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

Avi Steinberg review in Haaretz - April 2010


Haaretz review by Avi Steinberg: "Between the Nakba and the Shoah"

| Between the Nakba and the Shoah

By Avi Steinberg

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, by Kai Bird Scribner, 448 pages, $30 

Somewhere in the wasteland around Ein Mallaha, in the country's far north , Mark Twain started to get the picture. "I must begin a system of reduction," he wrote in his travelogue. "Like the grapes which the spies bore out of the Promised Land, I have got everything in Palestine on too large a scale." No, the land was not as big as a continent, as he'd been raised to believe. The great kings of the Bible were in fact small-time clan leaders; the epic battles more closely resembled shepherd squabbles. 

To balance out the noble excesses of the ancient authors and, more to the point, to refute the melodramatic nonsense of his contemporaries, Twain committed himself to single-handedly paring the Holy Land down to size. For this task, he wielded the heavy sword of satire. (Perhaps this accounts for his earnest admiration of the sword of Godfrey the Crusader, which he later encounters at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre ). At the core of Twain's new Holy Land realism was this purposeful "system of reduction" -- and it remains the main literary errand for chroniclers of a land upon which the fog of war is ever-thickening, and whose outsized myths seem to grow increasingly unwieldy. 

Kai Bird has accepted the challenge. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for his 2005 biography (co-authored with Martin J. Sherwin ) of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist best known as director of the Manhattan Project, Bird sets out to scale down the Middle East conflict to the size of a single human life -- namely, his own. In "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978," a hybrid of memoir and history, Bird recalls the Middle East of his childhood.

The son of an Oregon-raised American Foreign Service officer, he first arrived in Jordanian East Jerusalem in 1956, at the age of 4. Within weeks, the Suez war broke out and the U.S. State Department evacuated all dependents. While his father continued working at the consulate, Bird, his younger sister and mother were flown to Beirut, where they remained in a state of limbo for months. Thus began the author's nomadic existence as a Foreign Service brat. 

After the two-year posting in Jerusalem, during which Bird crossed almost daily through the heavily guarded Mandelbaum Gate to get to the Anglican Missionary School in Israeli West Jerusalem, the family moved back to Washington, D.C. A few years later, Bird's father was re-posted to Beirut, where the family lived for another two-year stint. Then it was off to a new posting in the frontier town of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where the family's phone number was simply 34. After three years there, and an interlude back in the States, the family took road trip across North Africa from Casablanca to their new home in Egypt. Bird lived in Cairo for the beginning of high school, until the U.S. consulate was abruptly evacuated, this time because of the Six-Day War. He spent the remainder of his high school years in India, where his father was posted next. After a year at Carleton College, in Minnesota, Bird returned to Beirut for a year of study "abroad." Throughout the 1970s, Bird continued wandering these Middle Eastern routes as a young journalist. 

Drawing on various sources, including his parents' wonderful personal correspondences, interviews, historical research and of course, his own memory, Bird pulls together a quirky personal narrative, peppered with Foreign Service gossip, CIA intrigues and richly understated atmospherics. Of one of the last animals remaining in the evacuated Israeli zoo on Mount Scopus in the 1950s (an enclave of Israeli sovereignty isolated within Jordanian Jerusalem ), Bird writes, "across the ravine in no-man's land we could hear the roar of a hungry lion." Of the Israeli air blitz over Egypt at start of the 1967 war, Bird offers this elegant detail: "Later that morning shrapnel fell from the sky into the embassy garden." 

In one of the book's most gripping -- and troubling -- chapters, Bird narrates the story of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's 1970 hijacking of an airplane on which his college girlfriend just happened to be a passenger. Weeks after the hijackers' demands were met and the hostages released, Bird startlingly "marched in solidarity with the Palestinians through the streets of Beirut, protesting the fact that the Rogers Plan had no provision for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. 

"They hijacked my girlfriend, and held her hostage for three days and four nights in the Jordanian desert, but I still thought of them as the victims in this long conflict," he writes. "I was still very much a partisan." There is a candid mix of shame and proud defiance in this admission. 

'No one understands Osama'' 

The book brims with legions of Bird's father's larger-than-life acquaintances -- the impish, worldly multi-millionaire Salem Bin Laden, head of the Bin Laden clan, for example, who in the 1970s tells Bird's parents, "No one in the family understands why Osama became so religious." 

Most revealing are the suggestions of how tribal identities were manifest in a foreign child who happened to be growing up amid conflict. Even as a very young boy, Bird was painfully aware of his, and his family's, uncertain alliances. Driving through the Mandelbaum Gate one afternoon during the Suez crisis, Bird suddenly noticed that a button he was wearing -- a gift from a Palestinian playmate -- bore the image of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In a panic, he called out to his father to stop the car, terrified the button would make him a target in West Jerusalem. He was 5 years old at the time. 

