The Sand Cafe
Book information

Public Affairs Books
April 10, 2006
ISBN: 978-1-58648-368-5

Amazon     Powell's

Barnes & Noble

  • Synopsis
  • Reviews
  • Excerpt

Dhahran Palace Hotel, Saudi Arabia, August 1990. As U.S. forces mass on the border with Iraq, preparing to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, more than 1,000 foreign correspondents and other media species are jockeying for space in the hotel’s 190 rooms. Helicopters and armor are churning across the desert sand, there are rumors of Scud missiles and talk of chemical attacks, but, in fact, nothing is really happening. With no story to report, the press is getting restive. Not even the stranger aspects of Saudi Arabia keep them distracted for long.

Angus Dalziel, an up-and-coming war reporter for the World Press wire service, finds his attention divided between dull military briefings utterly lacking in news and the figure of Thea Makdisi, a smoldering, spirited cable news reporter. She is sassy while he is buttoned-down; she is exotic while he is studious; she is TV while he is print. Worse, she arouses attention anywhere she goes, stirring up everyone from sex-starved navy fliers to rival television producers. Angus faces the oldest dilemma of any reporter — should he chase the story or the girl?

Like all the foreign correspondents — scurrying endlessly in pursuit of a really big story, festering with jealousy at other reporters getting better military access or bigger budgets — Angus lives surrounded by the smell of damp rot that comes from a combination of leaking air conditioning and wretched hotel carpeting. The romance of war reporting — such as it is — exists far from the Dhahran Palace Hotel and its bedraggled swarm of reporters.

Neil MacFarquhar, a veteran of the Middle East foreign press corps, has written a woundingly witty black comedy of those who bring us news from the front lines and given a whole new meaning of what it means to be an embedded journalist.

The Sand Café is what Ernie Pyle left out of Here is Your War — the funny parts. MacFarquhar does the same thing for war reporting that Pyle did for war. He shucks the glamour off it and gives its footsoldiers faces. G.I. Joe loved Ernie. Broadcast Betty and Dateline Dave will hate Neil for the same reason. He tells the truth.”

—P.J. O'Rourke



“You know the old saying, those who love the law and sausages shouldn't inquire into how either is made. With his unsparing roman à clef about the foibles of foreign correspondents, Neil MacFarquhar adds a third item to this list: the news.  As a former member of the Dhahran press corps, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry as MacFarquhar's incoming rounds hit their targets: arrogant Saudis, manipulative military press officers, ego-driven reporters. A warning to fellow hacks: read this book, but put your body armor on first.”

—Geraldine Brooks,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of
March and Nine Parts of Desire




"The Sand Café is a lively, funny firsthand account of what went on more than a decade ago in the Arabian desert when the cameras and tape recorders went off. The Arabic-speaking Mr. MacFarquhar, a New York Times reporter who was the paper's Cairo bureau chief for nearly five years, knows more about the Middle East than most of his colleagues combined. He has plenty of sharp details, from the cynicism and cruelty of Arab nationalist ideologues to the glamour and brilliance of Arab women.... The Sand Café joins that rare genre of novels whose picture of the Middle East, and where Middle Easterners and Westerners meet, rings truer than most nonfiction."



"Set in Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, MacFarquhar's depiction of the life and work, the pettiness, jealousies and corrosive frustration of the press corps is so accurate that it's hard to brand as satire....

"Angus, his lover and her lover use each other for distraction and comfort, knowing they'll move on. There will be, as they keep telling themselves, other wars. And the waiting for the story, not the waiting for each other, is what really gives "The Sand Café" its dramatic tension and comic relief....

"MacFarquhar's book, albeit fiction, exhumes with great wit and disquieting accuracy those long-forgotten headlines and many of the true stories behind them. He recounts what [Evelyn] Waugh would call the "heroic legends" of hackdom, "of the classic scoops and hoaxes; of the confessions wrung from hysterical suspects; of the innuendo and intricate misrepresentations, the luscious, detailed inventions that composed contemporary history." And few writers since Waugh have done it any better."



Foreign Correspondent Neil MacFarquhar "captures the ferocious absurdity of the Gulf War in The Sand Café."

