The Drinkers' Guide to the Middle East by Will Lawson

Rebel Inc., 5.99 English Pounds (about $9.00 U.S.), 208 page trade paperback

Reviewed by William P. Meyers

The title The Drinkers' Guide to the Middle East conjures up the picture of getting smashed in Casablanca, and indeed the book has many a hint, suggestion, and tale to tell that involves alcohol. In much of the Middle East alcohol is banned; even where not banned, it is often looked down upon as a uniquely Christian insanity. But there is much more to this Guide than advice on drinking. It is literate, humourous, and overall one of best books on the reality of being a foreigner (in this case, Englander) in this ancient and impoverished zone.

Following a chapter on Arab boyfriends (sounds like Western boyfriends only more so) is a chapter called "A Potted History of the Middle East." It is less than 20 pages long, it is short, it is funny, and it's more about the history of the region since Mohammed than most college educated Americans would know. Today it may be hard to believe that in 1450 betting men would have bet on the Arabs for world supremacy; Christianity was barely holding on to Europe. Who knows where we'll be in 500 years, if humans are around at all.

Then there's the food. The author assumes you aren't dining out in 3 star restaurants. Expect little meat and much fuul and felafel. Check out the "Soup of Death." Want to shop and cook your own. "Buying beef can be fairly gothic, with live cattle being marked out with felt pens in little stone cubicles." Yet vegetarians won't have an easy time either: it's not a concept most Arabs understand, so the author provides a handy card, in arabic, explaining. I suppose people who won't eat pork for religious reasons should not have too much difficulty understanding that you belong to an obscure culture that can afford meat but abhors it for religious reasons.

The author, perhaps reflecting the region, is contradictory about danger. He thinks it is more likely that you'll have something stolen by a European drug-addict tourist than by a native arab. The native, however poor, is likely to invite you to his house and treat you to a meal that costs most of his monthly income. On the other hand, in some countries, your chances of being kidnapped are sufficiently high to be taken into consideration when planning your trip. In fact you may never be far from trouble in the Middle East; if you see a crowd gathering, and they are shouting angrily, it's best to flee, rather than go see what people are upset about. They may be mad at each other, but after a couple of centuries of bullying by Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, they may be getting ready to retaliate against the most conveniently located imperialist representatives they can find.

What really makes The Drinkers Guide to the Middle East worth reading is Will Lawson's style and wit. There are no lists of hotels or restaurants; you can get that in other books. What I can't convey here is Will's way of putting things. A few examples will have to suffice here. "Remember you've gone to the Middle East to get Bombed, not bomb." Or on taxis: "The driving is worst in Yemen. You have to recall that the national drug is a form of pretty powerful amphetamine, everyone chews it, no Yemeni has ever passed a driving test (or even could), fear is unknown to them, and other cars are invisible."

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