This collection of short essays is a witty and entertaining document of the challenges that a drinker will inevitably experience as one travels through the “dry” regions that limit alcohol consumption, especially those regions predominately in the Islamic world. The author, Lawrence Osborne is a British-born nomad who has spent his life living in the US, Mexico, France, Italy, Thailand, and Morocco and he serves a well-blended travelogue that mixes intriguing historical and social references alongside the astute reflections one can only collect through the varied experiences collected with a drink at one’s side.
Osborne speaks with a romantic pessimism and a voice capable of reflecting on the solitary joys of the bar “where one can sit unmolested for hours, doing what one does in a bar: contemplate death and the inconsequential things that come before it” (213). The book is full of savory proclamations like this, but the lasting strength of a book like The Wet and the Dry lies in Osborne’s well-lived perspective of the Islamic world’s uncomfortable relationship with alcohol. Beer was first developed by the ancient Egyptians and the process of distillation was perfected by the Ottomans of the medieval era but the European colonization of the fallen Ottoman empire has fermented into negative cultural association with alcohol consumption as a symbol of the decadent ways of the infidel.
As Osborne points out, there are contradictions within the Islamic relationship to drinking. Although alcohol is only mentioned three times in the Koran it is vehemently hated by many within the Islamic world for its mind altering effects, yet many Muslims turn a blind eye towards hashish use and opium addiction. Most countries like Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan restrict alcohol for the devout Muslims but there are levies made for non-Muslim visitors and Christian residents to find a drink because in the global economy, alcohol is always married to etiquette of business. The presence of alcohol within restricted “dry” countries provides the temptation of a forbidden fruit for the supposed righteous faithful and secret parties are often well stocked with libations shared by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, as the rise of conservative views in Islam become more politically powerful, the presence of alcohol is becoming more and more difficult to find. Tragic cases such as bombings of tourist bars in Bali demonstrate the extremity of the vehemence towards alcohol, but for Osborne, it the struggle to find a bottle of champagne on New Year’s in Oman can present a personal tragedy for the estranged drinker stranded in sobering world that celebrates with non-alcoholic strawberry juices.
The Wet and The Dry explores these many contradictions while including the occasional self-reflection about the author’s personal relationships to alcohol while growing up with two drunk parents. Osborne also veers off into some tangential reflections upon on the boom and commercialization of the alcohol industry in the western world and even explores the negative effects of the introduction of “fire water” to the American Indian. He provides several informative asides about the history and development of the world’s libations such as Arabian Arak, the varied origins of Gin, the demonization of the”green fairy” Absinthe, the development of Japanase Scotch, and the world’s strange fascination with Johnie Walker a blended scotch that is secondary in quality to single malts.
This is an insightful book for anyone who has some world travel under his or her belt, however teetotalers may not enjoy Osborne’s book very much. This is a book about drinking after all. Having recently traveled to Singapore and Indonesia earlier this year, I appreciated Osborne’s insightful perspective about the relationship of alcohol with national identity in different regions of the world. I’ll be honest and admit that I experienced sticker shock at the high cost of a drink in the metropolitan and secular nation of Singapore. The high cost was primarily due to taxation in a business economy, however I was confused at the contradictory prevalence of the commercialization of alcohol everywhere with just as many advertisements as I would see here in America. How were the Signapore people able to afford all that drink? Once in the Muslim nation of Indonesia I found that a beer was much cheaper but liquor was hard to come by. What was most impressive about my alcohol experiences in Indonesia was the complete absence of advertisements for the sale of alcohol with the exception of the highly touristy regions of Bali. Having experienced the odd experience of vacation in a region where it was hard to get a drink provided me with rich appreciation of The Wet and the Dry‘s insgighful exploration of the world’s relationship to alcohol. Cheers!