It’s 9 pm, and I’ve just abandoned a table of friends and my entrée at a Thai restaurant. I’m standing on the pavement, frantically pressing redial, staying close enough to the sleepy security guard to deter would-be cell phone muggers. My call finally goes through. “Five minutes,” says the man on the other end, and hangs up.
Five minutes turn to ten, and fifteen minutes later, I’m still there. People on the street are staring. I’m aware I look a bit odd, standing in six-inch heels and holding a cloth bag.
The phone rings. “I’m here.”
A white car comes to a screeching stop in front of the restaurant. My heart fills with relief. My dinner may have gone cold—but at least this won’t be a dry evening. My bootlegger, a bulky, gruff-voiced man in his mid-40s—Bilal (not his real name) has made it.
My bootlegger and I have a routine, fine-tuned through trial and error. I hand him the bag. He takes bottles from the footrest and stuffs them into it. I give him the cash and ask him if the city is calm tonight. He makes a retort about my tendency to ask too many questions. The transaction done, Bilal speeds off. I return, victorious, to my friends in the restaurant.
What Bilal does is illegal on several levels.
I don’t know Bilal’s last name, yet he’s the person I have called in sickness and in health, who I’ve stuck with for better and for worse: my birthday, house parties, bad days at work, the day I quit my job. We commiserate when the government closes down cell phone services and Bilal can’t get any business, and he judges me for my taste in restaurants. “Is this where you’re having dinner?” was his disdainful response at my choice of restaurant – a mid-range eatery that’s far from being hip or cool—when I asked him to slash prices since it was my birthday.
What Bilal does is illegal on several levels: According to Pakistani law, he isn’t allowed to sell alcohol. And he definitely isn’t allowed to sell it to Muslims, who are barred from consuming or buying it. Foreign correspondents in Pakistan have consistently reminded us in clichéd dispatches – ‘ale under the veil’, anyone?— that despite being taboo, banned and haram, Pakistanis still like to drink (as if bootlegging doesn’t exist elsewhere or it’s surprising that we could have the urge to consume alcohol).
This makes Bilal one of the busiest men in Karachi. He races through residential neighborhoods in a beat-up car or a brand new Corolla (depending on which day you meet him) to answer the frantic calls of his customers.
But getting Bilal to pick up the phone isn’t easy. In a market dictated by demand, the supplier is king. An introduction to him requires a referral call, made within five minutes before you call, stumbling on your words, hurriedly reminding Bilal of the referral, before he brusquely asks: “what do you want?” His customers are mostly in their 20s: young professionals who can’t afford the high-end bootleggers. The high-end types make home deliveries and only sell alcohol by the case. They would turn their noses up at a bottle of mid-market booze like Absolut, and can be as snobby as their high-end clients, who include the city’s diplomats, CEOs and socialites.
Bilal’s clients, however, will drink whatever he sells – and his inventory is ridiculously small. “White & McKay, Smirnoff, Catoos…” is his depressingly familiar refrain. “Is there any wine?” “Yes, red or white.” Bilal isn’t much of a salesman for established brand names: “It’s good, just pick one,” is his usual response when questioned on the merits. We’re never spoilt for choice with Bilal, and perhaps he makes our lives easier. When I travel abroad, I find myself staring at a bar menu for hours, finding the process of ordering – and not picking from Bilal’s five-name list – incredibly frustrating. How can there be 20 kinds of wine? What’s the difference between a 10-year whiskey and a 15-year one? And what in the name of God is dark ale?
And so when Bilal puts on the hard sell, it’s usually a warning, because whatever he’s going to tout will be a nameless, faceless alcohol (or in one case, a brand whose only claim to fame was a Facebook page with six likes).
“There’s no Absolut or Smirnoff because of the shortage,” Bilal said one evening. “I have Jasmine vodka.”
“It’s very good.”
“I don’t think so, I’ve never even heard of that.”
“Really, well the entire neighborhood is drinking it!” Bilal snapped.
“Whatever, Bilal. Just give me something that I recognize, I don’t care how much it is.”
The next step is a test akin to a bizarre blind date.
