Cheers to our "talented" literature prize awardee. Your pain his gain !!!
EGY.COM - MAADI
My generation having been saturated with the Middle East conflict so, to be honest, I've grown tired of books on the subject. Over the years, they seem to have grown thicker and more tedious, reflecting perhaps the problem itself. Which is perhaps why, I dropped Kai's book after reading the first section entitled "Arabs."
Meanwhile, I had read somewhere the author was a Pulitzer Prize winner, and that he had written his book based on his memoirs and recollections during his years in the Middle East. As a diplo-brat, he had lived with his parents in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut and Dahran. Later, he became a journalist with a special interest in this area. Yet, neither my friend, nor the book's jacket, which sported the clichéd accolades, had prepared me for what I would eventually discover.
Later in the week, my friend called to ask what I thought of the book. Faltering for an answer, he straight away realized I had not read it in its entirety. There and then, he insisted I open a certain page. I did. Thereafter, I couldn't put the book down, for all the wrong reasons.
Welcome to a Pulitzer Prize winner's 'borrowed' memoirs.
In a nutshell, Mr. Bird is an adherer to the 'your pain his gain' syndrome' making up facts along the way—the collage-montage, cut and paste type of author. Which is why, "Crossing Mandelbaum Gate's" Section Five, dealing with Egypt, blew me away. Kai Bird had unashamedly copied, albeit under a thinly disguised veneer of paraphrasing, entire sections from my book "Maadi 1904-62; History & Society in a Cairo Suburb." Ditto, a tiny section of my other book on Cairo! And, if that were not enough, Bird helped himself generously to material from various articles I wrote in Cairo Times, also to be found on my website egy.com. Did he really think he wouldn’t be found out in this dawning cyber age?
How do I know he plagiarized? Well, to begin with, he did not bother to correct one of my spelling mistakes. There are so many passages plagiarized in Section Five, it would necessitate including most of Kai’s description of his Maadi years. As for giving due credit in his endnotes for borrowed effort, these are laughable—incomplete and totally misleading. The pathetic part is when Bird attempts to pepper his alleged memories with his own personal vignettes. These are either inaccurate or ring false.
MAKING UP FACTS ALONG THE WAY: Throughout his book, Kai Bird claims he was friends with or neighbours to the So and So family, or the XYZ cabinet minister, or Mr. High ‘N Mighty, as though to impress his unsuspecting reader that what follows is a privileged account. Ok, why not, his father was a US foreign service officer, and, as the author says, his mother, Jerri Bird, did a lot of entertaining. But facts on the ground give us a different story altogether. At least as far as the Maadi years are concerned.
In reality, Bird's so-called Maadi neighbours lived in different sections of the suburb. A ten minute walk from Bird's villa was required to get to any one of their homes. But the clincher here is not whether the physical distance separating the dramatis personae was 15 minutes or 5 seconds. It is simply a matter of whether or not they actually existed!
When he talks of his parents' neighbour-friends, citing the Sabry family, the author must have forgotten that my book on the history of Maadi ended in 1962, THREE years before his family arrived in Egypt in August 1965. By this time, his alleged neighbour, Prime Minister Ali Sabry, was no longer in Maadi. In fact, the Sabrys had sold their Maadi villa in the late 1950s and moved to Heliopolis! Yet the relevant passage in Bird's book gives the impression the Sabrys were Maadi acquaintances of his family. To make the point, Mr. Bird supplies us with background information and some family history, including the PM's nickname Aloushka. To be noted here, the nickname and corresponding blurb were never mentioned in print, except in my Maadi book, which appeared in 1994.
Nevertheless, Bird's Maadi portrayal is spot on, especially the parts dealing with its history, its sporting club (except for its Olympic size pool, no such thing in 1965-7), its Jews, its foreign community, its zeitgeist etc, all of which was transplanted from my book on Maadi. But, in the parts where he ads his own titbits, we are treated to pure imagination, aimed either at embellishing his borrowed narrative, or pretending the passages in question were based on his personal recollections of Egypt.
INACCURACIES: For your information, Mr. Kai Bird, formerly of Maadi, there were no Egyptian movies featured at the Maadi Sporting Club. And the sesame bread you bought on your way to school from the street vendor lady, is nonsense. If anything, Maadi of the 1960s was free of street vendors and makeshift food kiosks. The worldly son of a diplomat-turned-raconteur is confusing his Maadi with the popular district of Sayeda Zeinab, just as he confuses Egypt with India, when he claims their servants, Abdu and Abdullah, addressed his mother as "Memsahib."
And since we're sticking to geography and nationalities, pray tell, Mr. Bird, who, were the Byelorussians of Maadi? Now that is something you haven't found in my book! As for the British International School in Maadi, tsk, tsk, tsk, wrong again. The British had become no-nos after the 1956 Suez debacle, and all their schools closed.
The book takes place in the Cold War era, so it was natural for Bird to bring in the CIA and its Nasser-era activities in Egypt. Hence, the author provides us with what he believes are delectable scraps, gleaned from his dad, who he refers to as "Father," so un-American! Here again, Bird's fluid timeline sinks him. For instance he claims CIA agent Eguene Trone was expelled from Egypt at the outbreak of the 1967 War. Wrong again, Mr. Bird. A phone call to the State Department, you pretend to be so familiar with, would have told you Trone was alive and kicking in Maadi well after that period.
