Pen Portraits from a Forgotten Middle East

From a Zelig-like chronicler, encounters with the people who made history.

Weeks before the Suez War of 1956, four-year-old Kai Bird, the son of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, moved to Jerusalem with his family. Driving through the Mandelbaum Gate between Israel-controlled West Jerusalem and Arab-controlled East Jerusalem on his way to school every day, he had a front-seat view on a divided city and met the most brilliant personalities on both sides. The rest of his childhood was spent in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India. As a young man, he returned to the Middle East as a journalist and spent decades covering the region through major wars and constant turmoil. Now a Pulitzer-winning author for his book American Prometheus, Bird gives a personal glimpse of the indelible characters who shaped that time and place, from Gamal Nasser’s banal taste in movies to the surprising friendships of a Palestinian hijacker.


Katy Antonius, widow of author George Antonius and Jerusalem socialite 

Katy Antonius was a formidable woman and certainly one of East Jerusalem’s “eligible 150.” My father (who met her in 1956) described her as “something out of Eliot’s Cocktail Party…. she is gossipy, easy to charm and thoroughly affected.” A Greek Orthodox woman of Lebanese and Egyptian descent, Katy was the widow of George Antonius, a King’s College-educated intellectual and Arab nationalist whose 1938 book, The Arab Awakening, had seduced at least two generations of American diplomats.

The daughter of Faris Nimr Pasha, a well-known Egyptian newspaper proprietor, she had been nurtured in Alexandria’s upper-class society. She spoke fluent French and English. “Katy Antonius was an intelligent, bright, and witty woman, full of humor and charm,” said another Jerusalemite, Anwar Nusseibeh. “[She was] always up-to-date on the intricacies of political events, pretty, good-hearted, and generous.” She had founded an orphanage in the Old City, called Dar al-Awlad (House of Boys) and she regularly invited some of these boys to her parties.

Katy was a character, part dragon-lady and part flirt. She was always smartly dressed in the latest fashions and often she wore a string of pearls. Her black hair was cut fairly short and boasted a distinctive white streak.

Her parties were elaborate affairs. “Evening dress, Syrian food and drink, and dancing on the marble floor,” wrote the English writer and politician Richard Crossman after attending an Antonius dinner. “It is easy to see why the British prefer the Arab upper class to the Jews. This Arab intelligentsia has a French culture, amusing, civilized, tragic, and gay. Compared with them the Jews seem tense, bourgeois, central European.”

Photo courtesy of Kai Bird

Faisal, king of Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975 

Faisal proved to be an enigmatic and highly autocratic ruler. He was in some ways the most cosmopolitan of the al-Sauds. In 1919, at the age of 14 he became the first Saudi royal to visit London and Paris, acting as his father’s de facto foreign minister. In 1945 at age of 41 he attended the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. He had seen the industrialized West and understood the attraction of its cosmopolitan pleasures. On occasion, he drank alcohol, until a stomach operation in 1957 led him to forswear it altogether. In 1945 British police saw him emerge from a Bayswater brothel. For most of his life he was a chain-smoker. But aside from a few youthful indiscretions, Faisal was at his core a man of steely character, conscientious in his daily work habits, clever and decisive. With the passing of the years he also became austere and ever more puritanical. Unlike many royals, he never kept concubines. During his lifetime he had only three wives concurrently, and after divorcing his first two wives, from 1940 he lived alone with his third and favorite wife, Iffat bint Ahmed al Thunayan. She convinced him to allow his daughters to be educated at schools in Riyadh. He sent his sons to the Hun School, an elite preparatory school in Princeton and then to a variety of Western universities.

But if he was a modernizer, Faisal was also a political conservative. With Saud’s abdication there was no more talk about introducing a Consultative Council or an elected assembly. Faisal placed senior princes — his closest half-brothers — in key cabinet posts. He was a stickler for details and found it nearly impossible to delegate authority. Far from liberalizing the political process, he gathered all authority to himself. As he aged, Faisal became increasingly suspicious of a host of perceived enemies: Jews, Nasserites, Baathists, Shiites — and even the Americans. His deep-seated anti-Semitism was overt; he often lectured foreign dignitaries about the international Zionist conspiracy, and he routinely handed out copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th-century Russian forgery that purported to describe a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.