Once you’ve made contact, the next step is a test akin to a bizarre blind date. He calls you to a dark alley – his ability to scout out dark alleys even in the busiest of neighborhoods is unsurpassed – and you wait for him to emerge out of the shadows. His standing instructions are that you tell him the make of your car and bring a large bag. He arrives, knocks on the window, and hands you the bottles in exchange for cash.
It seems remarkably simple. But Bilal has his ways of ensuring he – and the customer – don’t get caught. If he spots someone on the street, he’ll sidle into your car. If there are too many people around, he won’t emerge until the streets have cleared up. And if it’s a busy night and Bilal is impatient, he’s a master at camouflage.
“Where are the bottles,” I thought to myself one night as Bilal—a fairly bulky, heavyset man—sauntered down the street. He sat in the car, said hello, and then lifted up his shirt to reveal four bottles of wine and whiskey tucked into his baggy pants. Who needs a bag anyway?
I take the empty bottles home after dinner, where they’ll sit in ‘the cupboard of shame’
I’ve paid for my alcohol and dinner, but I can’t shake the feeling of guilt. The restaurant is among the few in Karachi that doesn’t object to diners consuming alcohol, but the server isn’t entirely comfortable bringing it to the table. That is, even though you brought the bottle in, it’s still their role to serve it to you. And yet, they’re still nervous. One palms the job off to another. The bottles arrive swaddled in napkins—once, during the Ramadan month of fasting, a maître d’ asked me to ensure they remained covered since it would offend other diners—and often remain under the table. Other diners look away as the conversation at our table—fueled by the food and hard liquor—gets louder and more animated. I do a quick sweep of the restaurant. “I have to change seats,” I tell a friend. “I think my cousin’s neighbor’s daughter is at the table diagonally opposite to us.” If she ends up telling my cousin—or her mother—I will never hear the end of it. My friends are equally wary, trying to figure out if the person eying our table is a father’s business acquaintance, or just someone who is curious.
The only ones who seem truly comfortable in this world of suspicion are Bilal and his relatives. Over the years that we’ve known each other, Bilal has rarely driven up to our rendezvous spot alone. If there isn’t another middle-aged man in the car, Bilal is either accompanied by a young boy or girl—either quite evidently his children—or his wife. Sometimes one of the kids will reach down under their seat to retrieve the bottles of alcohol. I am filled with shame. This isn’t any way for a kid to spend a weekend. “Get over it,” a friend says. “Look at the amount of money he charges us—his kids probably do far better than any of us.” A bottle of wine or whiskey costs anywhere from $25 to $30.
The complications of drinking don’t just end with the last drop. I take the empty bottles home after dinner, where they’ll sit at the back of my closet. It’s what a friend calls ‘the cupboard of shame’—since we don’t dispose of bottles with the daily trash, lest the neighbors find out. Eventually, I’ll collect all the bottles from their hiding places and take them to a dumpster far away to dispose off in the middle of the night.
Like in any relationship, Bilal and I rely on emotional blackmail.
As Bilal continues to find more dark alleys and rendezvous points, our dealings have evolved. I used to have to re-explain my entire connection to him before I would meekly place my order, now I get a request every other week from someone to refer them to Bilal. I’ve started to screen people, fearful that a bad customer will ruin my own relationship with him.
And like in any relationship, Bilal and I rely on emotional blackmail, cajoling and the demands of our schedules. “How will I survive the holidays?” I pleaded to Bilal before a long weekend to get him to make a rare home delivery. “I can’t lower the prices; this is how much it’s costing me!” Bilal says in response to my haggling. Sometimes Bilal will refuse to take my order, and I don’t call him for weeks after. Each time I hope that this is a clean break. I tell myself that the liquor Bilal sells is terribly inferior and I can live without it. There are other options. I can buy locally brewed beer from the licensed stores: technically they’re only supposed to sell to non-Muslims, but the shopkeepers have never asked me to prove my faith (or lack of it). Local beer is cheap, delicious and incredibly refreshing given that Karachi’s weather vacillates between hot and extremely hot for ten months a year. Going to the liquor store isn’t stressful, and I’m never scared of being caught out: No one in my family deigns to drink locally produced alcohol. But then I find myself at a dinner table again, with none of my friends willing to call Bilal, and I prepare to grovel. In a city where I’ve befriended and fallen out with more people than I can count, Bilal is the only man I can rely on.