Ever since stereotypes of the "ugly Muslim" were brought home by the Crusaders, negative images of Middle Eastern peoples have been in the rule, rather than the exception, in Western life and letters. Shakespeare's Shylock dissloved into the ugly Jew depicted in the Nazi hate-literature of Germany between 1932 and 1945, and probably contributed to the ideological preparation for the Holocaust.

Other Shakespearean images -- for example the "bearded and turbaned Turk" of "Othello" -- along with such categorizations as the "paynim" of Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad" have crept into our literature, as the contemporary political cartoons of ugly, leering Arabs, aiming gasoline nozzles like pistols at the head of hapless American motorist. Except among the small, though growing, number of Middle Eastern specialists, ignorance not only of the Arabs, but also of Oriental Jews, Iranians, Turks and Kurds, is still widespread in Europe and North America. Ignorance breeds stereotypes.

Goldston's book follows earlier works of popular-type history such as "The Russian Revolution" and "The Life and Death of Nazi Germany." "His style is impersonal and his condensed approach gives the effect of cutting-and-pasting from encyclopedia articles and high-school textbooks. There are some glaring historical errors. He has the North African Berbers speaking "a Semitic language closely related to Arabic," when in reality it follows an ancient geometrical and non-Semitic style of writing not related to Arabic. He depicts the flight of the Palestinian Arabs from Palestine in 1948 as chiefly voluntary and due, in part, to the "orders of the Arab High Command, which wanted, they claimed, a clear field of fire against the enemy." Irish writer Erskine Childers years ago thoroughly investigated such claims and equally thoroughly disproved them.

Raban's sensitive, well-written "tell it like it is" account of a recent journey to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, North Yemen and Egypt -- he couldn't for some reason, get a visa for Saudi Arabia -- reveals him as an author who tries to set aside both his own and other people's prejudices, a quality sorely needed in dealing with the Middle East today.

An Englishman whose books, such as "Soft City," and plays are well-known, Raban is a self-acknowledged stranger to the Arab world. Yet he writes with as much perception and sensitivity of a shrimp fisherman in Bahrain who finds his catch killed off by pollution in the Gulf, or a poor Egyptian writer, critical of Sadat, seeking to outwit the censor in Cairo, as he does of the more familiar sheiks and servants in the principalities of oil. This is because he writes about Arabs as he writes about all other people, and not as caricatures. His rapidly sketched portraits -- whether of Dubai's leading career woman of a Yemeni salesman of depilatory cream, or of an Arab studen huddling in his shabby, rented room in Earl's Court, London, wondering why there are so many thieves in the city -- all help to banish the stereotypes of Arabs as abstract figures who tend to be either terrorists or millionaires.