Scribner (New York), 2010, $30
Kai Bird is a distinguished biographer of American statesmen and their effect on public policy. This memoir, however, is almost as much about the effect of public policy on him as he grew up, maintaining his sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight despite the clash between their support for armed resistance and his own Gandhian non-violent philosophy. It also tells the history of the modern Middle East through the personal stories of Bird, his parents, and his wife (the daughter of Holocaust survivors).
As often happens, proximity to reality brought about a profound change in the sensibilities of the Bird family, who had originally moved to the Middle East with a liberal Western affinity for Israel and a bedrock assumption of American moral superiority. The author is detached from the usual accompanying sectarianism, tribalism and binary thinking. His chronicle of mis-steps implicates both Israelis and Palestinians, while erasing mental caricatures that even students of the region, let alone inhabitants, erect under the constant attrition of bias.
Bird is neither Jewish nor Arab – but he is of Arabist stock, which for many American partisans for Israel is even worse. Too much interest in Arabs or Arabic has not been conducive to career advancement in a Washington that has preferred its smooth flow of prejudice to be unchecked by reality.
His father, Eugene Bird, had applied to study Hebrew, but took up Arabic instead, subsequently working as a US diplomat through the 50s and 60s in Saudi Arabia, East Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo. Kai accompanied him, and later returned in his own right to the American University of Beirut. He was thus on, or near, the scene of the changes in Saudi Arabia with Aramco, the Suez War, the Six Day War, Black September, and all the other fallout from the 1948 war.
Watching the flickering black and white ‘Bonanza’ series broadcast by Aramco is not the stuff of history, but discovering that he was doing so at the same time as Usama bin-Laden (whose favourite show it was) illustrates history; as does living in the same Cairo garden suburb as bin-Laden’s future deputy, Ayman al-Zawaheri, does. Bird’s then girlfriend was held hostage in the Jordanian desert in the events that led to Black September, and a few weeks later he chats with one of the organisers in Uncle Sam’s, the student hangout near the American University of Beirut. While his father was vice-consul in East Jerusalem, he had to pass the nearby Mandelbaum Gate daily to go to school on the other side, and his childhood memories illuminate the parallel universes.
The child’s-eye-view of the Middle East and the tales of survival in Nazi-era Europe are set against stereotype-busting history. Bird emphasises the positive aspects of Nasser and his popularity – and the pragmatism beneath his rhetoric. Nasser was prepared to accept the Roger’s Peace Plan, as was Arafat. Of course, it is no revelation that Israel had planned to attack Egypt in both 1956 and 1967, and did so with no genuine cause; but it makes painful reading now to contrast Eisenhower’s successful brusqueness with Israeli reluctance to withdraw from conquered territories and LBJ’s acquiescence in the 1967 onslaught, let alone subsequent presidents’ acceptance of snub after snub from prevaricating Israeli leaders.
Towards the end, Bird goes to see Hillel Kook, who had raised money for the Irgun, but who also, in the teeth of resistance from ‘official’ American Jewish leaders, publicised the news of the Holocaust and campaigned successfully for funds to rescue threatened Jews from Europe. A resolute secularist, Kook opposed what he called Ben-Gurion’s ‘putsch’, when the latter, on the first day of the Israeli Constituent Assembly, teamed up with the Orthodox parties to abandon plans to write a constitution, declared the Assembly the Knesset, and locked in Orthodox hegemony over the new state’s mostly secular Jews.
As Kook predicted, unlike a secular republic, the idea of a Jewish state precludes non-Jews from real participation in its life. Another provocative assemblage of details recalls that many Israeli leaders would have been prepared to let their old covert allies, the Hashemites, be driven out during Black September, thus facilitating the original two-state solution. Instead, however, backed by Washington, the Israeli air force demonstrated its intention to intervene against the column of tanks heading south from Syria. Almost as significant, he recounts, was the refusal of the Syrian defence minister – Hafez al-Asad – to allow his air force to cover them.
This is an eminently readable and touching book, whose details are amassed not to score points but to make the point: that over and over again American and local leaders have missed opportunities to make peace.