Lost in the Levant

Kai Bird’s affecting personal history of the Arab-Israeli tangle
Alex Williamson

On my very first visit to the “Holy Land,” in the early 1970s, I stayed at some flophouse near the Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem, and one day found myself walking past a handsome gated garden-house establishment that proudly displayed the name The American Colony. My first reaction was to think that this was somewhat giving the game away. But I rapidly came to appreciate that this was not a symbol of the American-Israeli “special relationship.” It was, rather, a survival from an earlier period of evangelical optimism, when American missionaries had settled in the Middle East, either to witness the Second Coming of the savior or, in more extreme cases, to help bring it on. (This Protestant outreach and presence has since taken many protean forms, including the foundation of the American University of Beirut.) In the 19th century, these devotees viewed the immigration of Jews to Palestine as one sign of the fulfillment of Christian prophecy; today the American Colony Hotel is one of the informal gathering places of the Palestinian elite and the less pro-Zionist members of the international press corps.

When Kai Bird first stayed in the hotel as a small boy in 1956, it was in Jordan, where his father was the United States vice-consul. Not far away was the Mandelbaum Gate, the informal crossing-point of the divided city (named for the shopkeeper and stocking merchant through whose premises the 1948 cease-fire line effectively ran). To get to school, Bird had to get used to crossing and recrossing that gate, and also to the idea of partition as it establishes itself in the human mind. Among other things, 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. Jerusalem was home to many other peoples—Druze, Armenians, Greek Orthodox—as well as to mixtures and comminglings of them. Bird’s closest friend and playmate was the son of a Muslim Palestinian father and a German-Jewish refugee mother. (The boy, Dani, is now a full-grown secular Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem but declines to take Israeli citizenship.)

In 1956, the Soviet envoy, as the representative of the country that had done so much to get international recognition for the state of Israel, was the dean of Jerusalem’s diplomatic corps. In the same year, not even Soviet patronage of the Nasser regime in Cairo could define the crisis over administration of the Suez Canal as a Cold War question rather than a post-colonial one. While Bird’s father was processing Jordanian visa applications (signing one for the Christian Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan, who immigrated to California with his family at the age of 12), President Eisenhower was getting ready to decide that America’s interest lay more with accommodating the growing force of Arab nationalism than with indulging the exhausted North African and Levantine empires of its French and British allies. Bird, the author of several important books about the godfathers of American foreign policy, from John J. McCloy to the Bundy brothers, was in his small way “present at the creation” of the spectacularly contradictory Middle East policy that we know so well today. (Here I ought to say that he and I were once colleagues at The Nation magazine.)

Eisenhower’s “get tough” policy—a virtual ultimatum to the Israelis to withdraw from all occupied territory by a date certain—is the first of the many “missed opportunities” that are Bird’s theme, and that he was able to monitor from a series of unusually good vantage points. Drawing on the diplomatic experience of his father, he finds credibility in Nasser’s willingness to make territorial compromise, in the equivalent readiness of now-forgotten Israeli leaders such as Moshe Sharett to do the same, and in the evidence that both were undermined either by their own side or by myopic policies pursued in Washington. He manages to be in Cairo during the run-up to the second round of the Suez War in 1967, in Saudi Arabia just as the American oil companies and the kingdom are becoming festeringly intimate, and in Beirut at the moment when the Palestinians decide to make war on Western civil aviation. He is adroit, modest, ironic, and amusing as he switches from the macro to the micro perspective, and he always takes care to remind us of his relative youth and inexperience. One can see in miniature the formation of a future historian. (One can also see a historian who sometimes needs a more scrupulous style editor: in this narrative there is no pendulum that does not “swing,” no change that is not “momentous,” no land reform that is not “sweeping,” and few credentials that are not “impeccable.”)

As he registers his early imprintings from the region, Bird puts me somewhat in mind of Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place. When Bird first knew them, Cairo and Alexandria and Beirut were cosmopolitan—in the way that Jerusalem had once been. Greeks and Jews and Copts were essential to Egyptian life, just as the blend of Maronite and Orthodox and Sunni and Shia were the warp and woof of Lebanese society. It doesn’t do to romanticize this blending overmuch—and he doesn’t—but it adds something of the texture of a world we have certainly lost to tell the story of the repeated openings that he argues were ignored or blocked. These extend from early schemes for binational or pluralistic statehood in Palestine to successive calamities in Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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