As a five-year-old in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem in the 1950s, Kai Bird overheard an elderly American heiress offering $1 million to anyone who could solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Tugging on his father’s sleeve, he said: ‘Daddy, we have to win this prize.’ Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Bird’s memoir of growing up in the Middle East, is full of such generosity and innocence.
In 1956, Kai’s father, Eugene Bird, moved his young family from Oregon to East Jerusalem, where he was to serve as American vice-consul in a city divided in two by the 1949 armistice line. Kai grew up in a rented villa half a mile from the lovely old American Colony boarding house in the Arab East — now Tony Blair’s Jerusalem ‘gaff’— and crossed over to the Anglican Mission School in the Israeli West through the barbed-wire and check points of Mandelbaum Gate. Above their house, Kai could hear the roaring of a lion from a Biblical Zoo kept by the Israelis on Mount Scopus.
If Kai’s parents were ‘blank slates’ — good-hearted, industrious, churchy, not especially well-informed — he passed between the two warring camps as ‘an exotic and privileged observer’ right up to and including his marriage to a Jewish fellow student at college in Minnesota, Susan Goldmark.
Bird is a good writer. American Prom- etheus, his book with Martin Sherwin on the nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, more than merited its Pulitzer and, in this country, the Duff Cooper Prize. Yet Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is miscellaneous and a little muffled in comparison.
On the plus side, remote events such as Suez in 1956, the June War in 1967 and Black September in 1970 are as clear and fresh as yesterday. That is no small achievement. On the minus side, Bird’s experience of public events is as restricted as you would expect of a US foreign-service brat in an age of rising nationalism.
In the early sections, first in Jerusalem and then in the oil company town, Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, Bird uses his parents’ letters to good effect. Trying not to tilt towards one or other side, Kai’s mother, Jerine, gets it spot-on: ‘I find that most people are prejudiced for the side on which they live.’ Later, in September 1970, Kai finds that his girlfriend from boarding school in India, Joy Riggs, is on the BOAC VC-10 hijacked to Dawson’s Field.
Yet in other sections, such as his account of the rise of Bin Ladenism in Saudi Arabia, Bird relies for both narrative and background on standard English-language versions or imagines himself into history. At one point he fancies passing Ayman al-Zawahiri on his bicycle in the Cairo suburb of Maadi in 1965. The effect is like one of those family albums in which snapshots of an utterly vanished social world are interspersed with newspaper cuttings.
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate comes alive only with Bird’s investigations into the adventures of Susan’s parents in Europe in the second world war. Her father, Viktor Goldmark, more than prospers in the Italian concentration camp at Ferramonti in Calabria, and even manages to run off with a doctor’s wife. Her mother, Helma Bluehweis, makes her way in agonising stages from Graz to Zagreb to the South Tyrol and then Rome, where she teaches prostitutes German and, working as a secretary for the Luftwaffe, manages to steal letterheads for the forgers of the Resistance.
Bird’s devotion to his beautiful wife and her family gives him a new approach to his memories of the Middle East. ‘Armed struggle,’ he writes, ‘was the worst tactic the Palestinians could have used against a whole society marked by trauma and paranoia.’ The present strategic situation, where Israeli militarism appears to have run out of road, Bird traces back to the days of triumph after the defeat of the Arab armies in 1967: ‘The June War was an unmitigated disaster for Israel. Indeed, one might say the only outcome that could have been worse for Israel was losing the war.’
James Buchan’s latest novel is The Gate of Air (MacLehose Press).