Crossing Mandelbaum Gate

Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

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PULITZER PRIZE WINNER KAI BIRD’S fascinating memoir of his early years spent in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon provides an original and illuminating perspective into the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Weeks before the Suez War of 1956, four-year-old Kai Bird, son of a garrulous, charming American Foreign Service officer, moved to Jerusalem with his family. They settled in a small house, where young Kai could hear church bells and the Muslim call to prayer and watch as donkeys and camels competed with cars for space on the narrow streets. Each day on his way to school, Kai was driven through Mandelbaum Gate, where armed soldiers guarded the line separating Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem from Arab-controlled East. He had a front-seat view to both sides of a divided city—and the roots of the widening conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

Bird would spend much of his life crossing such lines—as a child in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and later, as a young man in Lebanon. Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is his compelling personal history of growing up an American in the midst of three major wars and three turbulent decades in the Middle East. The Zelig-like Bird brings readers into such conflicts as the Suez War, the Six Day War of 1967, and the Black September hijackings in 1970 that triggered the Jordanian civil war. Bird vividly portrays such emblematic figures as the erudite George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening; Jordan’s King Hussein; the Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled; Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother and a family friend; Saudi King Faisal; President Nasser of Egypt; and Hillel Kook, the forgotten rescuer of more than 100,000 Jews during World War II.

Bird, his parents sympathetic to Palestinian self-determination and his wife the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, has written a masterful and highly accessible book—at once a vivid chronicle of a life spent between cultures as well as a consummate history of a region in turmoil. It is an indispensable addition to the literature on the modern Middle East.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 448 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439171608 | 
  • April 2010
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Jerusalem


On the eve of the Suez War in 1956, soon after we arrived, my father observed in a letter to his parents: “Once more we can cross freely through Mandelbaum Gate and once again every day we remark about the contrast between an energetically determined Israel and a stubborn, colorful and slowly progressing Jordan…. One side is willing and capable of doing the job. The other is still almost feudal, clannish and with a ‘baksheesh’ (personal charity approaching graft) mentality.”

My parents came to Jerusalem as blank slates.

My father and mother spent their formative... see more

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Author Revealed

Q. how did you come to write Crossing Mandelbaum Gate?

A. Though I spent most of my childhood in the Arab world, as a journalist and historian I have avoided the topic. I admit this was an abdication, but as a young man I learned that the Middle East is an emotional black hole. But then in 1991 I wrote a rather personal Op Ed for the Washington Post, trying to convey my feelings about the region as it plunged into yet another war. My Jewish American wife thought it was the best piece of writing I had ever done. She encouraged me to think about writing this memoir--and I finally got around to it after American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (co-authored with Martin J. Sherwin) came out in 2005--and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. I'm glad I did it--though I learned that a memoir is a very different beast than biography.

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