Frederick Deknatel | May 12, 2010 This article appeared in the May 31, 2010 edition of The Nation.
One day in the fall of 1970, as he was studying Arabic in a mountain village overlooking Beirut, Kai Bird heard on the BBC that a plane hijacked by a group of young Arab men, “secular Marxists and Palestinian nationalists,” had landed at Beirut’s international airport. From his perch in the mountains the 19-year-old Bird had a view of the plane on the tarmac; he did not know that his girlfriend was one of its passengers. She was a hostage of the Dawson’s Field hijackings, which violently thrust the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood into international view and ended with three empty airliners exploding at a former RAF airstrip in the Jordanian desert.
Bird’s girlfriend survived the ordeal, and her story is a window onto Bird’s uncommon, personal and privileged perspective on the Middle East. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner; $30), Bird, a Nation contributing editor, sifts through his memories as the son of an American diplomat stationed in Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo and sets them against the region’s history over three busy decades. The book’s title refers to the barbed-wired checkpoint that demarcated the 1949 armistice line between Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem, and through which Bird and his father drove daily en route to the Anglican Mission School in West Jerusalem from their home in Sheikh Jarrah. Minus his father, Bird and his younger sister and mother evacuated Jerusalem for Beirut in 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt in an attempt to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser and seize the Suez Canal—a conflict that did not end until the following year, when David Ben-Gurion, under threat of economic sanctions from President Eisenhower, ordered Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. A decade later, again without his father, Bird’s family fled Cairo for Athens before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. In the early 1960s the Birds lived in a dusty consular compound in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, when the kingdom was comparatively open and not nearly as rich. Most expat families in the adjacent oil compound survived the desert with bathtub gin; Bird’s father smuggled in Scotch. During a second stint there in the 1970s, his parents counted among their friends Salem bin Laden, an urbane brother of Osama who “frequently dropped by our house in Riyadh and brought along his guitar so that he and Mother could play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes.”
Bird’s memoir is about understanding but rejecting borders as they were being redrawn and reinforced in the postwar Middle East, which he had the liberty to do as an American expatriate growing up “out of place.” Bird uses the phrase deliberately: it’s a nod to Edward Said’s description of statelessness, though Bird never likens his own wanderings to those of a refugee. The politics of Bird’s parents were a product of the bygone era of empathic Arabists in the Foreign Service; their son shared their support of the Palestinians. As a university student in Beirut he saw the Palestinian resistance grow armed and stout in a city that was the region’s cultural capital on the eve of civil war. The wholeness of Bird’s Middle Eastern story is really a longing for the Jerusalem of his childhood, before Israel’s victory over Nasser and the Arabs in 1967, when Mandelbaum Gate was demolished and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. “The Israelis proclaimed the city unified,” he writes. “It was not—and it is not.”
Bird was an earnest antiwar college student in the United States in the early 1970s when he met Susan Goldmark (whom he would later marry), and learned another lesson about dislocation. Goldmark is the daughter of Austrian Jews who fled the Holocaust, and stories of her parents’ escape to the Balkans and Italy and eventually to New York City came to serve as a foil for Bird’s view of Palestinian dispossession and Israeli aggression. Bird doesn’t equate their suffering but rather contemplates the collective failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile their histories of loss and victimhood. Among his parents’ friends in Jerusalem was an Armenian family with long ties to the city. They fled in 1948 and returned two years later, but their property had been expropriated. “The Kalbians identified themselves as Christian, Arabic-speaking Armenians whose home was Palestine,” Bird writes. The nascent Jewish state “regarded them as non-Jews and therefore Arabs.” Eventually they immigrated to America. Bird links their displacement with the plight of Susan’s parents. In 1959 she and her mother returned to Graz to knock on the door of their old house, stolen during the war by a neighbor, “to see what she had lost.”
Bird admits that he has long avoided writing about the Middle East because “I did not wish to spend my entire life forlornly trying to rectify the injustices of the Nakba and the Shoah.” With its conviction and range, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate avoids that futility. Bird’s honest book recalls a remark of the historian Albert Hourani about the Six-Day War: “Victory is a much less profound experience than defeat.”
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