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

by Kai Bird

Pub Date: April 27th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4440-1
Publisher: Scribner

A wise, intimate memoir about growing up the son of an American foreign-service officer in the Middle East, from Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bird (co-author, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 2005, etc.).

Titled after the gate between East and West Jerusalem, the story moves from the arrival of the author’s family in Jerusalem in 1956, where his father, Eugene Bird, was appointed, through his stints in Dhahran and Cairo, until the Americans were expelled by Gamal Nasser after the Naksa (“setback”) of Israel’s 1967 territorial conquest. The family spent some time in Beirut, as well, and later in Bombay, and the author studied at the American University of Beirut in the early ’70s and became an anti–Vietnam War activist. Born in 1951, Bird came of age among Arabs and Jews, and he offers unique insights into the deepening animosities that he witnessed firsthand. Although the family was thrilled to be inhabiting the Holy Land, with friends from all sectors (the father studied Arabic), they soon soured on the idea of Zionism, which they saw as the forcible seizure of much of Palestine “by threat, murder, pillage.” In Dhahran, they lived among a tightly contained colony of 2,500 Americans employed by Aramco, a company that was patronizing toward the Saudi workers and felt the “winds of Arab nationalism” in the form of strikes. While in Cairo, Bird observed how a truly cosmopolitan city gradually grew autocratic under Nasser and anti-Semitic in the wake of Israeli aggression. The author’s richly layered cultural narrative finds incisive lessons in the careers of Nasser and the Saudi royal family, the PLO hijackings of September 1970—Bird’s girlfriend was aboard one plane—and the journey of Holocaust survivors in establishing “the Hebrew Republic” of Israel.

If one person’s story can shed light on a larger history, Bird’s memoir carries many excellent lessons.