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

Kanal Dixit review in Republica, Kathmandu - July 12, 2010


Republica - July 12, 2010 (Kathmandu)

Republica – Kathmandu, July 12, 2010 Gateway to Palestine KANAK MANI DIXIT

Battered as it has been with the relentless run of urgent political developments over the last dozen years, Nepal’s national intelligentsia has lost its ability to hold and build opinion on the grand global narratives of our times. Whether it is the violent end of the Sri Lankan conflict a year ago, the continuing incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi, the spurt of suicide bombings in Karachi and Lahore, or the violence currently playing out in Srinagar, we have become passive consumers of news.

If even the subcontinental neighborhood is so neglected, we could perhaps be forgiven for having ignored the six decades of contorted West Asian history. Who asks the Question of Palestine in Kathmandu today? The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla in May was but a blip on local television screens. Just when we are in need of empathy-arousing material, here comes a work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Kai Bird, penned incidentally in his Sitapaila home in the valley’s northwest, in full view of Swayambhunath.

As a young adult, this reviewer’s worldview was fashioned by Time and Newsweek, and hence favored the United States and Israel when it came to events in Vietnam or Palestine. However, the layers of bias gradually got erased over time, especially while working in the 1980s for the United Nations Secretariat – where I got the opportunity to research and write the UN’s public information booklet, “The United Nations and the Question of Palestine”.

As a new member of the UN, Nepal swam against the non-aligned current of the day when, in 1960, BP Koirala’s government recognized the state of Israel. In so doing, he defied the other greats of those times, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sukarno. Today, Nepal has developed into a wretched aid recipient, and the last time it took up an international initiative was in the 1970s, during the Law of the Seas negotiations.

During my time in New York, the name Kai Bird used to jump out of the pages of the liberal weekly The Nation, with some refreshingly independent writing. The name suggested, to me, a woman of East Asian ancestry. It was only much later, in Kathmandu, that one got to know the author as a progressive American male, whose unusual worldview was built from growing up elsewhere, as an outsider. From the book under review, it is clear that the author rather cherishes being “out of place”, whether “suffering the unfairness of exclusion” in school in Saudi Arabia, in college back home, among intellectuals in West Asia, or even while writing the current memoir in Kathmandu. For a person holding unconventional views, constantly having to defend himself, Kai Bird also comes across as surprisingly vulnerable.


‘Kai’ means mustard in Mandarin. The author was christened after a refugee from the People’s Republic befriended by the author’s intrepid parents – whose exposure to Palestinian issues, as culled from scores of letters, forms the narrative core of much of this book. Again and again, his family life intersects with the tides of history, as we are taken from old Palestine to wartime Europe and the new Israel.

The author is successful in seamlessly integrating his “childhood impressions with a larger historical narrative.” His diplomat father was friends with Salem bin Laden, eldest brother of Osama bin Laden, when the family served in Saudi Arabia. (“No one in the family understands why Osama became so religious,” Salem told his parents.) Ayman al-Zawahiri, the operational commander of al-Qaeda, lived in the same Cairo neighborhood as the Birds.

Weaving family history and world history, the presently Kathmandu-based author brings to life the reality of Palestinian disfranchisement against the backdrop of the Holocaust.

Kai’s girlfriend, Joy, from the time he attended school in Kodaikanal, happened to be in one of the four passenger jets blown up by the PLFP fedayeen in the desert sands of north Jordan in 1970. (She and hundreds of other passengers were evacuated before the blasts.) The secular, Marxist, Arab nationalists who perfected the ‘art’ of the airplane hijack during the 1970s were a civilization removed from the jihadists of 9/11, however.

When the author finds Leila Khaled in Amman, this legendary hijacker is now leading the life of a middle-aged housewife. She once survived an assassination attempt in Beirut when she looked for her slippers under her bed and found an explosive device. Palestine is still a mirage, but the revolutionary’s fervor has not diminished: Leila Khaled remains “committed to a single binational, secular democratic state in the whole of Palestine.”

