Review: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate

A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s memoir of his Middle Eastern childhood colourfully evokes characters and locations

By David Goldberg, August 19, 2010
December 1963: people queue on the Israeli side of the Mandelbaum Gate to spend Christmas in the Jordan sector

December 1963: people queue on the Israeli side of the Mandelbaum Gate to spend Christmas in the Jordan sector

By Kai Bird
Simon & Schuster, £17.99

This is an engaging memoir, although its subtitle - Coming of Age between the Arabs and the Israelis 1956-1978 - is a misnomer. In fact, the author arrived in east Jerusalem with his parents as a four-year-old a few weeks before the Suez War of 1956. He was evacuated with his mother to Beirut at the outset of hostilities, did not return until the summer of 1957, and spent only a further few months crossing to school in west Jerusalem.

Thereafter, his father was posted to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India. So Bird's hazy childhood memories of Jerusalem are fleshed out with biographical portraits of Palestinian personalities such as George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening, required reading for all State Department Arabists, and his widow Katy, formidable doyenne of Palestinian salon society, whose lover General Sir Evelyn Barker, GOC of British Forces in Mandate Palestine, was a dyed-in-the-wool antisemite.

These pen pictures are always interesting, and his evocation of daily life on either side of the Mandelbaum Gate still resonates for those of us whose first experience of Jerusalem was around that time. To my shame, I did not know until reading this book that the Sheikh Jarrah district took its name from Saladin's surgeon, that the American Colony Hotel had been established by a small group of devout Christians from the mid-West, and that Simchoh and Esther Mandelbaum's landmark three-storey house at the end of Shmuel Hanavi Street was to become the eponymous dividing line between the New (Jewish) City and Arab Jerusalem.

Bird's father was a lowly consular officer, who sounds like one of Graham Greene's dangerously innocent Americans hopelessly out of their depth in Indochina. An Episcopalian from Oregon, boyish, blue-eyed Eugene Bird and his wife Jerine came to their posting in Jordanian East Jerusalem full of naïve optimism about setting the Middle East to rights. Given their Bible-reading background, at first their sympathies inclined more to the Israeli side. Subsequent exposure to the Arab narrative caused them - and their son - to modify that partiality. Bird's historical account is distinctly from an Arab slant. And he makes an egregious mistake in describing Harold Macmillan as Britain's "recently retired prime minister" in September 1956.

But he provides a useful corrective to the standard Israeli versions that most Jews swallow uncritically, especially with his perspective on where Israel went wrong after the stunning victory of June 1967.

The second half of the book is less compelling. Bird inserts the Holocaust survivor story of his Jewish wife's parents and describes how former Irgun undercover agent Peter Bergson became peace activist Hillel Kook, making the point that we all have composite identities and multiple allegiances.

David Goldberg's 'To the Promised Land' has been reissued by Faber Finds

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011