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.
Arab culture, to which he was privy, is criticized sparingly and often apologetically. Saudis are taken to task for not allowing women to drive and, yes, there should be more democratic reforms in Middle Eastern autocracies, but there are no tears for girls and young women murdered in honor killings or outrage at the often-practiced mutilation of female genitals. The minds of Palestinian children, indoctrinated to aspire to homicide bombings as the highest glory possible, are passed over in silence. Claiming to be concerned about his Christian friends in Egypt, he glosses over once-thriving Coptic communities in Egypt, now in decline. His treatment of the mass expulsions of Jews from Middle Eastern Islamic lands is especially perverse and vicious. While detailing the ill-conceived scheme of Israeli defense minister Pinhas Lavon to blow up targets in Egypt and blame the Muslim Brotherhood—an incident that essentially brought down an Israeli government—Bird shamefully uses the affair to vindicate the Egyptian cleansing of its Jews.
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate could have been a good book. It held the promises of fine writing and an interesting subject. But the author, previously so skilled with words, never satisfactorily clarifies the purpose of the book. As history, it should have been objective, which it was not. As personal narrative, it should not have masqueraded as political and military history. The reader is left disappointed with the book's shoddy scholarship and polemical tone.