Reviews : Crossing Mandelbaum Gate : Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

New York Times review April 18, 2010


New York Times review April 18, 2010

Middle East Boyhood


Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

By Kai Bird

Illustrated. 424 pp. Scribner. $30

When playing the “conquer the world” board game Risk as an adolescent growing up in a well-to-do Cairo suburb, Kai Bird avoided occupying the Middle East. So did his American friends. Their very surroundings schooled them in the difficulty of holding the crossroads of three continents.

Bird’s education in the region’s seemingly endless cycles of war and armistice actually began when he was 4. In 1956, his father, Eugene Bird, an adventurous sort if not a terribly worldly one, moved his young family from Oregon to East Jerusalem, where he was to begin his new job as the American vice consul.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli war had left the city divided in two, with soldiers, minefields and coiled barbed wire gashing an often tense cease-fire line between Palestinian East and Israeli West. The line also divided the twin pillars of Kai’s life. The family’s rented house stood on the Arab side, but Kai attended the Anglican Mission School across the barbed wire. So he was driven almost daily through Mandelbaum Gate, the single crossing, its name drawn from the remnants of a once splendid family villa on the spot. (Technically the “gate” was two facing checkpoints.)

Ordinary Arabs and Jews could not cross, but Kai was an outsider. “My perspective was privileged,” he writes. The schoolboy’s commute across the chasm dividing the Middle East continued in a sense through more than two decades, culminating in his marriage to Susan Goldmark, the American-born daughter of Holocaust survivors. It is Bird’s various transits that inform his memoir, “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978.”

The result is a meandering family scrapbook cobbled together with an earnest, condensed history of the region during those years. It illuminates a common experience among expatriates who crisscross the Middle East without being emotionally bonded to any side. They grow frustrated that the Arabs and Israelis — whom they come to know as two vital, charming, urbane, hospitable peoples — cannot see past the sense of their own victim hood to accept the other as a neighbor.

“Most of the time I feel like telling Jews and Arabs alike that the best thing the U.S. could do is leave them their silly pile of rocks to fight over — for we couldn’t care less,” Bird’s mother, Jerine, wrote in a letter. (Bird relies heavily on his parents’ letters to reconstruct the family history.)

Ultimately, many foreigners do walk away, saddened that both sides would rather stunt their futures than compromise. Bird did. After leaving the Middle East, he worked as an editor at The Nation and wrote a string of biographies about major American figures, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 together with Martin J. Sherwin for their book about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

But he was pulled back to the Middle East both by the dramatic tales of his in-laws’ fleeing Nazi Austria and by nostalgia for his childhood spent among Palestinians, Saudis, Lebanese and Egyptians. Ignoring the region, he writes, was an “abdication.”

The Birds experienced the Middle East at a more innocent time. In 1965, Eugene was assigned to Cairo, and the family started its Egyptian sojourn with a three-week road trip in an American station wagon across North Africa from Casablanca.

This being the Middle East, however, each decade was punctuated by at least one major crisis. During the 1956 Suez war, Bird was evacuated from Jerusalem to Beirut, which he fondly remembers for his sudden access to hamburgers. At the start of the next war, in 1967, he was evacuated from Cairo to Greece; he packed his snorkeling gear. The United States, Bird notes, once made considerable progress in the Middle East by not hesitating to throw its weight around. The Eisenhower administration, for example, brokered a cease-fire during the Suez crisis by threatening Israel with economic sanctions.

Revisiting the Middle East after an extended hiatus, Bird sometimes strains to braid himself into current events. Maadi, his teenage home, he notes, was also where Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, was raised. Bird never met him, but writes, “I can easily imagine myself bicycling past the 14-year-old Ayman.”

Bird makes occasional mistakes. It was Tahseen Bashir, a witty Egyptian diplomat, who uttered the famous phrase that (except for his motherland) Middle Eastern countries were merely “tribes with flags.” Bird attributes it to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Arabic for a consultative council, or majlis al-shura, is rendered incorrectly as majlis al-shurwa.

And while Bird covers a lot of history, sometimes he tries to do too much too quickly, resulting in groaning sentences like this one about Saudi Arabia: “In the early morning hours of Nov. 20, 1979, some 300 to 500 extremists, led by a former national guardsman, Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al-Uteybi, seized control of Islam’s holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque of Mecca, which surrounds the Kaaba, the granite cuboidal structure draped with a black silk curtain, to which Muslims turn in prayer.”

Still, Bird sprinkles his book with engaging miniature portraits of overlooked characters and events. There is George Antonius, the Jerusalem author of a seminal work, “The Arab Awakening,” with his utopian vision of a democratic, multiethnic Palestine with all Jews, Arabs and Christians living as equal citizens. And there is Hillel Kook, confronting the United States about rescuing Europe’s Jews and then battling to keep Israel secular. Bird also recounts how the Saudi royal family ruthlessly put down a budding labor movement in the oil fields — political suppression feeding the tumor of Muslim extremism.

Bird experienced the Arab world at a distance, mostly from inside the cloister of American diplomatic compounds and expatriate schools. But the final quarter of the book, devoted to his in-laws’ escapes from the Nazis, gains vibrancy from his closeness to his subjects. Here the book rips along like a spy novel (even though we know how it comes out). Will Viktor Goldmark survive the war in a southern Italian internment camp or be dispatched to a more certain fate? When Helma Blühweis uses her fluent German and Aryan looks to work as a secretary at a Luftwaffe command center in Rome, will the officers discover that she is a Jew hoping to steal authentic letterhead for the resistance?

By the end, the book has succeeded in explaining the perspectives of two peoples who view the Middle East conflict through different lenses. One filters it through the Holocaust, or Shoah, the other through the Nakba, the Arabic word for the disaster wrought by Israel’s war of independence. Bird tells the sad twin stories of Mrs. Goldmark, his mother-in-law, being unable to reclaim her lost home in Graz, just as Dr. Vicken Kalbian, a Palestinian family friend in East Jerusalem, cannot recover his confiscated Jerusalem house.

These are mirror images, but the trauma engendered blocks each side from seeing its reflection in the other. What’s more, Bird argues, outsiders, in Washington in particular, have exploited the conflict for their own interests rather than pursuing true reconciliation.

At the age of 5, Bird attended a reception with his parents at Jerusalem’s landmark Ameri can Colony Hotel, where an elderly American heiress offered $1 million to anyone who could solve the Arab-Israel dispute. Tugging on his father’s sleeve, he says, “Daddy, we have to win this prize.” Sadly, more than 50 years later, no one has.

Neil MacFarquhar is the United Nations bureau chief for The Times. His latest book is “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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