AFP/Getty Images

Gamal Nasser, president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970


Suave and articulate, Nasser exuded a quiet intelligence. Always well mannered and impeccably dressed, he had a commanding presence. In 1944 he married Thiya Kazem, a young, upper-middle class woman of Persian ancestry who spoke fluent English and French. They had five children and lived in a modest house. He was in the habit of buying one suit each year — and he had a collection of several hundred bright, gaudy ties, almost all of them striped. His colleagues knew him to be incorruptible. He had no personal peccadilloes aside from smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. He loved American films, which he rented from MGM’s Cairo office. He liked Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, starring Marlon Brando. “Colonel Nasser used to watch it over and over again,” said the woman who rented him the film. “[He was] fascinated with the Mexican Revolution and the peasant’s uprising of 1910.” His good friend, the newspaper editor Mohammad Heikal, claimed that Nasser’s all-time favorite American film was Frank Capra’s syrupy Christmas tale, It’s a Wonderful Life. His favorite American writer was Mark Twain. He liked classical music. He spent an hour or two each evening reading American, French and Arabic magazines. His sensibilities were thoroughly bourgeois. He was a secular, modern Arab.

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

Leila Khaled, Palestinian plane-hijacker

As a teenager, some of Khaled’s teachers were Americans, including an African-American woman, Miss McNight. She told Khaled about Martin Luther King and his non-violent struggle to overturn segregation. Khaled soon grew to think of the vivacious, quick-witted black woman as her big sister. “But our politics differed,” Khaled wrote. “She was surprised when I expressed deep hatred of the Jews and taught me not to make sweeping declarations. She pointed out that not all Jews were Zionists; some were, in fact, anti-Zionist. I reflected on her distinctions and tried to adopt them into my thinking.”

Khaled spent the academic year 1962-63 enrolled at the American University of Beirut, where she had further encounters with Americans. She arrived at AUB with 50 Lebanese pounds to her name, roughly $100. She lived in Jewett Hall, the women’s dormitory, and her roommate was an American, Judy Sinninger. “Her social life never ceased to amaze me,” wrote Khaled in her 1973 memoirs. “One week she had three different dates, with three different men and she kissed each one of them with the same passion in the grand room at Jewett in front of a lot of other girls. I asked Judy how she could do it. She passed it off: ‘It was all nice, clean American fun with no strings attached.’ I laughed and admired her for her amorality.”

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Hillel Kook, campaigner for Jews during Holocaust, Irgun member, early Knesset member, critic of Zionism

When Hillel Kook was working in America as an undercover agent of the Irgun, he used the alias “Peter H. Bergson.” In 1978, I found Bergson/Kook in a café in the old Arab city of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. At the time, Israeli entrepreneurs were busy renovating Jaffa’s ancient stone houses with the intention of turning the old seaport into a quaint artists’ colony. Kook was then a 63-year-old businessman who had made a considerable fortune on Wall Street in the 1950s and 60s. He had come back to Israel in 1968 and had retired in Kfar Shmaryahu, a wealthy enclave north of Tel Aviv. He dressed as a man of means, wearing a finely tailored dress shirt and light wool pants. A strikingly handsome man with blue-grey eyes and a full salt and pepper beard, Kook even then exuded charisma. He was debonair and articulate — and what he had to say captivated me.               

Over numerous cups of Turkish coffee, Kook told me his life story. He spoke not with bitterness but with irony — rather like a man who knew he had lived through some extraordinary history. His political journey was a revelation. At the age of 27, I thought I knew some Israeli history. But Kook taught me otherwise. At one point in our long conversation, he pulled out his Israeli identity card and exclaimed, “Look, Israel is the only state in the world that legally defines ‘Arab’ as a nationality. Here on my identity card I must claim to be either ‘Arab’ or ‘Jewish.’ In fact, I fought for the establishment of Israel precisely to become an Israeli Palestinian. Yes, yes, I am a Palestinian, a Hebrew in a political state called Israel located in historical Palestine.”

Photo courtesy of Becky Kook

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the author most recently of two books about the Middle East: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis and The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. He is now working on a presidential biography of Jimmy Carter.

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