The author highlights the many wrong turns over the decades which prevented an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The worst would have been Israel’s pursuit and assassination of Yasser Arafat’s moderate colleagues by Israel, those very people who advised accepting the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza). Earlier, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had succumbed to the dictates of the orthodox rabbinate, weakening Israel as a secular democracy at the very writing of its constitution in 1948. We also find US President Lyndon B Johnson so preoccupied by the Vietnam War that he misses signals coming from the Arab world about the acceptability of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and its “land for peace” formula.

The triumphalism of the 1967 Six Day War – sold as a fight between the Israeli David and the Arab Goliath – was actually a disaster whichever way you read it, writes Kai Bird. In an incisive section, he describes how the war doomed the secular Arab moderates and led to the ascendancy of political, jihadist Islam. Just as later Washington DC backed the Taliban against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it supported the Muslim Brotherhood against Nasser in Egypt, helping to build the jihadist force that has us all in thrall to this day.

The origin of Osama’s jihad is linked to the rise of the House of Saud, whose rule in Arabia was consolidated in the aftermath of the First World War by subjugating the other tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. The Sauds used the help of the ruthless Ikhwan warriors, but by the 1970s relations had soured. When the Ikhwan rebels laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, King Faisal needed the Wahhabi ulema to issue a fatwa authorizing the use of firearms around the Kaa’ba. The pound of flesh that the Ulema extracted from King Faisal was liberal funding of the propagation of the Wahhabi faith, in-country and abroad. “Large cash payments were made to some of the most backward and retrograde members of the Ulema,” we are told.


Mandelbaum Gate was the point where, after 1948, one crossed from Israeli occupied territory into Arab East Jerusalem. Crossing Mandelbaum Gate ultimately concentrates on the Question of Palestine, and Western and Zionist complicity in that regard. It was the British who adopted the Balfour Declaration, approving a Jewish national home on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean – and who later unsuccessfully partitioned Palestine, as they did the subcontinent. The author does not let us forget that, as Jews were being industrially eliminated in Europe, the American Jewish establishment was preventing those fleeing the pogrom from entering the US, for fear of a rise in anti-Semitism. “The Americans were not giving visas to the poor emaciated people from Auschwitz,” who were encouraged to migrate to Palestine.

Since then, the global decision-makers have kept largely silent as Israel has used the memory of the Holocaust to justify nearly everything it does. Back in the 1950s, writes Kai Bird, “Most UN observers could not help but condemn Israelis for disproportionate number of casualties inflicted in the course of their retaliatory raids.” This disproportion in the value of human life, Israeli vis-a-vis Palestinian, remains very much in place today.

An archival researcher who takes after the great American investigative reporter IF Stone, Kai Bird’s last work was on the tormented nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, while very much the researcher, he injects his own life story into the narrative, in a manner that throws open the one crucial contradiction in the six decades of Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The author’s very upbringing and friendships make him empathetic towards what is referred to as the Nakba, the catastrophe the birth of Israel heralded for the Palestinians. Then there was his marriage to Susan Goldmark, a child of Holocaust survivors, which forces the author to confront the Shoah, the calamity that visited European Jews.

Peace in historical Palestine, Kai Bird suggests, requires the acknowledgment of history by both Israelis and Palestinians – the former acknowledging the Nakba, the latter the Shoah. Here lies the central contradiction, which has kept the Question of Palestine smouldering all these decades. The Holocaust is a singular reality of world history that the perpetrator societies must confront head on. One must accept the fact that the Palestinians were not party to that calamity, and yet were, and are being, asked to pay the price.

Accepting the reality of Jewish immigration to Palestine, the ideal solution would have been a single, bi-national, secular state, much as Leila Khaled wants. That being out of reach, and accepting geopolitical reality, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership were willing to accept a two-state solution. But even this solution is not in sight, with the Palestinians as the underdogs in the geopolitics of West Asia.

The power of Kai Bird’s book lies in its demand that the dwarapalas – the gatekeepers – of the American establishment clean their lenses and try to perceive the Palestinians as humans equal to the citizens of Israel.

(The publication of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is being celebrated today at the YalaMaya Kendra, Patan Dhoka, with the program “Kanak Mani Dixit in Conversation with Kai Bird”. Time: 6 pm. Admission is open.)

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