ISLAMABAD >> When a friend told Hussain Liaquat that police officers in the Pakistani capital might be checking cars for anything red or heart-shaped the night before Valentine’s Day, he decided to get creative.
Liaquat, 22, went to the giant Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad and found a poster from “House of Cards,” his girlfriend’s favorite television show. Then he went in search of the perfect romance novel.
“I decided not to buy her balloons and chocolates, to avoid police confiscating them,” the mathematics student said, leafing through a copy of Erich Segal’s “Love Story.”
“Someone told me this is like the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the 20th century,” he said. “I think I’ll get it.”
Like many other couples in this city of 2 million, Liaquat and his girlfriend celebrated Valentine’s Day below the radar. Last year, the Islamabad High Court banned Valentine’s celebrations across Pakistan, deeming them “against the teachings of Islam” and a sign of growing Western influence.
So, for the second year in a row, red “I Love You” balloons and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates were essentially contraband. Police officers in Islamabad searched through streets and shops in recent days looking for Valentine’s Day sales. A concert by Atif Aslam, a popular heartthrob singer, that had been scheduled for Wednesday was postponed.
Some restaurant managers reported receiving calls from unknown numbers asking whether boys and girls had exchanged gifts on their premises, and whether they knew of other establishments that might be observing the holiday. A number of florists and gift shops in Islamabad complained that they had lost significant business as customers stayed away.
But there were also many in Islamabad who didn’t mind taking a risk for love — or to make some money — in defiance of the ban.
In the affluent neighborhood F-7, where Obaid Malik, a young businessman, was parked outside a strip of flower shops, sellers elbowed one another to show him the long-stemmed roses he had asked for. Before the ban, the street had typically been jammed the night before Valentine’s Day, but now the shops stood quiet and sellers seemed more desperate than usual to make a sale.
“What does Valentine’s Day have to do with the government? Why are they bothering people?” Malik said as the florists showed him different types of roses. Three defiantly red helium balloons hovered in the back of his car.
“Three balloons because, you know, ‘I love you’ is three words,” he said.
Malik said that he would not take his wife out for Valentine’s Day lunch or dinner this year, but that he planned to surprise her by cooking her breakfast.
“People are still going to go out and do their thing and have fun — maybe just in different ways,” he said. “You can’t ban love.”
Another customer, Shakeel Khan, a banker who was buying white lilies for his mother, said he had taken his fiancée out for a Valentine’s Day dinner over the weekend.
“I had heard of the ban and didn’t know what to expect, so we thought, let’s just get it out of the way,” Khan said. He stood in front of a flower shop filled with white roses, multicolor gladioli and purple chrysanthemums — but there wasn’t a red rose in sight.
The shop’s owner, Muhammad Imran, said the police had warned him not to sell red flowers on Valentine’s Day. So the red roses, he said, were hidden in the back of the shop, where he would lead loyal customers who asked for them.
“My workers have also been calling customers to let them know that home delivery is available this year for the first time,” Imran said, asking that the location of his shop not be disclosed. “Delivery is just safer,” he said with a shrug.
At the Baramda cafe, the manager, Tariq Sohail, glanced at a table on the pavement outside, where a young man and a woman sat smoking and laughing.
“You can ban a day, but you can’t stop people from being together or from falling in love,” he said, breaking into a laugh.
Some restaurants decided online promotions would be safest. “We’ve got a 15 percent discount today, but we only advertised it on Facebook and Instagram,” said a waiter at Nocciola Chocolaterie.
Similarly, a few customers said they had opted for “virtual dates” to avoid possible harassment by the authorities at restaurants.
“My girlfriend can’t get out tonight, so I’ll be Skyping with her,” a university student said over coffee at the upscale Kohsar Market. His friend, a curly-haired young woman, suggested changing Valentine’s Day to Friend’s Day.
“That might work better in Pakistan,” she said. A third friend, wearing a bright red hoodie, disagreed: “No. We need a Valentine’s Day revolution here. That’s what we need.”
In another part of town, police officers shooed away a man who had set up a stall to sell single roses. “We are just doing our job,” one said when asked why they had intervened.
Balloon sellers were also on the lookout for the police. Most had chosen not to sell heart-shaped or red balloons, instead opting for stars, circles and bird- and animal-shaped ones.
But one vendor, Muhammad Akhar, was boldly selling red balloons that read “You Are Mine.”
“If the people who are coming to buy them are not scared,” he said, “then why should I be?”
He was not the only balloon seller taking a stand. Next to a boy offering giant, animal-shaped balloons, another young vendor held some small heart-shaped ones, red and white.
“I didn’t blow them up to their full size,” said the boy, Sarfaraz Ali, looking over his shoulder with an impish smile. “I’ll do it for you if you want one.”
But when he spotted a couple of police officers approaching, he started to back away.
“Madam, please wait for me here,” he said as he bolted, the tiny hearts trailing behind him. “Don’t go away, I’ll be right back!”