Vanity Fair



Media junkies will love all the details; others might lose patience with the day-to-day, mundane activities of journalists, even those reporting from war zones. But when the war looms closer, the novel takes on a dramatic tone laced with fear and a sense of doom.

USA Today



"Let me confess my bias up front: It would be hard for a print journalist like me not to enjoy a book that makes me and my peers look smarter than both our editors and most television reporters.

"But hopefully there's a broader audience for Neil MacFarquhar's The Sand Café, a satiric fictional account of a journalist's romance and reporting set in a non-descript Saudi Arabian hotel during the first Gulf War."



"This dark satire of modern war reporting skewers many a real-life self-obsessed war correspondent. It pours scorn, too, on their often cowardly editorial bosses back in Washington, only too willing to compromise in the face of official pressure and to put more energy into urging reporters to avoid sensitive topics than into cultivating their investigative urges.

"MacFarquhar, who went to school in Libya and is fluent in Arabic, writes about a world he knows intimately, having covered the gulf war for the Associated Press. As the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, he has since earned a reputation as one of the finest Middle East correspondents of his generation."




The Sand Café presents a world no different from what any reporter has ever faced covering a story big enough to draw a horde of competitors who skirmish over scraps of gossip, form temporary liaisons, plot career moves, eat poorly and stretch the truth (but not so much that the blogs might pound them into library paste). It is an interesting and revealing world....

The hero, Angus Dalziel, is a victim of patronizing editors, manipulative sources and the alluring but remote TV correspondent he loves. ...Like most journalistic labor camps of this sort, the exchange of passion and information runs together....

MacFarquhar lived in the Middle East as a child, studied it in college and clearly still savors its flavors. He also knows the reporters' turf well.... Elements of suspense pull us through this knowing satire of the profession. Will Angus's war, as brief as it is, go well? Will he succumb to his growing sense that he needs Thea longer than the standard fortnight? Will the U.S. military handlers stop treating the reporters like buck privates? Will the Saudis' orgies and hypocrisies be exposed?



Café serves up Gulf War newsers as one spicy dish

The newsfolk who inhabit Neil MacFarquhar's novel, The Sand Café, are supposed to be made up. But they sure look familiar....



"The frustrations and follies of contemporary war reporting are skewered in this jaundiced, juicy dispatch, datelined Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War.... Watching his comrades veer between frenzy and torpor in their media bubble, Angus ponders the rot at the heart of journalism - especially the shallowness and vanity of television correspondents, one of whom uses up his tent mates' precious drinking water to shampoo his hair. First-time novelist and New York Times Cairo bureau chief MacFarquhar has this milieu down cold.... [M]edia insiders and casual readers alike will relish his stock of witty observations and nasty anecdotes, while gleaning timely insights into the corruption of the news business."

Publishers Weekly



"MacFarquhar directs his poison pen at the ambitions, pretensions, and petty rivalries of those in the news business as only an insider can."

Library Journal



Excerpt: Chapter 1 of The Sand Cafe

Angus’s nostrils began to burn from the heavy cloud of jet exhaust settling over the hotel like a blanket, which even the light rain did not disperse. The exhaust also left a bitter, slightly numbing taste on his tongue. He covered his nose and mouth with his jacket.

Across the roof, Riggs panicked. "Gas! Gas! Gas!" he yelled, dropping completely off camera, his hands quivering as he struggled with the straps on his gas mask. Everyone on the roof froze. If a reporter was saying live on air that there was gas, it had to be true. Most people were walking around in regular clothes. In a gas attack, they knew they would perish in the time they needed to retrieve their chemical suits.

It took everyone an excruciatingly long 30 seconds to understand that Riggs had mistaken the jet fuel exhaust for chemical weapons. His CBN team struggled to limit the damage. The military reporter who had been standing next to Riggs talking about Scuds stared down at his colleague, dumbfounded.

"Say something, say something," CBN’s producer hissed frantically, knowing that extended silence would convince millions of viewers that the reporters were keeling over dead.  

"Reports of gas are unconfirmed at this point," the military correspondent said laconically, slowly putting on his helmet.

Watch Neil MacFarquhar read from The Sand Café here.