Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey Paperback – July 22, 2014 by Lawrence Osborne (Broadway Books)

From youth, Lawrence Osborne has been a drinker. He came to it naturally: he was raised in England; his father was a drinker; and his Irish mother was a heavy drinker bordering on alcoholic. (He writes about how "the English relationship to drink is so deeply buried into my way of being in the world.") In THE WET AND THE DRY, Osborne draws on his extensive experience with alcohol to produce an engaging report on the world of alcohol.

Much of the book centers on Osborne's visits to various places in the Muslim world and the differing degrees of availability of alcohol in them. He visits Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat in Oman, Islamabad in Pakistan, Southern Thailand (Pattani, Narathiwat, and Sungai Kolok), Istanbul, and Cairo (the location of the Windsor, Osborne's favorite bar in the Middle East, where in 1917 Lawrence of Arabia, scandalously dressed as a Bedu, demanded a drink). There also are reports on Islay and Montero's in Brooklyn, which for over a decade was his local watering hole.

The alcoholic travelogue is interspersed with tales from history and mythology and anecdotes from Osborne's personal life. There also are commentaries on a handful of alcoholic beverages, among them arak, vodka, single-malt scotch, raki, and absinthe. Yet another aspect consists of Osborne's meditations on alcohol and its effects on the human mind and soul.

By far the book's most interesting feature is the window it provides on alcohol in the contemporary Islamic world (circa 2012). The ironies of alcohol and Islam begin with the fact that it was Arab alchemists and chemists who eight hundred years ago gave us "al-kohl". As Osborne reports, he could buy and drink alcoholic beverages everywhere he visited in the Islamic world, though in a few places only because he wasn't Muslim and in bars that had been bombed in the not-so-distant past. In some of the places he visited, most notably and hypocritically Islamabad, alcohol was readily available in private, though not in public.

A knowledgeable Pakistani with whom Osborne talked at length said: "The Muslim attitude is getting harder. Liquor, you see, is associated with a Western lifestyle, so it has become a flash point of some kind. Muslim hostility to the Western way of life finds its focus in alcohol. Hatred is directed at alcohol because it's a symbol of corruption. But at the same time the extremists tolerate beheadings, drugs, heroin, and kidnapping, and they grow poppies. It's bewildering, ah very."

For me, the book started slowly. It takes a bit for Osborne to find his groove. Once he does, THE WET AND THE DRY is a quite enjoyable read, especially for someone (like me) who enjoys alcohol in numerous forms as well as bars that run the gamut. The book is atmospheric and somewhat reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermor (who is mentioned), only Osborne is more melancholy, at times almost morose.

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