Lost in the Levant

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

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.

I think I generally prefer the micro moments, for which Bird has an especial eye. How interesting in retrospect to have lived in the same Cairo suburb as the young Ayman al-Zawahiri. How useful to know that the CIA always considered the Muslim Brotherhood family of Said Ramadan to be a useful asset, and that Tariq Ramadan’s father had a personal meeting in the Oval Office with Eisenhower, working meanwhile with the American Committee for Liberation From Bolshevism—one of those front organizations that must have seemed a frightfully good idea at the time. When the first flickering television was introduced into Saudi Arabia by Aramco, Bird watches transmissions of Bonanza, only to discover later that this was the preferred small-screen fare of the boy Osama bin Laden.

Still, his approach to the macro is highly serviceable as well. Who now remembers Nasser’s mad attempt to garrison Yemen with Egyptian forces, in order to defend republican nationalists from Saudi-backed feudalists and fundamentalists? In that foggy episode, a number of our own present discontents began to take shape. In taking the anti-Nasser side, Bird implies, American policy went wrong twice: first in placing all trust in the Saudi oligarchs and abandoning even the few junior princes who wanted modernization, and second in reversing Eisenhower’s policy and allowing Israel a free hand in the Six-Day War. Quoting some extremely cynical memos from Walt Rostow to President Johnson (in which the first Israeli strikes were jauntily described as a “turkey shoot”), Bird suggestively connects this hubris to the wider disaster then just disclosing itself in Indochina.

Back again to the micro: the still-youthful Bird, who has resisted the draft and spoken out strongly for the Palestinians, finds himself back in Beirut as a radical student, witnessing the hijacking of a civilian airliner. His perspective undergoes what some historians might call a revisionist shift when he discovers that his girlfriend is on the plane. But the ensuing bloodbath events of “Black September” furnish him with still another instance of a chance forgone. Reviewing the skin-of-the-teeth manner in which the Hashemite monarchy retained its throne and put down the Palestinian hijackers and guerrillas in 1971, he speculates whether the reverse outcome might not have been preferable: a Palestinianized Jordan could by now have become the nucleus of a Palestinian state in confederation with the West Bank. Many Israeli “realists” privately thought so, as did some British and American Arabists, but Nixon and Kissinger had already decided to make the defense of King Hussein one of their tests of strength. This was one of the many times when American policy makers announced the end of Arafat’s movement. Bird quotes a conceivably apocryphal diplomatic cable from Amman to Washington:

The PLO is dead, wiped out, and finished as an effective fighting force. But I have to remind Washington that this part of the world has been the scene of at least one resurrection.

(In another of his arresting vignettes, Bird writes that the future General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan was his country’s military adviser in Amman at the time, and ended up being given command of a Jordanian division.)

Everybody has to play a version of the counterfactual game at one point or another, but the more this book rehearses the dropped catches and untaken roads and other metaphorical mixtures, the more it succeeds in showing that the pursuit has hit abruptly diminishing returns. Almost no “concession” made by either side was ever sincere, or would not have been withdrawn or amended if the other party had accepted it. What is authentic and innate in moral individuals like young Kai or young Dani can almost never become true of states or nationalist parties, and is certainly never going to become true of clerical movements, the rise of which among Arabs and Jews is not something that was foreseen in the years under review. Having shown his own profound understanding of what Arabs call the Nakba, or disaster of forced exile in 1947 and ’48, Bird devotes the last third of his text to a reconstruction of his Austrian Jewish wife’s family history during and after the Shoah. His intention here is as admirable as it is plain, and these pages contain some stirring and even uplifting material about human survival. But this serves only to make his genuine evenhandedness more poignant. There was perhaps a moment when an unambivalent Israeli admission of responsibility for the original expulsion of the Palestinians could have had a healing and even cathartic effect. There may even have been a time when a sincere Arab denunciation of the role of the grand mufti of Jerusalem in the Holocaust might have softened a heart or two. But that time is well in the past, which is where historians like Bird are at their best. The parties of God have the ordering of things now, and we must wait meekly upon their awful pleasure.