KARACHI, Pakistan — There's no shortage of alcohol in Karachi. If you're determined, well-connected, and have enough money, it's easy to get your hands on anything and everything, from 12-year-old Ballantine's to Pakistan's own Murree's Classic Lager. What is in short supply, however, is a place to drink openly.
For as long as I can remember, my family's been going to French Beach, a private stretch of sand outside Karachi where urbanites get away from the city. It's nothing fabulous as far as beaches are concerned — the sea has trash in it, the sand is coarse, and since it's still in a conservative Muslim country, I have to wear a T-shirt and board shorts before I can even think about swimming. However, it's an exclusive getaway spot, one that's increasingly become a place for young Pakistanis to pull out their liquor and relax.
Perhaps it's for this reason that the road to the beach has become littered with Sindh Rangers, a paramilitary force used for any task Karachi police are considered too incompetent to accomplish. They stand in flak jackets with their AK-47s, motioning for cars to pull over. If you're unlucky enough to be stopped, the Rangers will search every inch of your vehicle for contraband. If they find a bottle of alcohol? You're out of luck — no one I've met has managed to squeak away with a bribe. Often they're jailed or have to pay a hefty fine instead.
Recently, my father and I were pulled over by Rangers for one of these random, terror-inducing checks. We had no alcohol with us — I wouldn't dream of traveling in my father's car with contraband — but the Ranger insisted on unscrewing the cap of the two water bottles we had in the car to take giant whiffs.
I'd heard plenty of stories of people getting pulled over in Pakistan. Still, the idea that we could be pulled over without having done anything out of the ordinary was something I had a hard time understanding. I've lived most of my life in the United States, where search and seizure laws mean this kind of military-influenced moral compassing would likely not be possible.
As my father and I stood on the side of the road and the Ranger inspected my water bottle, I felt angry that I live in a place where I can't drive to the beach without a khaki-clad man with a gun sniffing my beverages.
Then the Ranger asked me how my father and I are related. My father quickly answered that I am his daughter. "I'm going to need to see some identification," the Ranger said. My father pulled out his wallet, and I began searching inside my purse. We both produced our National Identity Cards. Mine clearly states my father's name, in addition to mine. The Ranger checked to see if the names matched, then let us back in the car.
If we hadn't been related, I'm not sure what the Ranger would have done. I expect the repercussions might have ranged from taking us down to the police station and calling my parents, to giving me a fine for being a prostitute, to even locking me up for immoral behavior.
When my mother first moved to Karachi after marrying my father in the 1980s, she faced a similar situation. After taking her out for a fancy dinner, my father escorted my mother for a walk in one of the city's many public parks. While they sat on a bench, holding hands, a police officer asked my parents to produce evidence that they were in fact married. It was a story my mother often repeated when I went out on dates in the United States, reminding me that while I had the freedom to publically eat at a restaurant with another young man, I shouldn't forget where I came from.
I didn't think I had. Then that Ranger pulled me over.
Afterward, I wondered if what he had done was technically legal — and was there a law in Pakistan that said I couldn't have been in the car with someone who was simply a friend?
A lawyer friend helped me with the answer: no, there isn't. Only men and women who are physically touching in public can be stopped and asked to prove their relationship.
"By the way," my friend said. "That random spot check for alcohol is illegal as well."