The only extended stay that most American collegiates have outside the United States occurs during a study-abroad program. By the time Kai Bird enrolled in college, he had already spent over 15 years away from his birthplace. As the son of a career Foreign Service officer, for Bird, the calm, rooted childhood of suburban America was replaced by a life of incessant relocation and cultural readjustment. Raised in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Bird was always considered an outsider by his neighbors. As much a stranger to Americans as he was to those he was raised among, Bird’s formative years were spent straddling two worlds, neither of which he could ever claim as his own.
Now a journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and committed expatriate, Bird combines memoir, history, and public policy prescriptions in Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978.
Bird informs us in the preface that his latest product is a departure from his line of acclaimed biographies, most notably that of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He insists that this is not a 9/11 book, leading the reader to hope that “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” will diverge from the ex post facto denunciations of American oversight, foreign policy, and national defense that so thickly color books like Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower” and Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars.
However, it would be a mistake to hope for too much. Despite what it says in the preface, Bird’s original guarantee is quickly forgotten, at least by the author.
This book, like all books written after the fall of the Twin Towers, is very much a 9/11 book. “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” is a historical narration of modern Middle East history tempered with intermittent splashes of Bird’s childhood memories. The cool third-person prose is the journalist in Bird trying to determine how the struggle, strife, and conflict that defined his boyhood years could have morphed into two smoking towers in lower Manhattan.
Bird is fixated on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution. As every son must bear a trace of the passions of his father, Bird is writing to understand how the work and life of his diplomat dad informs his character and worldview today. His acknowledgment of this personal search is evident in the dedication to his son Joshua, who he instructs to “invent his own identities.”
But Bird’s writing is refreshing, especially aside the omniscient pens of Wright and Coll. Unlike many of his peers, Bird thrives in ambiguity and refuses to parse the minutiae of Arab-Israeli history with battle dates and political decisions, instead opting for an individual approach. Bird delves deeply into the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian question by relaying his mother-in-law’s personal story of survival during the Holocaust.
Marrying the Jewish daughter of two Holocaust survivors helps Bird to grasp how the pathos of a broken people nurtured the steadfast resolve to never again allow such a violation. And yet growing up in Palestinian East Jerusalem in the 1950s permitted Bird to also comprehend the horror faced by his Arab neighbors upon being expelled from their longtime homes.
Bird is deeply troubled with the violent impasse that has defined Israeli-Palestinian relations since the Nakba, the Palestinian term for Israel’s inception (which translates roughly to “the catastrophe”). Bird reserves the last two paragraphs of his mostly objective handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to condemn the violent chauvinism of what he terms “militant Zionism.” This spitfire prescription for peace is over as quickly as it begins, and sits oddly as the culmination of a book otherwise devoid of such strident declarations.
Cooler heads prevail in the epilogue, a nine-page essay that grapples with the diverse topics addressed throughout the book: Bird’s own diffuse identity, the fate of the Arab world, and the similar narrative of expulsion and persecution shared by the Palestinians and Israelis.
“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” adopts the tone of a personal confessional, a protest for peace, and an examination into Bird’s role in his family’s nomadic history. There is no better way for a foreigner to begin to understand the newly partitioned Jerusalem of 1950 than to read of Bird’s earliest memories. Whether poking his head outside his bedroom into the bustling 1950s Arab street or staring wide-eyed at fully armed Israeli soldiers, there was no avoiding the constant murmur of war. Pleas for peace and entreaties for reconciliation have done little to silence that murmur to this day.
Jackson Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.