Before the Lights Went Out

The 1970s witnessed the peak years of tourism in Pakistan. It would never again see the amount of tourists that thronged the streets of Karachi, Lahore and Swat from 1970 till about 1979.

Most of the tourists that arrived in Pakistan during the country’s tourism heydays were young western bohemians (Hippies). Pakistan was one of the many countries that lay on a celebrated path that was called the Hippie Trail.

The Hippie Trail route was first traded by early hippies in the late-1960s. These were young men and women who were rebelling against the “social constrains” of modern, industrialised western societies. To find “enlightenment” and “more organic cultures,” many young Europeans and Americans headed out towards India and Nepal on cheap cars, buses and trains, hitchhiking across East Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan along the way.

Though the backpacking travellers lived and travelled cheap, the Hippie Trail spawned a thriving tourist industry in the areas that the Trail ran through.

Shaping in from Greece to Turkey to Iran and Afghanistan, the Hippie Trail then curved straight down into Pakistan through the Khyber Pass from where it ended either in India or Nepal.

Of course, like Iran and Afghanistan in those years, Pakistan too was a very different country than what it became many years later.

During the peak years of the Hippie Trail days (1971-76) Pakistan was under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Alcohol was legal, bars and nightclubs did a booming business, but there was comparatively little crime. And though hashish was easily available, people still didn’t know what heroin or a Kalashnikov was.

“Men, women and children could walk the streets till late at night and no one would bother them,” a 69-year-old Babu Ali told me. He used to run a small hotel and restaurant in the Old Clifton area in Karachi in the early 1970s. “There was crime, but it was nothing compared to what we have today,” he added.

Tourism as an industry flourished, so much so that in 1972 the government created the country’s first dedicated tourism ministry and department. Of course, there was still no concept of the dreaded Pakistani fanatic in those days. From the Khyber Pass the Hippie travellers used to come down to Rawalpindi, took a train to Lahore and from Lahore entered India by another train. Many would venture down to Karachi as well.

Like other cities that were on the path of the Hippie Trail such as Athens, Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul, in Pakistan cities like Lahore, Swat and Karachi too saw the springing up of hundreds of cheap hotels, restaurants, taxi and bus services. Thousands of working-class Pakistanis were employed here.

In Karachi, most of these hotels were situated in the Saddar locality, while the famous Zainab Market, the Old Clifton area and the beaches at Hawkesbay and Sandspit are said to have been packed with Hippie Trail tourists, especially in the winter season.

A number of nightclubs operated in Karachi. The most famous among the tourists were The Excelsior in Saddar, Oasis and Playboy on Club Road, The Horse Shoe on Sharae Faisal and Cave-in on Bandar Road. Alcohol was freely available in bars at these clubs while open liquor shops sold beer, whisky, vodka and rum.

“Most beverages were made by local breweries (Murree and Lion brands),” says Haroon Raees who ran a liquor shop on main Clifton Road just opposite the Teen Talwar area in Karachi between 1969 and 1977. His shop was destroyed by Jamat-i-Islami activists in 1977. “During the opposition parties’ protest campaign against Bhutto sahib’s government (in 1976-77), hundreds of liquor shops were attacked. But most of the attackers used to come in chanting Islamic slogans, destroyed the shops but instead of breaking the alcohol bottles, looted them for their own consumption!”

He continued, “Nobody in those days had even heard of deadly drugs like heroin. But look what happened after they banned alcohol?” He asked. “People turned to deadlier substances. Heroin and kupie (inferior whisky) usage spread. Drug mafias came up, crime tripled and society crumbled.”

Apart from the bustling nightclubs, the beaches and shopping areas like Zainab Market, other favourite spots for the free-wheeling tourists were Keamari and a large hut colony of fakirs behind Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine in Clifton. It was in the 1970s that the city’s famous “crabbing” scene was first developed for tourists in Keamari.

But was the crime rate really that low in those days?

Ghazzanfar Shahid who worked as a librarian at the Soviet Embassy in Karachi says yes. “There used to be infamous ghoondas. But they were nothing compared to the hooligans of today. Young men used to get into drunken brawls and gang fights, mostly over women and politics, but guns were hardly ever used. They used fists, knifes, chains…but nobody ever knew what a TT pistol or a Kalashnikov was.”

Saran Ahmed, 47, an economist and senior manager at a foreign bank agrees, “If you go through the economic stats of the era, you will find that there was a lot less economic disparity between classes in Pakistan. The rat race to outdo one another, even if that meant committing crime to become rich, basically started in the ’80s when money from Pakistanis working in the Gulf nations started to pour in. The era saw the emergence of a growing class of the nuevo-rich, and society started to transform into something totally new. It became more hypocritical and amoral.”

Unfortunately, by 1979, the Hippie Trail years were as good as over. Pakistan started to change. A conservative military dictatorship overthrew the Bhutto government in 1977 and started laying the foundations of a more myopic, violent, and crime-ridden Pakistan. Millions of people employed by the Hippie Trail industry lost their jobs. And by the 1990s, the Hippie Trail years had become a distant memory of a completely different time and place.

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  • sumair  On December 20, 2011 at 11:49 am

    yes. i agree that if they did’nt band the liquor shops at that time so the economical condition could never falls and the tourisim increases freely in Pakistan. I just wanna say that Saudia Arab is the spinal cord of all the islamic countries they did’nt take any of this kind of idiotic step that our stupid polititions had taken in past just to save their coward ruled in Pakistan.

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