While doing background reading on the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, I came across Kai Bird’s poignant and insightful account of his childhood as the son of American consular officials who served in Israel and Palestine, and who later moved their family to a new assignment in Saudi Arabia in the mid-60’s and early 70’s. It is a fascinating account from a unique perspective: that of a normal boy growing up in unstable times, who comes to understand them by what he observes of his parent’s experiences and the lives of his childhood friends.
Sheikh Jarrah is a suburb of Jerusalem that is a thirty-minute walk northward from the walled Old City where the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are. It was originally a village that took its name from the Sheikh Jarrah mosque nearby. That mosque contains the remains of the sheikh, who was a close confident and personal physician to Saladin, the Kurdish warlord who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. In the late nineteenth century the neighborhood became the favored spot for the richest and oldest Arab families in Jerusalem, including the Nusseibeh’s who are still in charge of locking the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at night, and the al-Husseini’s who were frequent holders of the office of Grand Mufti of the city. Today the suburb has the character of an impressive wreck: sprinkled among the noble Arab villas and the wrecks of smaller homes and commercial buildings are tawdry houses and empty fenced-off lots filled with trash. The current state reflects the fact that the neighborhood is in the midst of one of those extended ghastly conversions from Arab to Israeli, but in Bird’s days Sheikh Jarrah was controlled by the Jordanian army.
Up the slope from his childhood home was Mount Scopus where Hebrew University is today, and a few hundred yards west down the neighborhood streets was barbed wire marking the no-man’s land between Israeli and Jordanian territory. The single crossing gate between east and west was the Mandelbaum Gate, and it was here Bird crossed most mornings with his father on the way to school.
Like many Americans who spent time with the Palestinians during this period, Bird grew up broadly sympathetic with the Arab point of view. One suspects he still is, but in a poignant twist as a young man Bird fell in love with and married a Jewish woman who was the only child of Holocaust survivors. Bird’s honest and earnest statements about justice and historical narrative run through the book and take a wrenching turn when he discusses his wife’s family history and their decision to raise their son as a Jew. It makes for a deeply satisfying and thought-provoking read.
Bird’s first-person account of the events leading up to the Six Day War in 1967 and the spasmodic attempts at Arab nation-building are invaluable to anyone trying to makes sense of the era- his insights on Nasser and the insouciant terrorism of the Black September organization may be mildly astonishing if you thought you had nothing new to learn about them. But the insight that struck me the most was one Bird mentioned in passing about the effect the partition of Jerusalem had on the residents on both sides of the divide. Before the war and the partition it is easy to find numerous examples of Arabs and Jews intermingling together, but Bird makes the point that the physical partition of the city caused the residents to become markedly uninterested in what was going on across the divide and heightened the residents’ indifference to suffering on the other side.
It seems to me that Jerusalem still has that character. The average Arab in East Jerusalem or Israeli in West Jerusalem is capable of saying baffling things about the other side. I recall chatting with a couple of energetic Israelis teenagers in the Jewish quarter of the Old city on a Friday afternoon who were anxious to give me the true skinny about their home, and one of them warned me I should eat dinner right away before the city shut down for Shabbat. He seemed mildly embarrassed when I told him I planned to walk about ten minutes north to the Christian quarter for dinner.
The various organizations and individuals who attempt to bridge this gap of communication and empathy between the Arabs and Israelis of present-day Israel, among whom Kai Bird is prominent, have to be the most courageous of people in the region. I was reminded of this when I was talking to a friend recently and she pointed me to the Jerusalem Stories Project, an effort spearheaded by a writer and conflict resolution specialist named Carol Grossman. The project operates on the simple premise that by simply sharing stories and portraits across the divide in Jerusalem, more empathy can be gained across the psychic no-man’s land that still exists in the troubled city today. Those stories are deeply moving, as is Kai Bird’s wonderful book.
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978