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

The Economist - July 31, 2010


The Economist July 31, 2010

The Economist

Growing up in the Middle East Tomorrow, when apricots come The Arab world in the 1950s Jul 29th 2010 Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978. By Kai Bird. Simon & Schuster; 448 pages; $30 and £17.99. Buy from,

QUITE a few unfortunates have been bitten by the pernicious Jerusalem bug. Unless dealt with firmly at an early stage, the infection can lead to too much time spent fussing over the seemingly impossible problem of how to split the land that has Jerusalem as its capital between two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, who each know themselves to be the rightful owner. Kai Bird, infected as a small boy, clearly tried to take remedial measures (living in south Asia, producing several biographies to do with atomic warfare) but has now given in, writing a book of childhood memories embedded in chunks of historical narrative.

With so much injustice in the world, why does the injustice done to the Palestinians still rank so high? Partly, of course, because it contributes to Islamic anger and, consequently, terrorism. But also because of the cruelty of the irony: Palestinians are plain unlucky to have Jews as adversaries, a people who have suffered a more awful tragedy. For Israelis, as Mr Bird remarks, “the Shoah [the Holocaust] always trumps the Nakba [the catastrophe, or dispossession]”. The author himself, though deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, is aware through his wife Susan, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, that there is another side.

He was too little to have many direct memories of Jerusalem, where his father was America’s vice-consul for a couple of years in the mid-1950s. He recollects being driven each day from his family’s house in the Palestinian-Jordanian east through the Mandelbaum Gate, a grim, heavily guarded passageway in no-man’s-land, to his school in the Jewish-Israeli west. He remembers the ringing of bells, the call to prayer and the braying of donkeys in the street; his best friend, Dani, had a Palestinian father and a Jewish mother. But mainly he draws on his parents’ letters, particularly his mother’s. They came to Jerusalem as innocents from Oregon but the unfairness hit them and soon she was writing “I now find it difficult to understand the refusal of the Israelis to regard themselves as the aggressors”. They had several aristocratic, cosmopolitan Palestinian friends. But many Palestinians resented the American government, not in those days because of its tight links to Israel, but because of the support, together with fat CIA brown envelopes, that it gave to their ruler at the time, Jordan’s King Hussein.

After Jerusalem, the family moved to Saudi Arabia and, later, Egypt. Mr Bird is amusing about the Aramco oil company reservation in Dhahran in the 1960s, where the all-American oil families lived a comfortable colonial life in a desert camp as exclusive as any white gated suburb (though minus teenagers and the elderly), their main hobby distilling forbidden alcohol. Diplomats came low in the pecking order, inferior to oil officials with their excellent access to Saudi royals and way behind the CIA, kingmakers in those cold-war days. But the Birds did make friends with Salem bin Laden, Osama’s witty, free-spending eldest brother who died in 1988 flying his plane into a power line. “No one in the family,” Salem remarked, “understands why Osama became so religious.”

Later Mr Bird recounts the terrifying story of his wife’s mother. A beautiful teenage Austrian Jew, Helma escaped from Graz to spend the war hiding from her persecutors in Yugoslavia and Italy, working for a time for the Italian resistance. She never talked of her tribulations but Susan somehow absorbed her fears. At different points in his story, Mr Bird tells of two visits to old homes. Arab-Armenian friends went back to their family house in west Jerusalem; Helma took Susan to see her old home in Graz. Both the Armenians and Helma were allowed to see what they had lost. But that was it.

Mourning all the opportunities missed through the years, Mr Bird looks, without silly optimism, to a post-Zionist era when a secular Hebrew republic is open to all, when victimhood is pushed into the past and territorial compromise achieved between Hebrew-speakers and Arabic-speakers. Improbable, but then the solution to the Arab-Israeli stalemate has long been startlingly simple—if only there were trust and goodwill.

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