And since you claim to have read and interviewed the cigar-puffing Hassanein Heikal, than you must have noticed that his book "Secret Channels" repeatedly mentions Trone as having served in Egypt during 1969-72. In fact, most of Maadi's youth knew his engaging daughter Jeannie. If you contact her in the US, she'll tell you your Maadi account is fraudulent save for what you lifted from the Maadi book.
NASSER AND THE CAIRO TOWER: Talking of President Nasser, Bird gives us an account on the Egyptian president's movie preference. Here again, he unreservedly lifts an entire passage from my book, naturally without giving credit to the source. And then, there is the story of the Cairo Tower, and why it had so many coarse names. Once more, so as to infuse humour in his work, Bird page-lifts a vignette, pretending he had heard it from 'Father.' This, I find hard to believe, for prior to 1996, except for what I had written in "Cairo, the Glory Years," and in the Cairo Times, no one else had related the story the way Bird repeats it in his book, not even Miles Copeland whom he proudly mentions. Could Bird Sr., back in 1965, have predicted my expressions and the use of the word "Wakf" and that other five lettered word? If yes, then please Mr. Bird Jr., produce evidence.
THE MAADI NAZI: Writing with a mind to cuddle up to a specific audience, Bird drags in the token Nazi. Only in this case, it was the dreaded Dr. Hannes Eisele of Maadi, the man which took me months of research to get his story right. Eisele’s story re-surfaced in Robert Fisk's 7 August 2010 story in The Independent of London. A highly respected journalist, Fisk clearly lists his source, whereas, our Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Bird, barely acknowledges it, no doubt wanting to appear as the great researcher that he isn't.
AL QAEDA: Kai Bird's book is choc full of name dropping, weaving past and present newsmakers into his narrative, in-sinuously alluding to them in a manner where the unsuspecting reader will think he knew them, or knew of them, at the time of his narrative. Since Kai Bird mentions the Ben Ladens and how his family was friends with some of them, it was therefore imperative that he brings in Al-Qa'eda's Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although he admits not personally knowing him, yet what a bonus for Kai Bird to discover, decades later, that Ayman al-Zawahiri was actually from Maadi. Here too, Mr. Bird helps himself to stories surrounding Zawhiri's Maadi years. Lo, and behold, I find bits and pieces from my contribution to Larry Wright's 20-odd page article "The Man Behind Bin Laden," which appeared in The New Yorker on the occasion of the 9/11's first anniversary.
The irony of ironies here is that Bird missed out on a golden opportunity. But then how could he have known about it, since I never mentioned it in any of my writings.
While the families Bird claims were his neighbours, but were not; it was Zawahiri's maternal aunt and first cousins who were actually Birds' neighbours. Only a shrubby fence separated villa No. 14 from No. 12 on Maadi's Nahda Street. What a lost opportunity for our memoir-writing-Pulitzer-prize winner. A priceless nugget on which he could have gratuitously spun a fantastic story: How, from his upstairs window at No. 14, he espied 16 year old Zawahiri, scheming with his cousins to obliterate the world!
By manipulating details and quotation marks, Bird's book is an attempt to invent a role for himself, a so-called first hand witness of the 1956-78 era, weaving into his melodramatic narrative, stories illicitly ‘borrowed' from others, skilfully blending them into his own bent memoirs.
To help convince readers of his all-encompassing knowledge of the Middle East, it is not a coincidence that in the Egypt section, the dramatis personae were selected to fit into pre-determined pattern, hence we run into the anti-capitalist prime minister, the in-laws of Jerusalemite George Antonius of "Arab Awakening" fame; the Nazi Doctor from Buchenwald, the CIA author of "A Game of Nations," and the world's second most wanted man. Anything, in order to give the impression they were friends, acquaintances or accidental contemporaries. Perhaps Pulitzer winners have artistic licenses of their own.
CONFRONTING KAI BIRD: You may ask, why didn't I confront Kai Bird with the facts? Realizing plagiarism is a very serious charge, especially for a Pulitzer-Prize winner, I did, but by email, since I'm in Egypt and he is in the USA. He sidestepped the core issue of borrowing. His reply was that he had indeed read the book on Maadi, and that he had given me due credit in his endnotes. Who reads endnotes anyway! But yours truly did, and here's an example of one of the six endnotes alluded to. Judge for yourself…
Endnote 170. "The pond contained frogs. Ibid., Page 169." You go the relevant passage and indeed, you find "The pond contained frogs," bracketed in quotation marks implying this was my contribution. Whereas, in reality, the entire passage is a thinly disguised paraphrase from the original! And, Ibids notwithstanding, how in the world is the unsuspecting reader going to tell the difference? In any case, if I am end-noted in certain parts, the majority of the lifted passages are not.
Could Mr. Bird have done same with an American author? I doubt it. He would have been sued and taken to task in some Oprah-like talk-show.
You may also suggest that I write the Pullitzer Board and Simon & Schuster. I emailed both and got no reply from either. Perhaps they still think we're a barbaric Third World toilet!
Now, before I go a small word on the book's logistics! My copy is a paperback Simon & Schuster UK edition, published in 2010. Someone should inform S&S that the index is incomplete. While 'Abdu' the "Egyptian cook" is listed under A, several other names are missing (example: Trone, Eugene under T; and Sabr,y Ali under S). More importantly, the endnote section, while mentioning pages, these turn out to be totally out of sync with an over 50-page discrepancy. So much for credit-giving endnotes!!!