One Sunday morning last spring, while sitting in a local coffee shop and reading the book reviews in The New York Times I came across a review by Neil MacFarquhar of a new Middle East memoir by the son of a former American diplomat. Since I had just finished reading MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East just a few weeks prior, I felt a slight connection to the reviewer and thus was naturally intrigued by what he had to say about the recently published memoir. Judging by his review of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 it sounded like MacFarquhar thought the book was good, but not outstanding. Therefore, I figured I might try to read it someday, but I probably wouldn’t make it a huge priority.
Then, one weekend during one of my frequent library visits I came across of copy of Bird’s memoir sitting on a shelf with about a dozen or so other new books. After weighing the pros and cons of adding yet another library book to my reading pile, I cautiously grabbed it. After burning through it in what seemed like mere days I’m really glad I did. Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is terrific memoir of boy’s coming of age during the turbulent sixties and seventies as one grand event after another unfolded in the world’s more volatile region.
I enjoyed Bird’s memoir for a number of reasons, but just as I did with Saul Bellow’s 1976 memoir To Jerusalem and Back, I really liked how Bird was able to vividly depict a Middle East that no longer exists. Over the last 10 years we’ve come to associate the region in which the most bloody episodes have had their roots in the ongoing conflicts of Israeli versus Palestinian and Islam versus the West, (or just recently the struggles for democracy known as the Arab Spring). However, before the eighties the region’s dynamics were seen mostly through the lens of pan-Arab nationalism, in addition to Israel’s conflict with its neighboring Arab countries, (as opposed to its own Palestinian population). Bird in his memoir touches on all of this as well as other forgotten events in this Middle East of years gone by, including:
- A June 1948 brief proto-civil which erupted between rival Israeli factions over the control of the munitions ship Altalena which resulted in the death of over 3o Irgun nationalists.
- A 1970 bloody civil war between Palestinians living in Jordan and forces loyal to the Jordanian monarchy would grow to involve the armed forces of both Iraq and Syria. Only after the threats of Israeli airstrikes and superpower intervention would the Iraqis and Syrians back down and allow the Jordanians to crush the rebellious Palestinians.
- A group of armed Islamists would seize control of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 and would only be dislodged with the assistance of French special forces. The battle, one of the bloodiest events in recent Saudi history, is still a forbidden topic of discussion in the Kingdom and is also the subject of a superb book by Yaroslav Trofimov appropriately titled The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine.
Besides providing a great source of information about this long-forgotten version of the Middle East, Kai Bird does a great job retelling the adventures of him and that of his family while his father served as America’s diplomat in the region. Living in this area during such a tumultuous time, Bird’s life almost takes on a Forest Gump-like quality. For instance:
- In 1956 while stationed in East Jerusalem, his father Eugene approved the visa application of a young Christian Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. Twelve years later Sirhan would assassinate U.S. Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy.
- While living in Saudi Arabia, the Bird family would become close friends with Salem bin Laden, the older brother of Osama bin Laden. At one point Salem would remark to Kai’s parents, “no one in the family understands why Osama became so religious”.
- In the mid-1960s while the elder Bird was posted to Cairo, Kai’s family lived in the somewhat fashionable Maadi neighborhood, home to not only Miles Copeland, (CIA agent and father of Stuart Copeland, drummer for The Police) but the family of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
- Back home in America as a college student attending Carlton College, Kai would take part in anti-war demonstrations, inspired be his young Political Science professor Paul Wellstone. Professor Wellstone would eventually go on to be a two-term U.S. Senator before dying in a plane crash in 2002. By the way, one of those protests that Kai participated in would be covered by a young reporter by the name of Molly Ivins.
- As a precursor to al-Qaeda’s habit of coordinating several terrorist attacks simultaneously, the Palestinian group Black September took five airliners hostage in September 1970. On board one of those planes was Kai’s high school girlfriend Joy Riggs.
I found this to be a great book and undoubtably will make my “best of” list of the favorite books I read in 2011. Besides being a joy to read, Bird’s book is the perfect blend of the personal and the pivotal. I highly recommend it.