Shortly thereafter, once Bird, his sister and mother have been evacuated to Beirut, his mother describes her children's games, which seem to lay bare the fears, biases and delicate negotiations of their expat community. "It is all about war," she writes to her husband. "Getting shot, very realistic bombs and explosions and then proper moans and groans of the wounded, even play about getting through gates, hiding from bad soldiers, protecting the good ones ... they even remember here to say only the right (Arabic) words and use no Hebrew." Reflecting back, Bird notes that "in my childish mind the 'bad soldiers' were the Israelis." 

For the intimate and often messy way in which they refract large trends -- the passions and confusions of the moment -- these small personal details are the book's gems. And though he offers them generously throughout, they are not, alas, the essence of his narrative. Bird is a big-picture man. Unlike his hassled mother, who has wisely decided to stop getting out of bed to investigate whether every "big boom in the middle of the [Jerusalem] night" is, as she suspects, sniper fire, Bird the author eagerly jumps out of bed, as it were, to investigate every angle of each "big boom." He always asks: Who fired first? Why? Was it necessary? Was it excessive? Who sold them the guns? And so forth. 

These subjects of endless op-ed debates are the ruin of personal narratives, especially those of the Middle Eastern variety -- yet Bird seems powerless to resist. As a historian and biographer, he is drawn to the loud noises, the big questions, the big personalities: Who really started the 1956 and 1967 wars? Were the Americans and Israelis foolish to prevent the PLO from toppling the Hashemite regime in Jordan in 1970? Will democracy ever take hold in Saudi Arabia? What ought to be the relationship between Judaism and the Israeli state? Was historian George Antonius a prophet? What made hijacker Leila Khaled tick? Was Nasser misunderstood? Bird's account is littered with these and many other such Big Questions, each of which might, and often has, taken up an entire book. His personal narrative, full of delicate original details, is drowned out by Middle Eastern pontification. 

Bird, for example, burdens the reader with his criticism of Nasser's critics: "[They] have repeatedly claimed that he intended to 'throw the Jews into the sea.' To be sure, he wasn't happy with the Israeli state -- but no one has ever been able to cite a single one of his private or public utterances to support such a charge. It is a canard." Let us ignore the imprecise formulation of "he wasn't happy with the Israeli state," and Bird's own later citation of Nasser's pre-Six-Day War statement that "our objective will to be to destroy Israel," for there is a more pressing question: Why on earth is Bird discussing Nasser in such depth? 

This problem is ubiquitous in "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate," most glaringly in the chapter on Saudi Arabia, where Bird's considerable narrative talents are spent on describing Saudi royal intrigues and the satanic history of American oilmen in the kingdom, and on an almost minute-by-minute account of the 1979 siege of Mecca. Anything but his own experiences in the country. 

Similarly, the book's third and final section spins even further off track. There, it seems the author is struggling to justify the book's subtitle, "Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis," as Bird seems to have grown up in nearly every Middle Eastern country except for Israel, and his most extended and serious contact with Israelis came later. Nevertheless, in order to achieve a quixotic need for balance -- as though growing up as a foreigner in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon were not interesting enough -- he reconstructs the dramatic Holocaust narratives of his wife's parents, neither of whom is Israeli. The story finally comes to rest on an actual Israeli, the intriguing gadfly and avowed "post-Zionist" Hillel Kook. With Kook, Bird reveals his hand. 

"I remain convinced that Kook's ideas about Israeli identity are essential to any lasting resolution of the conflict," writes Bird. "As a biographer, I have always believed that one man's life story can shed light on a larger historical epoch. So it is with Kook." Perhaps. But the enduring premise of "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate" remains that this particular emblematic life story belonged to Kai Bird himself. Instead, we enter into yet another detailed and fascinating mini-history, this time of Kook, that bears only the loosest connection to the author's own narrative. 

Regardless of its flaws, "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate" is an engaging book that has the immediacy of a passionate historian turning his attention to the places he once called home. In one of the book's more affecting moments, Bird reflects on the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 17 Americans and 46 Lebanese. With characteristic understatement, Bird glances at the wreckage and says, "my childhood home in Beirut was gone." Although he insists on seeing himself as privileged, the reality is that the Beirut bombing was only the starkest example of a general truth: Bird himself lost as many homes as he gained, sometimes as the direct result of war. Indeed, the very possibility of a stable childhood home -- of a hometown and home country -- was deferred amid constant Middle Eastern upheaval. Even as he obsesses over the question of refugees, he is himself a man with no home.

Buried beneath the author's vicarious exploration of the region's Big Narratives, the oft-told stories of Arab and Jewish dispossession -- which he describes grandly as "the Nakba and the Shoah. The bookends of my life" -- is Bird's actual, quieter drama of home and the loss of home. Though it is not the Nakba or the Shoah, nor anything as immense, it is authentically his own. 

Avi Steinberg is the author of a forthcoming memoir, "Running the Books" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday ), in which he recounts his experiences working as a prison librarian. 

Haaretz Books, April 2010

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