February 22, 2013 7:24 pm

Unsteady odyssey

A travel writer seeks a tonic in the world of Islamic prohibition

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey, by Lawrence Osborne, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 256 pages

 

A few pages into The Wet and the Dry, somewhere between a Milanese bar and a Lebanese vineyard, Lawrence Osborne outlines the purpose of his “drinker’s journey” to a group of Arabs watching him work his way through a series of martinis. “I say I am taking a few months off to travel and wander, drinking my way across the Islamic world to see whether I can dry myself out,” he writes. “... I am curious to see how non-drinkers live. Perhaps they have something to teach me.”

If they do, Osborne is an unwilling pupil. Rather than experiment with Islamic prohibition, the novelist and travel writer lurches from one bout of boozing to another, from long lunches with winemakers in the Beka’a valley to the fabled bars of Beirut, to an Abu Dhabi hotel room where he wakes up fully clothed and wet through, piecing together the escapades of the previous night second-hand (“Don’t you remember passing out in the pool?”).

And so on – to a brewery in Pakistan, the nightlife of southern Thailand and the faded grandeur of the watering holes of Cairo. It’s as if Osborne has set out not so much to engage with the world of prohibition as to subvert it all by himself. The very notion of a Muslim alcoholic, he says, “gives me hope that the human race can be saved”.

The book works best when Osborne explores his own relationship with drink (including a hilarious episode involving a burglary, two bottles of Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, a frozen turkey and an axe). When describing both his own dependency and his family’s history of alcoholism – the way his mother drank to cope with life in Haywards Heath, his lush Irish relatives, his Polish father-in-law who killed himself with vodka – Osborne is captivating. His stylish and engaging writing is well suited to the fearlessly honest accounts of his heavy drinking – sometimes rhapsodic, sometimes tinged with self-loathing. It all makes for a stark contrast to another Osborne exploration of alcohol, The Accidental Connoisseur (2004), a lighter and generally more sober trip through the world of wine. But he seems to have downed a hell of a lot of booze since then.

Osborne paints fine character portraits, too, whether of Islamic students in the town where the Bali bombers came from (“Six hundred thousand people, I kept thinking, and not a single bar. It seemed like a recipe for madness”) or the Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt, or sexually frustrated Malaysians looking for Thai prostitutes and Johnnie Walker. But this makes his generalisations about the Islamic world – a world being overrun by extremists and puritans, “the religious men in black” – all the more puzzling.

Two types of Muslim loom large for Osborne: the fanatics who blow up bars and the subversives who drink in spite of their religion. But what about the millions who do not need alcohol to enjoy themselves? Why not, if you want to see how non-drinkers can get through the day, attend a wedding or a religious festival where there is no alcohol in sight? About the only experience Osborne has with non-alcoholic intoxication is a riveting account of a ceremony of Sufi dervishes, which leaves one wondering what he might have gleaned had he sought out more such encounters.

That there are places where you can get a furtive drink in Islamabad is no great secret but it seems strange to go there just to put yourself through the rigmarole of proving it – unless, of course, your real aim is to stick two unsteady fingers up at the killjoys who run the place, which is what The Wet and the Dry boils down to.

If you want an entertaining romp through half the bars of the Middle East and southern Asia, laced with history, anecdote and commandments from a putative drinker’s manifesto, this is the book for you. For a genuine insight into the world of the dry, you will have to go elsewhere.

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