Growing Up in a Troubled NeighborhoodPrint
Kai Bird’s Middle East Memories and Meditations
By James Gibney
June 1, 2010
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978, by Kai Bird, Scribner, $30
Growing up in the Middle East, Kai Bird’s formative years were not exactly the stuff of Leave It to Beaver: he learned to check his shoes every morning for scorpions; had to negotiate Jordanian, UN, and Israeli checkpoints on his way to school; went to sleep on occasion to the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns; was evacuated from East Jerusalem to Beirut during the 1956 Suez War, and again from Cairo to Greece in the 1967 war; and had a girlfriend whose jetliner was hijacked and blown up by Palestinian terrorists in 1970. Oh, and his mother used to play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan songs on the guitar in her Riyadh home with Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother.
That’s fodder enough for an engrossing memoir. But Bird has loftier goals. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has made a career of going mano a mano with the dead white males of the eastern Establishment, he wrote this book “in large part to understand why the Middle East of my childhood seems stuck in endless conflict.” In that respect, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is a gesture of atonement for a stone left unturned: for much of his career, Bird pointedly avoided grappling with the region. The book also encompasses Bird’s attempt to confront larger questions of identity, whether those embedded in the cultural miscegenations of the modern Middle East or those embedded in the jumbled allegiances of a boy plucked out of Oregon to tag along in the baggage train of Pax Americana.
I can understand the inclination to avoid reckoning with the Middle East. Even as a Foreign Service Officer, and later as the executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine, I thought of the strife between Israel and its neighbors as a second-tier incubus that sapped the energy and attention of American policymakers and an intractable, insiders-only dispute that defied rational discussion. Bird’s book hasn’t entirely cured me of that view. But with its engaging and insightful reminiscences of growing up in Jerusalem, Dhahran, and Cairo, its sharp portraits of half-forgotten figures like Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett (whose diplomatic efforts were sabotaged by his cabinet), and the patent earnestness of Bird’s own quest to make peace with his past, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is a compelling corrective that can force even reluctant readers to look at the Middle East anew.
One of the book’s more powerful aspects is its evocation of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term that Palestinians use to describe their uprooting with the foundation of Israel. Bird’s family moved in 1956 to East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control, where his father, Eugene, was an American vice consul. While his parents had friends and acquaintances on both sides of the line dividing Jerusalem—the book’s title comes from the single open crossing—they felt keenly the plight of the Palestinians, many of whom had been ousted from their homes in 1948. As Bird’s mother wrote in 1957, “I feel no sympathy for Zionism whatsoever and none for the Israeli society.” For Bird, the losers of Israeli independence were not faceless refugees, but people like his family doctor, a Christian, Arabic-speaking Armenian, who had his home first looted and then taken over by Israelis. In one of the book’s more poignant moments, Bird recounts the story the doctor tells when, a half-century later, he returns as an American citizen with his daughters to visit his old house. An Israeli woman living there, knowing the neighborhood story of how the doctor had planted an apricot seed as a young child, hands him a fruit from that tree.
Bird also usefully highlights the tangled and in many ways toxic history of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. When his family moved to Dhahran in 1962, they joined 2,500 Americans (almost all of them members of the Arabian American Oil Company, or ARAMCO), who represented the largest single community of Americans overseas, complete with bowling alleys, swimming pools, Girl Scout troops, Little League teams, and hootch stills in every pantry. As one longtime resident observed, “Dhahran was a utopia.” But the presence of so many cloistered Americans, who generally were more of the ugly than the quiet variety, was a source of tension. (And that was long before Osama bin Laden began inveighing against the kingdom’s decision to welcome tens of thousands of American troops in the run-up to the Gulf War.) Moreover, as Bird makes clear, the U.S. tendency in its relationship with Saudi Arabia to put oil before democracy, and to side with royalists over reformers, “would lead to many unsavory consequences for . . . both the Americans and the Saudis.” In May 2007, Bird visited his old compound in Dhahran. The four-foot rock wall that once surrounded it had grown to 15 feet. Gurkhas patrolled the perimeter, protected by machine guns and security gates: “My childhood home—where I had once freely wandered in and out, completely unsupervised, a child unfettered—was now an armed fortress under siege.”
As Bird sees it, the failure to support reform in Saudi Arabia is one of many U.S. missteps in the region. Others include the U.S. reneging on its promise to help fund Egypt’s Aswan Dam and, more damningly, its tacit backing for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive strike on Egypt in 1967, which Bird labels a “calamity” for the United States. The war not only led to the expulsion of 24,000 American expatriates across the Middle East and massive anti-American demonstrations, but also weakened secular leaders like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and paved the way for the ascendancy of political Islam.
But many of the “what-might-have-beens” that Bird singles out rightly involve regional protagonists—everyone from Nasser to lesser-known figures like Abdullah Tariki, the progressive Saudi petroleum minister who helped create OPEC but was forced into exile when he accused Crown Prince Faisal of corruption, or Hillel Kook, the iconoclastic ex-Irgun member who fought in his later years to turn Israel into a secular Hebrew Republic. Some of Bird’s historical narrative may at times feel potted, but his explorations of such characters illuminate the complexity of circumstances on the ground.
In one of the last segments of the book, Bird provides a convincing rejoinder to those who may feel that his pro-Palestinian sympathies blind him to the perspective of Israelis. His chronicle of the struggles of his Jewish wife’s parents, who both barely escaped the Holocaust in Austria and Italy, is as gripping as it is moving. As Bird later points out, it is the inability of both Israelis and Palestinians to overcome their competing sense of historical victimhood that ultimately sustains the current impasse. But Bird stretches poetic license past the plausible when he calls the Nakba and the Shoah “the bookends of my life.” (A la Tonto, a Palestinian and a Jew might say, “What do you mean ‘your life,’ white man?”) And he gets a bit carried away with the powers of insight supposedly conferred on him as an expatriate. (“It is given to him to see both sides,” he intones of himself as a child—a sentiment that I never attained or aspired to in more than a decade living overseas, including a chunk of my childhood in Japan.) Still, give him credit for having written a powerful and unflinching book. Crossing Mandelbaum Gate may not hasten the coming of peace to one of the world’s most troubled neighborhoods, but it at least brings understanding a little closer.
James Gibney is on the editorial board of Bloomberg View.
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