Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kai Bird's "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate"

Kai Bird is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005), which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. His other books include The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment (1992) and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, and reported the following:
Well, page 99 of my memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate falls in a chapter entitled "The Magic Kingdom." This is what American expatriates working for the oil company ARAMCO called Saudi Arabia. Page 99 features a 1964 photograph of ARAMCO's president, Tom Barger, standing beside my mother, Jerine Bird. They each have a drink in hand, no doubt the home-brew made in Dhahran known as "sadiki"--Arabic for "my friend." Alcohol, of course, was illegal then and now. But every ARAMCON had a private still in their bathroom.

Tom Barger was running ARAMCO in the 1960s and it turned out to be a critical period in the Kingdom's history. A slow motion coup was taking place in which King Saud was being pushed aside to make room for Crown Prince Faisal. Barger, the U.S. government and the CIA were all supporting Prince Faisal against King Saud who was perceived as unstable, alcoholic and under the influence of a group of liberal princes who wanted to turn the Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. ARAMCO feared these nationalists might endanger the oil concession. In any case, by late 1964 Faisal was in charge and King Saud was shortly exiled.

On Page 99 I profile Tom Barger: "He was only twenty-eight years old in 1937 when he became one of a dozen geologists recruited for a three-year contract for the California Arabian Standard Oil Company--a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California (SOCAL). His pay was $300 a month plus expenses, a good wage at the time. Before flying off to Arabia, Barger married Kathleen Ray, the coquettish daughter of a North Dakota rancher, and an expert horsewoman in the local rodeos. (Because his parents disapproved of Kathleen, Tom had to marry her in secrecy.)"

I guess my Page 99 is a fair representation of my memoir, which is a tight blend of the personal with a lot of history about the American experience in the Middle East. As with Barger, I profile many other characters in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Browse inside Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, and learn more about the book and author at Kai Bird's website.

--Marshal Zeringue