SANDCASTLES, Milton Viorst’s latest work on the Middle East, focuses upon a number of largely Arabic countries, from Egypt and Turkey (which is Islamic but not Arabic) in the west to Iraq and Kuwait in the east, and including Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as the Palestinians. Viorst has previously written about Israel. Here he concentrates primarily upon the Islamic world.
Compelling reading, SANDCASTLES is a mixture of history, religion, and recent political and social trends, and Viorst brings to his work considerable experience and his many contacts in the Arab world. His interviews ranges from representatives of the Moslem Brotherhood to a Jordanian feminist, and included King Hussein of Jordan, as well as Egypt’s Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, and Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in lieu of Saddam Hussein. More impressionistic than analytically objective, SANDCASTLES poses the question of whether the Islamic Arabs have yet come to grips with modern society, a world which began to evolve in the West in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. With exceptions, Viorst says no, and suggests that the culture of Islam, not necessarily the theology, is the explanation.
Unfortunately SANDCASTLES is not a summary of the entire Arab or Islamic Middle Eastern world. Non-Arabic Iran is not included. Neither, unfortunately, is Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil resources and its command of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In Viorst’s opinion, a resolution of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict is crucial to the Arabs if they are to enter into the modern world, and he opines that if the Arab states are to achieve their potentialities, they must sooner or later evolve a more secular, pluralistic society, a step that the Christian west took centuries ago. In a postscript, Viorst indicates cautious optimism about the future thanks to the Israeli-PLO agreement regarding self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.