Travel writer and novelist Lawrence Osborne faced infinite bureaucratic delays getting a visa for his trip to Pakistan. Since his goal was to find out if he could get drunk in dry Islamabad, a friend joked that the holdup was due to his job description: “visiting alcoholic.” In his new book, The Wet and the Dry, Osborne travels across the Middle East trying to get a drink in ostensibly sober Muslim cultures. What emerges from this journey is a nuanced, intriguing portrait of alcohol and sobriety in the Islamic world.
Osborne finds that it is possible, if not always easy or safe, to get a drink in Islamabad—and in Beirut, Oman, Dubai and Malaysia. Often sequestered in hotels catering to the international traveler, some bars are leftovers from British imperialism, dusty time capsules where Osborne can get a gin and tonic at 6:10 each evening. Other bars are hidden away, targets for Islamic fundamentalists, and therefore dangerous to drink in. One gets the impression that Osborne relishes the danger.
Part travelogue, part memoir, The Wet and the Dry inevitably focuses on Osborne’s own relationship with alcohol. He is comfortable calling himself an alcoholic and detailing long days and nights in bars, blackouts and hangovers. The dark allure of alcohol seems more glamorous and compelling to him than the woman he brings along to Oman. And yet his travels begin as an attempt to “dry out” in the Islamic world, to see what sobriety and sober cultures have to teach him.
The personal crisis that brings him to this odyssey seems to be his mother’s death, and the legacy of alcoholism in his own family, yet Osborne never swears off drinking completely, even in the driest cultures. When he and his lover cannot find any alcohol in Oman and end up drinking strawberry juice to see in the New Year, he writes of the dreadful clarity of sobriety.
Ultimately, this book is more about the traveler than the travels. Osborne’s haunting, crystalline prose is as refreshing as a cool gin and tonic on a hot day in a dark room. But beware the kick!