A Bird’s-eye view of the Middle East

The story Kai Bird weaves of growing up in this region as the son of a career diplomat is both fascinating and disturbing.

kai bird 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
kai bird 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Kai Bird grew up in interesting times. He lived in lands where castigating others as “Jew-lovers” was normal, where Western blue bloods dined with Arab aristocrats and disparaged the “bearded creatures,” the religious Jews, they saw across the border. It was a time when Arab kings distributed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and former Nazis lived next door. It was a land where many wealthy Muslim Arabs were married to non-Muslim Western women, and the women inevitably became Arab nationalists, educating their children to walk in lockstep with their new culture.
It was a land where a new immigrant could be a local if he identified as an Arab, but where indigenous Jews or others who had lived in the region for hundreds or thousands of years were “foreign.” In short the society of the 1950s in the Middle East was the same as it is today in many ways.
In some ways Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is a compelling story of an American innocent abroad. In other ways it is an example of all that is wrong with the way naïve Westerners view the Middle East. There are brilliant vignettes revealing the 10,000 African slaves that existed in Saudi Arabia in 1960, the middle-class origins of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Bin Laden family and Armenian Palestinians.
Bird was born in 1951 and named after a Chinese refugee, Kai-Yu Hsu. His father, Eugene, was a career diplomat and Arabist with postings in Jordanian east Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The story he weaves of growing up in the Middle East between 1956 and 1978 is both fascinating and disturbing. His Christian American family adored the Palestinian cause, while supposedly serving America’s interests as diplomats. His father wore a Nasser pin around Jerusalem.
It is the story of Bird, an extreme leftist college student, who studied at the American University of Beirut in the 1970s, burned his draft card and wore a button supporting the PFLP in 1972 when that Marxist Palestinian group had already murdered 74 people. It was fun and games, burning his card was “theater” and despite living in the Middle East and being acquainted with numerous terrorism supporters, “I thought the PFLP would have had nothing to do with such an act of mass murder [the Lod massacre].”
Crossing opens with a brit. The author has married a Jewish woman and decided to observe this religious obligation. It begins with the notion that “I grew up among a people who routinely referred to the creation of the State of Israel as the Nakba...and yet I fell in love and married a Jewish American woman, the only daughter of two Holocaust survivors.” The grotesqueness begins right here as the author asserts, “Nakba and Shoah. The bookends of my life.”
For Bird the interesting person among the Jews is the “Hebrew Palestinian” Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson), the radical Revisionist Zionist turned post-Zionist. Among the Palestinians he finds much to admire in Leila Khaled, the Marxist woman hijacker who became a housewife. Bird is an admirer of Jews, as long as they are critical Jews, such as Tom Segev, Primo Levi, Avraham Burg or Sara Roy. The latter claimed that “tolerance, compassion and justice cannot be practiced or extended when one lives only among one’s own.”
In the words of the author, whose mother once said, “I feel no sympathy for Zionism whatsoever and none for Israeli society,” Israel has “become its own ghetto, where its Jews are in fact less safe than Diaspora Jews.” Father, the diplomat, now runs Council for the National Interest, which advocates for America imposing a one-state solution on Israel, i.e. making Israel a Palestinian state.
The book is full of inaccuracies. In discussing the Six Day War Bird claims “there is no evidence Nasser had any intention of attacking Israel... [he] had only 50,000 troops in the Sinai, facing an Israeli ground force of more than 160,000.” Neither of these figures is accurate, Egypt had 100,000 troops in the Sinai facing around 70,000 Israeli combat soldiers.
In discussing the history of Jordan, Bird claims it was “a comparatively settled society of small tradesmen and farmers living in small towns” when King Abdullah I was sent to rule it by the British. The kingdom in fact had few settlements south of Amman and was almost entirely populated by Beduin in the 1920s. Whenever discussing Arab war plans against Israel, the author claims there is “no evidence” of ill will, but he never bothers to mention that no Arab archive from the period has ever been opened to researchers. It reminds one of the socialist writers in the 1950s who claimed Stalin had no ill will toward the West.
Bird’s naïvete is further revealed in the fact that he is more “hopeful today about the fate of [Saudi] Arabia than many other parts of the Middle East.” He follows in the footsteps of his father, who hated Israel, but was impressed by the “dignity of the people” in Saudi Arabia.
In truth there is much to be learned about the American foreign service and its corruption by the people it works among, and there are interesting and revealing stories about Arab society in Crossing. But there is something shocking when the author, who so adored Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Beirut, has the gall to write an editorial about Israel asking: “Was this homeland for Jews and no other people? Israel should define its citizens as Israelis – not Jews... Zionism is dead.”
It seems ironic coming from someone who praised Arab nationalism, Arabia for the Arabs only, and saw nothing hideous in Ethiopian women coming off the boat, crosses tattooed on their heads, as slaves in the “magic kingdom” of Saudi Arabia. Of course, Bird admits, “I am not accountable.” That is a good epitaph.