The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage, by David Lamb. New York: Random House. 320 pp. $19.95. In 1940, aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested that the United States develop influence in the Gulf. He responded in a scribbled White House memo, ``Tell the British I hope they can take care of the King of Saudi Arabia. This is a little far afield for us.''
But five years later, as he sailed home from the Yalta conference, FDR met the Saudi warrior-monarch aboard the USS Quincy, an event that reflected budding American interest in the Middle East.
Their talks centered largely on Palestine and the issue of Jewish immigration and Arab rights in the then British mandate. They could not agree on what subsequently became the spark for five Middle East wars. But the President promised King Ibn Saud that the US would not take major action without consulting Saudi Arabia.
``It was the first of many pledges the US made to the Arabs in the postwar era. Few of them were ever kept,'' writes David Lamb in ``The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage.'' The uneasy course of Arab-US relations over the next 40 years was ironic, the former Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times points out, for ``Arabs were America's first real friends in the vast Islamic world.''
Morocco was the first nation, in 1777, to recognize the then new United States of America. A friendship treaty with Morocco signed the next year by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is still in effect, making it the longest uninterrupted accord in American history.
That early era has changed dramatically since the US became a superpower in the aftermath of World War II. The average American today views the Arab as ``barbaric and cruel,'' ``treacherous,'' ``warlike,'' and ``rich,'' according to a 1981 poll by Middle East Journal. ``In short, the West sees the Arab as being a millionaire, a terrorist, a camel herder, or a refugee,'' Lamb says.
``Probably no ethnic or religious group has been so constantly and massively disparaged in the media as the Arab over the past two decades.'' With facts and humor, poignancy and criticism, Lamb reveals how wrong this caricature is. Except for the six oil-rich Gulf states, most Arabs in the 20-nation bloc are poor. Most Palestinians are so well-educated that they are often referred to as ``the Jews of the Arab world.'' And most Arabs condemn violence as much as Americans, since they are most often its victims.
``Arabs as a group are as anti-communist, politically conservative, and capitalistic as any redneck in the heartland of America,'' Lamb contends. Only one nation, South Yemen, is ruled by a Marxist government, and only three have strong relations with the Soviet Union.
And ``Islam, when it is not perverted by crazies in Iran and elsewhere, is a tolerant, compassionate religion,'' which is now injecting a constructive new energy into a troubled region.
On a personal level, ``The Arabs'' is about one Westerner's encounter with a bloc accounting for 220 million people. Through men such as Ali Naimi and ``Mr. Darwish,'' Lamb humanizes this disparate people and their diverse environments.
As a child, Naimi roamed the Saudi desert with his mother's Bedouin tribe; four decades later he was president of the Middle East's largest oil company, Aramco. His rapid rise typifies the unprecedented economic and cultural revolution in the Gulf, due largely to oil wealth.
Mr. Darwish is a Cairo fix-it man who tapes and glues bits of string to repair bathroom facilities, repairs that rarely last longer than two weeks. His story illustrates how Egypt, ``an impoverished land gripped by lethargy and decay,'' patches together its daily existence.
Among others included in his portrait are Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and the Sultan of Oman, Lebanese warlords and Iraqi warriors, a Saudi astronaut and a Bahraini pearl diver.
Lamb resists glorifying the people among whom he lived for four years. He is candid about his frustration. ``I was constantly struck by the Arabs' inability to present to the world a favorable or accurate image of either themselves or their causes,'' he says. ``They complained that no one understood them but did little to make themselves understood. As the Sultan of Oman told me, `In many ways we are our own worst enemies.'''
But on a broader level, his book is a revealing analysis of US-Arab relations in general. The US is also responsible for the dangerous gap with a rich culture that occupies one of the most vital geo-strategic regions in the world.
Ignorance is often overwhelming. At the height of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a Dallas Times Herald editor telexed his Beirut correspondent, ``Who are these Palestinian people and why don't they just go home?''
US policymakers spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations have also understood ``little about the Arabs and almost nothing about Islam, and their ignorance has put the West on a collision course with the Arab psyche, as though terrorists were born instead of made, thus conveniently ignoring Arab grievances rooted in a century of being deceived and humiliated by Western powers.''
``The Arabs'' is neither a history nor a political survey. As in his first book, ``The Africans,'' Lamb has written a generalist's introduction that arguably comes at a time when understanding is more important than ever.
``While most third-world people languish in despair and poverty, the Arabs view their future with a confidence that borders on exuberance. Time, they believe, is on their side,'' Lamb says. ``We need to get to know each other better, because in the end, the destiny of the Arabs will affect the destiny of us all.''
Robin Wright, a former Monitor Middle East correspondent, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.