Book review: 'Crossing Mandelbaum Gate' by Kai Bird 04:46 PM CDT on Monday, June 7, 2010
By EMILY L. HAUSER / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News firstname.lastname@example.org Memoir and history don't always sit comfortably together, the former depending on memory's vicissitudes, the latter demanding rigorous scholarship.
But history is nothing if not the story of lives lived, and any writer who can successfully merge the two offers a real gift, and such is the gift offered by author Kai Bird.
The son of an American diplomat, Bird moved to East Jerusalem as a boy in 1956. Bird's life has since remained entwined with developments in the Middle East: The family resided in Sheikh Jarrah, the very neighborhood that today features in news stories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mandelbaum Gate was the border post through which Bird traveled to school every day. It also served as the point at which Israeli soldiers oversaw the flow from the then-Jordanian controlled side of the city, as Palestinian families separated by violence shouted greetings and news through the barbed wire.
The checkpoint was destroyed after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, but it remains a potent symbol for Bird: "Mandelbaum Gate's barbed wire and tank barriers once divided people. But perhaps it is important to remember that it was also a meeting ground. ... Perhaps Mandelbaum Gate also remains as a symbol of hope ... and a reminder that these divisions cannot last forever."
Bird follows the trajectory of his family's vagabond diplomatic life, depicting not just the Arab-Israeli conflict but also life in 1960s Saudi Arabia, Cairo of the Nasser era and the late-60s American anti-war movement.
He weaves carefully researched recollections of his upbringing, as well as tales of his wife's Holocaust-survivor parents, into the history of the era.
He refuses to accept standard historical conventions and tropes, bringing to bear a kind of honest compassion that acknowledges suffering and human limitation, but accepts neither as an excuse for bad behavior.
For example, in discussing the 1967 Six-Day War (a war widely seen as provoked by the Arab nations and almost universally considered an enormous Israeli success), Bird writes that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser "didn't realize it, but he was creating the dynamics for a war he didn't want and couldn't win." Noting that the Arabs' eventual defeat was devastating, Bird adds that "most Americans don't understand what a calamity [it] was for America, as well," postulating that it "also spelled the end of old-fashioned Zionism." He quotes Israeli author Amos Kenan on the Israeli triumph: "We have lost the victory."
Part of what makes Crossing Mandelbaum Gate so fascinating is the entirely odd way in which Bird's life story happens to intersect, time and again, with people and events central to contemporary history.
In the late 1970s, for instance, a Saudi multimillionaire and good friend of Bird's parents expressed concern about his younger brother: "No one in the family understands why Osama became so religious," Salem bin Laden once remarked to the elder Birds.
As a result of his childhood, Bird never fully feels at home when back in America ("no one understood that I was a foreigner"), and his account is as much about the intricacy of a single life as it is an examination of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
A tendency to nest stories within stories makes this tale Byzantine at points, but also serves to reflect the untidy humanity that Bird seeks to honor in this provocative and deeply absorbing work.
Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli freelance writer; she has been covering the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s.