Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

Article excerpt

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978. By Kai Bird. New York: Scribner, 2010. 448 pp. $30 ($10, paper).

Bird, a Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, has written a semi-autobiographical and semi-historical account of the Middle East that is likely to disappoint many who have enjoyed some of his earlier, much-applauded works. Crossing Mandelbaum Gate reads as a rudderless narrative in search of a clear purpose.

Bird spent his high school years in Cairo, son of a U.S. diplomat. Had he limited his account to his personal experiences - a young Westerner describing the passions and idiosyncrasies of the Arab street - his book might have been a good read. A fine writer, he could have captured human dynamics through the prism of a coming-of-age American bystander. Instead, he uses his adolescent reminiscences as a platform to make sweeping and often unsubstantiated statements about national strategies, international law, and political maneuvering.

There is, for example, the almost gushing portrayal of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian dictator who, despite some sharp political instincts, brought systemic corruption and cronyism to the civil service and led his country to spectacular military failure. In Bird's telling, Nasser is the victim drawn into war by a cabal of Israeli militarists while conceding that blockading the Straits of Tiran could be seen as an act of war or that Nasser's expulsion of U.N .peacekeepers could present challenges to Israeli security. Nonetheless, he places the onus largely on Israel because the war was one of "choice" and not "necessity," terms that he does not define and that he uses arbitrarily and repeatedly in the book. …

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