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Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 20, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of American Prometheus, offers a compelling hybrid of memoir and history, weaving together recollections of his childhood in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; the stories of his wife's Holocaust survivor parents; and rigorous scholarship on the region. The book's title—Mandelbaum Gate once separated Israeli-controlled Western Jerusalem from the Jordanian-controlled East—indicates a view on the conflict, and it's certainly that, but it's also much more: readers are given ringside seats to Cairo under Nasser, the author's American family's friends (including Osama bin Laden's elder brother), and Bird's years in India and the U.S. during the heyday of the antiwar movement of the '60s. Notable events and figures (airplane hijacker Leila Khaled, for example, or the Palestinian-Jordanian battles known as Black September) are given detailed treatment and their continuing resonance is made clear. Bird's brushes with history—his first girlfriend was held hostage on an airplane hijacked to win Khaled's release, for instance—brings home the deeply messy humanity of the stories he binds together in this kaleidoscopic and captivating book. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

The interminable conflict between Arabs and Israelis, sadly, lends itself to visual images that reduce both sides to caricatures. One of the treasures of this superb memoir is Bird’s determination to put a human face on some of the participants in this conflict. His father, an American foreign-service officer, brought his family to Jerusalem in 1956, and young Kai frequently passed through Mandelbaum Gate, the dividing line between the Israeli- and Jordanian-controlled sectors. Over the next 22 years, he lived and traveled in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. He seamlessly melds personal history and the story of his family within the turmoil surrounding them, which included three major wars, the spate of airline hijackings, and the prominence of Black September. Although broadly sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations and suffering, Bird, whose wife is the child of Holocaust survivors, is also acutely sensitive to the fears and dilemmas faced by Israelis. This is a deeply felt and moving chronicle of one person’s up-close view of the human cost of this seemingly endless struggle. --Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (April 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416544402
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416544401
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,505,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. His new book is The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. A biography of a CIA officer, The Good Spy was released on May 20, 2014 by Crown/Random House. Kai's last book was a memoir about the Middle East entitled Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 (Scribner, April 27, 2010). It was a 2011 Finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. He is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005), which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and the Duff Cooper Prize for History in London. He wrote The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (1992) and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998). He is also co-editor with Lawrence Lifschultz of Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (1998). He is the recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's writing fellowship, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation's Study Center, Bellagio, Italy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is a member of the Society of American Historians and a contributing editor of The Nation. He lives in Miami Beach.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This personal history is also an in-depth explanation of a great deal that has happened in the Middle East since the founding of the state of Israel. The author is the son of an American Foreign Service officer and his family moved to Jerusalem in 1956 when he was four years old. This was only a few weeks before Israel, Britain and France colluded in an attack on Egypt, the Israeli goal was to seize the Sinai while Britain and France wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal.
Possessing a perspective that only a child can have, he watched the growing rift between the Israelis and the Palestinians. One of the most interesting components of the book is his descriptions of how cosmopolitan the area called Palestine was at the time he was there and how small Jerusalem was. He was an eyewitness to people of all faiths walking the streets alongside animals and living out their lives. Bird also gives in-depth descriptions of some of the most significant people on the Palestinian side and voices his opinions on missed opportunities for peace between Arab and Jew.
In his youth, Bird also lived in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon and he was there during the 1967 war and had a "girlfriend" that was a passenger on the planes hijacked by the Black September group. His insights and discussions of the internal political situations in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Lebanon should be required reading for anyone interested in the Middle East or claiming to know something about the resolution of the problems.
Bird has some interesting and harsh comments for the holders of the American presidency from 1956 through 1970. In his opinion, the best solution to the Palestinian-Jewish problem would have been the establishment of a Palestinian state comprised of Jordan and the West Bank.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Narut Ujnat VINE VOICE on June 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was given the chance to review this book by Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winning author of American Prometheus. Given my interest in the Middle East, I was very excited to read this book.

The author tells the reader in the beginning that the book is a personal memoir and history of the region in which he grew up as the son of an American diplomat. As he lived in Places like Jerusalem (hence the metaphor for the crossing of the now non-existent Mandlebaum Gate) between Arab controlled East Jerusalem and Israeli controlled West Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Saudi Arabia and India, Bird lived through many important events during the 1950's through 1970's.

I really didn't know what to expect from this book, but it turned out to be a great read. At first, I was annoyed by the constant shift in the narrative between the author's youthful memories and later events. However, after a while, the narrative made perfect sense. By describing his memories of the events as he lived through them (for example, the 1956 Arab/Israeli War) and later events, the author was giving is 'the rest of the story.' I found many of these anecdotes to be very interesting and I was surprised by my overall lack of knowledge of some versions of these events. The discussion of Egypt's Nasser and his leadership during the 1956 and 1967 wars was fascinating. Also, his own involvement during Black September in 1970 was also riveting during the Palestinian uprising in Jordan.

I also loved the descriptions of life in the Aramco Oil towns in Saudi Arabia during the 1950's. Indeed, as the author himself notes, life was certainly far more 'American' in these places then even America itself. And, as compared to now, these 'oil towns' are now fortified and enclosed.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Louis N. Gruber VINE VOICE on May 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Kai Bird grew up as the young son of an American diplomat in Jerusalem, and later in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He writes from an insider's perspective about events in the Middle East and the actors who shaped these events. Now as an adult he revisits this history with the benefit of extensive research and adult study. What he has to say is not always "balanced" and won't be easy for some of us to hear.

Later in his life story, and in the book, he encounters his future wife, whose parents were survivors of the holocaust, and begins to understand how those events affected Jewish consciousness. Again, he paints a disturbing and challenging portrait.

There are few angels in Bird's memoir, many great men who did foolish and shortsighted things, msny tragic mistakes and missed opportunities. To read this book is to challenge whatever preconceptions one might have brought to his material. To Bird, one must acknowledge what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, the founding of Israel; and what Jews call the shoah, the holocaust, the defining never-again experience of the Jewish people.

Author Bird writes beautifully, managing to keep himself out of the story even as he writes of his own experiences. The book is challenging, for it raises fundamental questions about Israeli, Palestinian and American policy in the Middle East. Hard to read, and yet, I couldn't lay it down. If you're prepared for a serious and moving read, I recommend this book highly. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
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