Finding Valium, Viagra and DVDs for Less Than $5

Pakistan suffers from terrorism and political instability and is on the verge of economic meltdown. The United States and most Western countries advise against unessential travel here.

But even burdened by the fear of suicide attacks, Islamabad is full of people trying to live normal lives -- and people looking for great bargains to fight against a global economic crisis that has helped push inflation to an all-time high.

Expatriates and locals look no further for cheap entertainment than Illusions, a four-branch chain that puts Hollywood movies on its shelves virtually simultaneously to their release date in the United States and sells them for a fraction of what they go for in the West.

It is nestled in Islamabad's Jinnah Supermarket, one of the more elite places to shop. Across the street, an Italian restaurant offers substandard food, six months after being bombed for serving alcohol to Westerners.

Next to Illusions, Western-style clothes are sold in shops named GQ, as colorful jewelry is hawked for a few dollars. Inside, the inventory is always appealing and immense, aisles filled with the best movies in the world for as little as a buck and a quarter.

"Iron Man"? $2. "The Dark Knight"? $2. "Giant," starring James Dean? $1.25. The entire fifth season of "The Wire"? $5.

Now, this being South Asia, you can be sure these aren't officially licensed copies of big-budget blockbusters. This is a shop that thrives off intellectual property theft, in a country and a part of the world so used to knock-off movies that locals consider buying original DVDs strange -- if it's even possible.

The movies are, more often than not, high quality copies of prints stolen from the studios. Occasionally, you'll find a dud, a copy made by someone sneaking a camera into a theater somewhere far away from Pakistan. (The store provides no warranties, so if you see flying popcorn in front of Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight," you're out of luck.)

"We have the largest selection in Islamabad," said Omar Sheikh, looking over racks full of DVDs from behind the front counter. He sits in front of original 120-gigabyte iPods ($315) and Playstation 3s ($480). But it is the endless supply of copied movies and CDs on which the store thrives. You can even buy kids DVDs for a little more than $1.

Even cheaper than DVDs is medicine. You can find any drug in the world here for less money than you thought possible.

Need 30 tablets of 2-milligram Valium -- in the box stamped by Roche, the drug manufacturer? Ten cents. For all 30 tablets.

Pills of 100-milligram Viagra? Those will run you $4.50, still much less than they cost to ship illegally from a Canadian pharmacy into the United States.

Not far away, a young man with a perfect coif, the Reebok belt and Armani belt buckle applies face cleanser onto his customer's tan cheeks. Muhammad Qamar Abbas helps run the "New" Hollywood Salon in Islamabad's Rana Market.

"We take extra care of cleanliness," he said. "We do the same thing as all the other barber shops, but in a better way."

The shop is decorated with the kind of wood-mirror combination one might remember from a childhood 1973 Los Angeles home. But the prices are probably even cheaper than they were in California.

Haircut: about $1.75. Shave: $1. Face message: $2. Throw in a facial, hair "sticking," hair "glossing" and head message, and you might owe $20.

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