Son of a chemical engineer. Education: Stanford University, graduated, 1982.
The Sand Café (novel), Public Affairs Press (New York, NY), 2006.
The son of a chemical engineer who worked for Exxon in Libya, Neil MacFarquhar grew up in that country and learned to speak Arabic fluently before moving to the United States for college. He became a journalist and, for five years, was bureau chief in Cairo, Egypt, for the New York Times. According to John R. Bradley in a Newsweek International article, MacFarquhar has "earned a reputation as one of the finest Middle East correspondents of his generation." A few years after the 1991 Gulf War, he began writing his first novel, The Sand Café, which draws on his experiences as a reporter in the Middle East. The novel, however, took him a decade to write, partially because he was hit by a bus while in New York City and spent several years recovering from his injuries.
The Sand Café is set in Saudi Arabia in 1991. Angus Dalziel is a young reporter sent along with hundreds of other Americans to cover the Gulf War in nearby Kuwait. The problem is, he finds himself isolated in a hotel room with the rest of the press, unable to cover the real news and only receiving news stories through the Saudis and the U.S. Army. MacFarquhar parodies the news industry, including gutless editors who do not try to get the real story, as well as the hypocritical Saudis who pretend to be pious Muslims, only to hold orgies in private. Along with the plot of Dalziel searching for real news, the novel includes a love triangle story between the reporter, a cable news journalist, and a producer. A Publishers Weekly reviewer considered this part of the novel to be full of "romantic clichés," while a Kirkus Reviews writer claimed that the author's "tin ear for dialogue and reliance on a tired love triangle make for a read that's at times as dry as its desert setting." The latter critic went on to say that the "characters' limp love lives" are a flaw in a story that would have been better if MacFarquhar had concentrated on the problems of reporting on the war. Bradley similarly called the dialogue in the book clichéd and observed that the main character is an "unconvincing mass of contradictions." Nevertheless, he concluded that "whatever its literary shortcomings, this is a must read for its sharp insights into the challenges of war reporting in the high-tech age." Lawrence Rungren, writing for the Library Journal, concluded that "Mac-Farquhar directs his poison pen at the … news business as only an insider can."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2006, review of The Sand Café, p. 256.
Library Journal, February 1, 2006, Lawrence Rungren, review of The Sand Café, p. 72.
Newsweek International, May 1, 2006, John R. Bradley, "Waiting for Action. In His New Novel, a Middle East Correspondent Skewers the Blood-Thirsty, Self-Obsessed War Reporter."
Publishers Weekly, January 16, 2006, review of The Sand Café, p. 35.*