If you’re reading this on a Monday feeling a bit hung over, you’re had to work hard to get to that state in many of the countries featured in The Wet and the Dry, by Lawrence Osborne.
Subtitled “A Drinker’s Journey,” this is only sometimes a tale of debauchery and public embarrassment (like a chapter involving incessant skirt-chasing and swimming in a Dubai hotel pool while wearing a suit.) More often it’s a deeper look at how attitudes about drinking alcohol have hardened in the Islamic world as the centuries have gone on, yet how you can still manage to rustle up a drink in even the staunchest places if you can get invited to the right people’s homes or can find the hidden bars.
Lawrence Osborne is a serious lifelong drinker and doesn’t shy away from the problems this has caused at times in the past and what the barrage of alcohol could be doing to his body. At the same time, he revels in the joys of alcohol and points out why it’s so popular in places where people are free to imbibe. It’s both a relaxant and a social lubricant, with countless relationships formed and deals struck over drinks. As many travelers have noticed, when you remove sex and alcohol from what a population is able to enjoy, you end up with a very uptight society that can turn violent in a heartbeat.
The Wet and The Dry is more a collection of articles than a cohesive book-length narrative as many of the stories appeared in magazines first as self-contained stories. The side trips to Scotland and memory lane New York don’t seem to fit the overall theme as well. The chapters hit a wide range of places though and bring in interesting characters with a business on the precipice: a former revolutionary in Lebanon who doesn’t drink, but cranks out much of the country’s wine and arak. There’s another winemaker whose production facilities are in the middle of a strict Shia neighborhood. And the only one in Egypt using domestic grapes mourns he can’t last long if the Muslim Brotherhood stays in power. (Crisis temporarily avoided it looks like on that count.)
We see life from the inside of bars—lots of bars—in Istanbul and Cairo, Dubai and Thai border towns with Malaysia. We venture down alleys in Beirut, into a shop lined with sandbags inside a hotel in Islamabad, and search in vain for a beer in Solo, Indonesia, a bottle of champagne for New Year’s Eve in Oman. We don’t meet other barflies though: Osborne is a strong believer in the kind of bar where one can drink alone in peace, without loud music or a TV creating noise.
How he manages to afford all the bar tabs on a freelance writer’s salary was the mystery that kept entering my mind, starting from the 40 euro gin & tonics in one particular spot in Milan in Chapter 1. He appreciates the good stuff, which has to get costly when enjoyed in these quantities, at a nice bar, on a regular basis.
But we are left to wonder, just as we are left to wonder if Cairo and Istanbul will keep becoming tougher and tougher places to drink, if Dubai will still manage to be the epitome of showy wealth by going the opposite direction. We’ll wonder weather Pakistan, where Muslims can be locked up for sipping a beer, will continue to have the world’s worst heroin addiction problem instead.
And the big question: will alcohol will ever be accepted as just a chemical process of fermentation, something that can enhance a meal? Or will the Muslims continue to see it as a symbol of the amoral, sinful, too-much-fun demonic “west?” Osborne reminds us that alcohol is only mentioned in the Koran three times, without much clarity, and that one of the Ottoman sultans was a raging alcoholic that died in his 20s because of it.
[Cairo bar Flickr photo by monkeysort]