By Fouad Ajami Pantheon 344 pp., $26

"The Dream Palace of the Arabs" borrows its title from T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and refers to the "intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity" in the Arab world, which reached its high-water mark in the 1950s and '60s. For the generation of Arabs who inherited the ideals of that era, the next quarter century was to see a relentless decline.

From the devastating defeat of the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, to the sectarian strife in Lebanon, to the rise of theocratic politics, Fouad Ajami traces the history of a people through the debate of its intellectuals. The book is a clear-eyed look at the lost hopes of the Arabs by one of their own. It opens the door to the thought processes of a society whose motivations have been little understood and often feared.

Ajami is an eloquent and scholarly narrator. Through the lives of writers and poets from Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, he draws out the themes of the last two generations of Arab experience.

He follows the sacking of Beirut through the eyes of a prominent Lebanese poet; then weighs the dilemma posed by the separate pull of foreign modernity and tradition as expressed by a Syrian bard. He delves into Egypt's struggle with fundamentalism and finishes with the thorny issue of Israel.

"Dream Palace" is a courageous book that explores the complex roots of Arab angst and offers a hard assessment.

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