Looking to deal with a serious drinking problem, British novelist and travel writer Lawrence Osborne decides to traverse the Muslim world to gain a different perspective on alcohol.
Out of this quixotic adventure comes a book that examines the role and history of strong drink, its impact on the author’s life and the availability of beer, wine and distilled spirits in Islamic countries from Egypt to Indonesia. The colorful characters and fascinating situations Osborne encounters provide much of the book’s allure.
Osborne has surely faced his share of deadlines but perhaps none as strange and pressing as his attempt to score a bottle of champagne in the sultanate of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula as the clock winds down to midnight on New Year’s Eve.
In Lebanon, he checks out the bar scene in Beirut, visits a vineyard in the Hezbollah-dominated Bekaa Valley and meets Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt in the Shuf Mountains for a taste of arak, the potent anise-flavored firewater regarded as Lebanon’s national drink.
Osborne’s travels, interspersed with the occasional hangover, take him to Pakistan’s only brewery, whose owner tries to keep a low profile amid his nation’s virulent hostility to alcohol. The author paints a bleak picture for the future of alcohol in the Islamic world. In Turkey, the only Muslim country where adherents of the faith can legally drink and where Osborne has acquired a small house, the governing party is placing heavy taxes and restrictions on alcohol.
Osborne set out to observe and perhaps learn from a culture of abstention. Along the way, he weaves in memories of his alcohol-besotted past and examines Islamic history and the teachings of the Quran for clues to the restrictions on booze. Two years of drinking in Muslim countries that reject “the corrosive pleasures of alcohol” leave Osborne sympathetic but in the end he’s not about to forgo the cocktail hour.
Jerry Harkavy reviewed this book for the Associated Press.