This essay is adapted from Kai Bird’s memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, published in April by Scribner.
My father was a Foreign Service officer, a diplomat and an Arabist who spent virtually all his career in the Near East, as it was called in the State Department. So I spent most of my childhood among the Israelis and the Arabs of Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In the spring of 1956, when I was 4, Father was appointed vice consul at the American consulate in the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem. Mother arrived a few weeks later, bringing my little sister and me. We soon settled into a rented house, newly built of the city’s famous gleaming white limestone, on a hill overlooking the stretch of "no man’s land" that bordered Israeli-controlled Mount Scopus.
Jerusalem was very much a divided city. A jarring series of ad hoc fences, walls and bales of barbed wire, running like an angry, jagged scar from north to south, separated East Jerusalem from West. Our house was a stone’s throw from the 1949 armistice line, and Mount Scopus was but an island of Jewish property in a sea of Arab territory. On some nights I could hear the random, not-so-distant tapping of machine-gun fire. "War and rumors of war seem to be the habit around here," my father wrote, "and waking up in the night to hear rifle fire is almost an every night occurrence."
To get to West Jerusalem one had to cross no man’s land, passing through the heavily guarded passageway known as Mandelbaum Gate. The gate took its name from a house that once stood on the spot, built by a family of Jewish immigrants from Byelorussia. I crossed through the gate nearly every day, past the barbed wire and the cone-shaped anti-tank barriers. Men with guns stood guard. The skeletal remains of armored personnel carriers and rusting tanks lay about as constant reminders of lost lives and past conflicts.
I know the dangers and the seductions of the Middle East. It is part of my identity. I grew up among a people who routinely referred to the creation of the State of Israel as the Nakba–the catastrophe. And yet I fell in love with and married a Jewish American woman, the only daughter of two Holocaust survivors, both Jewish Austrians. Gradually, over many years of marriage, I came to understand what this meant. One can’t live with a child of Holocaust survivors without absorbing some of the same sensibilities that her parents transmitted to her as a young girl. It is an unspoken dread, a sense of fragility, an anxious anticipation of unseen horrors. So the Holocaust–or, to use the more accurately descriptive Hebrew term, the Shoah–well, it too has become a part of my identity. The Nakba and the Shoah: the bookends of my life.
Although I went to college in the United States–Carleton in Northfield, Minnesota–I returned to the Middle East for a year in 1970-71 to study at the American University of Beirut. I went back again in my 20s as a freelance reporter, and I had many adventures before securing, in 1978, a tenuous part-time position as the assistant editor of The Nation. Three months later Victor Navasky suddenly became my new boss. Victor quickly became my journalistic mentor, teaching me the craft of writing editorials and how to inspire young freelancers to rewrite their wooden prose for the third or fourth time–all for a payment in "the high two figures." I called Victor my "rabbi"–a term Wall Street lawyers still use to describe the wizened partners who take young associates under their wing.