A Guided Tour Through The Arab Labyrinth


By Milton Viorst

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For the last few years, Milton Viorst has been filing long, thoughtful dispatches on the Middle East for The New Yorker. Now, he has shaped these writings into a book. The seams still show in places, but Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World is certainly a valuable guide to a much-discussed but still poorly understood


Viorst focuses on the main Arab actors in the confrontation with Israel, drawing vivid portraits of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. He also includes sections on Kuwait, Iraq before and after the gulf war, and one non-Arab country, Turkey. His major omission is Saudi Arabia, whose oil and money are driving forces in the region, not to mention major Western interests.

In his introduction, Viorst confesses that "being Jewish, I was raised with a natural bias toward Israel." But he soon learned that neither side has a monopoly on the truth, he says. In fact, he's often tough on the Israelis and tries too hard, if anything, to give some Arabs the benefit of the doubt. He was one of those writers, for instance, who found the ruthless Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein a promising leader--until he invaded Kuwait in 1990. He hails Saddam's "impressive record in the 1970s" and approvingly relays a diplomat's opinion that Saddam's brutal regime is "authoritarian" but "not necessarily unjust."

For the most part, though, Viorst's judgment and his knowledge of the region are sound. The reader gains not just a sense of places and personalities but also a feel for the ideas and events that made them the way they are.

For example, Viorst uses a long series of interviews with the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz to give us a kind of chronological tour of Cairo from the raucous incipient democracy of the early 20th century through Gamal Abdel Nasser's repressive regime in the '50s and '60s to the poverty, mediocrity, and Islamic militancy that plague Egypt today. We almost feel as though we are sitting in the dingy Ali Baba Cafe looking into the septuagenarian novelist's opaque glasses as he reminisces about his career and his dashed hopes for his country. "I guess I did much of my writing in an era when Egypt felt defeated," Mahfouz says, explaining the self-centered, convention-bound men who populate his books. "My characters were poor. The economic system did not give them much hope."

Those comments apply to most of the nations Viorst writes about. For the last decade, standards of living across the Arab lands have stagnated while other measures of progress--political freedom and social mobility--have lagged.

Searching for a unifying theme, Viorst pins much of the blame on the "calcified" system of Islamic thought that imposes a sterile orthodoxy on the region, smothering initiative and innovation. "Islam," he writes, "succeeded where Christianity failed in shackling man's powers of reasoning. It was a success for which Muslim society has continued to pay heavily."

But does the influence of Islam really explain the failure and strife of the last few decades? Dominated for centuries by the Ottomans and then by Western colonial powers, the Arabs were, as Viorst writes, "abruptly thrust onto the global stage" after World War II. Poorly educated and with embryonic political institutions, they were ill-prepared to deal with either cold-war ideologies or the technological revolution they confronted. In addition, they found themselves "totally outclassed" by Israel, the pampered child of the West in their midst. Not surprisingly, they fell for a series of demagogues, from Nasser to Saddam Hussein, whose "attraction to a quick-fix vision of grandeur overrode their commitment to social and intellectual transformation."

Saddam is the most irrespmnsible and destructive of these tyrants, as becomes clear from Viorst's fascinating talks with Arab officials about the events leading to the gulf war. According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, Saddam made the fateful decision to take over Kuwait at the last minute. A senior Jordanian told Viorst that Saddam was trying to thwart a purported U.S. plan to establish bases there. After storming across the emirate, he assured Jordan's King Hussein that he planned to withdraw "over the weekend"--if no one criticized him in the meantime. George Bush's tough talk wounded his pride, and he decided not to back down, regardless of the consequences. "It seems to be our historical tradition to suffer and fail," Aziz says. "That is the mood that governed our judgment here."

Have the Arabs learned enough from the disasters of the last few decades to avoid similar debacles in the future? For the Kuwaitis, whose arrogance and neglect of the Iraqi threat contributed to the invasion, the answer, it seems, is no. Visiting after the war, Viorst finds the Emir more concerned about gold bathroom fixtures for his palace than about taking charge of his newly liberated country.

But there are some bright spots. The Palestinians, for example, seem to have decided that they had better take what the Israelis will give them and get on with their lives. As Viorst notes, voices across the region are calling for democracy, human rights, and political accountability. Sadly, the odds are against their prevailing anytime soon.

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