Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (Hardcover)

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

By Kai Bird

Scribner, 9781416544401, 448pp.

Publication Date: April 20, 2010

Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (5/10/2010)
Paperback (3/15/2011)

List Price: 30.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


PULITZER PRIZE WINNER KAI BIRD’S fascinating memoir of his early years spent in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon provides an original and illuminating perspective into the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Weeks before the Suez War of 1956, four-year-old Kai Bird, son of a garrulous, charming American Foreign Service officer, moved to Jerusalem with his family. They settled in a small house, where young Kai could hear church bells and the Muslim call to prayer and watch as donkeys and camels competed with cars for space on the narrow streets. Each day on his way to school, Kai was driven through Mandelbaum Gate, where armed soldiers guarded the line separating Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem from Arab-controlled East. He had a front-seat view to both sides of a divided city—and the roots of the widening conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

Bird would spend much of his life crossing such lines—as a child in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and later, as a young man in Lebanon. Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is his compelling personal history of growing up an American in the midst of three major wars and three turbulent decades in the Middle East. The Zelig-like Bird brings readers into such conflicts as the Suez War, the Six Day War of 1967, and the Black September hijackings in 1970 that triggered the Jordanian civil war. Bird vividly portrays such emblematic figures as the erudite George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening; Jordan’s King Hussein; the Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled; Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother and a family friend; Saudi King Faisal; President Nasser of Egypt; and Hillel Kook, the forgotten rescuer of more than 100,000 Jews during World War II.

Bird, his parents sympathetic to Palestinian self-determination and his wife the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, has written a masterful and highly accessible book—at once a vivid chronicle of a life spent between cultures as well as a consummate history of a region in turmoil. It is an indispensable addition to the literature on the modern Middle East.

About the Author

Kai Bird 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. His other books include 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). Bird’s many honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, with his wife and son.

Praise For Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978

“I was entranced by this book from the first page to the last, and can recommend it with enthusiasm.”—Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Winston Churchill and author of Israel: A History and Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century

“Kai Bird has done the impossible, and written a wholly original book challenging both the conventional and unconventional wisdom about Israel, the Jews and the Middle East.” —Victor S. Navasky, author of Naming Names

“Kai Bird has stepped back from the dreaded Middle Eastern present to create a spellbinding portrait of an earlier time. He grew up on the seam between Arabs and Israelis, an American in the heyday of American innocence and power. He has not adorned that past, for he was there when the region’s current ordeal was hatched, but he has given a bittersweet rendition of a world now irretrievably gone. A beautiful memoir, and a supremely honest one.” —Professor Fouad Ajami, The School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University

“A wonderfully intimate account, which reminds us that the path to peace passes through the gate of personal narrative. We need not agree with Bird’s analysis to be moved by his story and allow it to help us walk through that gate.” —Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right

“A compelling hybrid of memoir and history… kaleidoscopic and captivating.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Bird’s acute and engaging memoir is a mournful recollection of a time when the single issue of Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, was not the monotonously dominant theme that it has since become…. He is adroit, modest, ironic, and amusing… Bird puts me somewhat in mind of Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place.”—Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic

“Illuminating . . . poignant . . . A fascinating book about a crucial period in the Middle East.”—Mike O’Connor, Washington Post

“The book rips along like a spy novel . . . [Bird] has succeeded in explaining the perspectives of two peoples who view the Middle East conflict through different lenses.”—Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times Book Review

“An extraordinarily rich and pleasurable memoir, a worthy addition to the literature of Middle Eastern ex-pats that ranges from Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta to Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem . . . I simply could not put it down.”—Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal

Coverage from NPR