, but not for commercial use, only for themselves or their friends,” the 32-year old said. “The business is flourishing as some top officials and government functionaries are patronizing it.”

Tarra is sold in white plastic shopping bags of one to five liters at 200 to 300 Pakistani rupees (a little more than $2 or $3), but new customers are charged a steep premium, said Azeem Khan, who works in a private distillery in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Khan said many people have died after drinking substandard liquor, as most producers of the illegal beverage do not follow any sort of formula. Only a few distilleries — some in business for 30 years — have any standards to ensure the quality of their product, he said. Pakistani moonshine is up to 99 percent alcohol, Khan added. At 198 proof, it packs a punch greater that the strongest grain alcohol, which at 190 proof is banned in several U.S. states.

Last October, 13 people in Pakistan died after drinking home-brewed liquor. The next month, at least 13 wedding attendees died from the effects of toxic alcohol. Later that same year, two journalists and a newspaper marketing staffer in Karachi died, while two others suffered severe vision loss after unknowingly drinking what they said was regular liquor adulterated with moonshine.

Christians, Hindus and other minorities can drink legally as long as they have a government-issued license. To serve that market, Pakistani authorities allow beer, whiskey and other spirits to be produced at Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi, just outside the capital, Islamabad.

One Christian from Nowshera, a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has found a way to turn a profit from this loophole in the anti-drinking laws. “I collect permits from other people in the community and buy bottles of liquor in bulk from certain hotels in Islamabad and then I use it for myself and also sell it,” he said. “We have the permits, but we are not allowed to sell to Muslims.” He insisted he not be identified because his work is illegal.

Israr Madani, a cleric in Madrassa Haqqania, a religious school in Nowshera, blames lax enforcement for the growing scourge of what he considers a sinful product.

“The law enforcement agencies, army, police and judiciary, have the responsibility to take action against this illegal business,” he said. “If the religious people take any action, then it will be seen as Talibanization and could cause unrest in the country. The government should take action. The increase in the liquor business shows the government is weak on law and order.”

Khan reported from Peshawar.

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