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Viorst, a reporter who has traveled in recent years to the Middle East for The New Yorker, can snag the startling quotation (a Gazan told him "The Arabs say they're our friends, and treat us worse than the Israelis do") 370 and he can write incisively (President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria is a man for whom "an air of enigma is an instrument of state"). But the odd insight does not save a book chock-full of pretension, factual mistakes, cultural incomprehension, and political bias.

The pretension starts with the subtitle: somehow, Viorst flatters himself into believing that a few trips to the Middle East and some interviews with Middle Eastern politicians gives him a base for interpreting the Arab experience with modernity. Some of his errors make one doubt that Viorst had his eyes open while traveling. How could a repeat visitor to Damascus assert that President Asad "shunned the creation of a personality cult"? In fact, Asad's representation is ubiquitous within Syria. Sandcastles contains illogical passages. We learn on one page that Asad has faced no challenge to his rule since 1970; seven pages later, Viorst reports on the carnage at Hama in 1982 that resulted from precisely such a challenge.

Though he treads light on politics, Viorst betrays an all-too-familiar outlook throughout his account: stick it to America's allies (in this case, Turkey, Kuwait, and Israel), portray its opponents favorably. For example, his chapter on Turkey (not usually known as an Arab country, but included here anyway) bristles with antipathy. He describes Istanbul (in an ungrammatical flourish) as a "melancholy city" and exploits the bad weather during his visit as a metaphor for Turkey's unattractiveness.