Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, By Kai Bird Reviewed by Julia Pascal, The Independent Friday, 30 July 2010
How to understand the Middle East? This is the central question behind Pulitzer Prize-winner Kai Bird's compelling memoir and historical analysis of the past 60 years. Bird is the son of an American foreign service officer who spent his youth in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon. From his schoolboy impressions the reader learns about growing up American in postwar Saudi, just as the US launches the House of Saud's petro-dollar economy and Aramco's giant fortunes.
He takes us through the complexity of the House of Saud's political manoeuvres. The monarchy simultaneously courted US capitalism and Wahhabi fundamentalism in its desperate attempt to retain control of the region. Bird reveals the dangers of this contradictory strategy: the palace intrigues, the struggle between modernism and feudal Islam, and the dirty deals between the monarchy, the CIA and the Saudi princes. When his father, as a US diplomat, is expelled from Egypt after the humiliation of the 1967 Six Day War, Bird is back in the US, a conscientious objector refusing the Vietnam draft. He demonstrates against cluster bombs and ends up briefly in jail.
Although the US is the where the action appears to be in the early 1970s, Bird longs to get back to the Middle East. He returns to Beirut just as Black September starts hijacking planes to attract the media to the plight of the Palestinians. A natural supporter of George Habash and Leila Khaled, Bird is forced to revise his politics when his girlfriend is held by hijackers. A meeting with one makes him realise he is closer to Gandhi's non-violent action than the tactics of the PLO.
Bird's Middle Eastern experience deepens when he falls in love with Susan Goldmark. Her parents were Holocaust survivors. What is fascinating about this book is the way a natural sympathy for the Palestinians gains layers when Bird learns of his new family's displacement, exile and murder.
If Bird is furious with the Israelis for rejecting the Palestinians' claim to their land, he is equally enraged when his mother-in-law returns to her Austrian home only to be shown the door. He allows the reader to understand the full circle of Shoah to Nakba, and how impossible it is to understand Middle Eastern history without accessing the trauma of the Holocaust.
A natural optimist, Bird tries to find hope even in the stalemate of the Palestinian-Israeli catastrophe. Were there moments that might have solved it? He suggests that Jordan's expulsion of the Palestinians was an error and that, had they stayed, Jordan may well have been re-formed as Palestine. But his main thesis is that Israel should have become a secular Hebrew state for Arabs and Jews as advocated by former Irgunist Hillel Kook in 1948.
It's a provocative thesis and one which Bird himself admits may seem naive today. We can only hope that his desire for an enlightened, secular Israel-Palestine is no crazy dream and share his belief that the power of Wahhabism is nearing its end.