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.

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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.

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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


The Elite Med Squad That Saved You from Anthrax

A look inside the hunt for a white, powdery killer.

Since its founding in 1951 by Alexander Langmuir as a service/training program, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, working out of the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, has sent out more than 3,000 officers to combat every imaginable human (and sometimes animal) ailment.

These young people -- doctors, veterinarians, dentists, statisticians, nurses, microbiologists, academic epidemiologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and now even lawyers -- call themselves "shoeleather epidemiologists." EIS officers have ventured over the globe in search of diseases, sometimes in airplanes or jeeps, on bicycles, aboard fragile boats, on dogsleds, atop elephants and camels.

EIS officers generally have performed their tasks without fanfare or notice. They have saved uncountable lives, preventing uncontrolled spread of disease and diagnosing problems before they escalated.

They even may have saved your life, though you were probably unaware of it. And in October 2001, they became deeply involved with containing the spread of anthrax in the United States.

On October 3, the Florida state laboratory called the CDC about a likely anthrax case. A disoriented, feverish 63-year-old man named Bob Stevens had entered a Boca Raton hospital the day before, and then had a seizure. His spinal fluid had just tested positive for Bacillus anthracis.

The next day the CDC lab confirmed the diagnosis. Stevens, a photo editor at the tabloid the Sun, was suffering from inhalational anthrax, a rare, deadly disease. There had been only 18 such cases in the United States during the 20th century, and the last had occurred 25 years before.

On October 4 a CDC team, led by EIS alum Brad Perkins and including five EIS officers, flew to Boca Raton. There they joined Florida-based EIS officer Marc Traeger.

Coming so soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the unusual inhalational anthrax case caused understandable concern, but the CDC investigators thought it unlikely to be bioterrorism. Why would terrorists pick on one obscure photo editor at an insignificant tabloid?

At 4 p.m. on Friday, Bob Stevens died. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration tried to control and centralize communication, so CDC director Jeff Koplan was effectively muzzled, while HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, who knew little about medicine, gave a press conference. He asserted that Stevens may have contracted anthrax by drinking from a North Carolina stream. "We cringed when we heard Thompson's comments," Traeger said. No one could get inhalational anthrax from contaminated water.

On Saturday CDC's Sherif Zaki arrived in Florida to perform the autopsy on Stevens, then returned to Atlanta along with all the environmental and clinical samples collected thus far. At 6:25 p.m. on Sunday, October 7, Perkins and the Florida CDC team were eating dinner at a cheap Italian restaurant. "We were feeling pretty good," recalls Josh Jones. "We had worked hard and had found nothing of real concern."

Then Perkins got a call from Zaki on his cell phone. The samples from Stevens's computer keyboard and mail slot tested positive for anthrax. Bioterrorism, Perkins thought. It had to be an intentional exposure, probably from a letter.

On Friday, October 12, the phone woke New York City epidemiologist and EIS alum Marci Layton around 3 a.m. The biopsy results on 38-year-old Erin O'Connor, assistant to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, were positive for anthrax.

By the end of the day, three other media-related cases had been reported to Layton from ABC, CBS, and the New York Post. Over the next few days a total of seven media-related New York City cutaneous anthrax cases were identified.

Only two anthrax letters were found, addressed to Brokaw and the editor of the New York Post. Both tested positive for anthrax, were postmarked on September 18 in Trenton, New Jersey, and contained the same message in handwritten block letters: 09-11-01. THIS IS NEXT. TAKE PENACILIN NOW. DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT.

The EIS officers conducting surveillance for bioterrorism in the city's emergency rooms reported to the NBC offices at Rockefeller Center, where they were each paired with a mental health counselor. For the next three days they handed out Cipro, took nose swabs (all negative), and tried to allay employee fears. As a member of the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center, recent EIS grad Mike Bunning was dispatched to test the thousands of suspicious powder specimens that concerned citizens sent. Public health laboratories across the country were overwhelmed with suspect powder samples.

On Monday morning, October 15, an intern in Senator Tom Daschle's office in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., opened a letter sealed with tape on all sides that released a puff of fine white powder. He placed the letter on the floor and called security. Daschle himself wasn't in the building, but 13 of his staff were in the room at the time and were immediately put on Cipro. It wasn't until 45 minutes later that someone thought to shut down the building's ventilation system. The letter's contents tested positive for anthrax, and it appeared to be of a finer consistency than the variety sent to New York -- more easily airborne.

By the end of the day the entire building was shut down, as was mail delivery throughout the Capitol. Over the next three days EIS officer Scott Harper and his colleagues gave antibiotics to more than 2,000 people who had been in the building. Twenty-eight nasal swabs tested positive, though no one contracted anthrax.

The Daschle letter featured the now-familiar handwritten capital letters, beginning with: YOU CAN NOT STOP US. WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX. YOU DIE NOW. It had been postmarked in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 9, which meant that, like the New York media letters, it had traveled through a large postal distribution center in Hamilton, New Jersey.

After hearing about the New York cases, two New Jersey doctors had notified the state health office of possible cutaneous anthrax in Teresa Heller, a postal carrier, and Patrick O'Donnell, who worked in the Hamilton distribution center. On October 18 Heller's wound biopsy tested positive for anthrax. With two likely cases of cutaneous anthrax in mail handlers, a CDC team led by EIS alum Beth Bell flew up to New Jersey that afternoon, accompanied by EIS officers Jennita Reefhuis and Michelle McConnell. By the time they arrived, the Hamilton facility, which processed approximately 2 million pieces of mail per day, had been closed.

As several postal employees in D.C. and New Jersey contracted the disease and some of them died, it seemed as though the anthrax cases would never end. "It was like getting slammed by an ocean wave," CDC director Jeff Koplan said. "Wham! You just have to keep moving and dive right in."

On November 16 an unopened anthrax letter addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy was found in mail that had been quarantined after the arrival of the Daschle letter. It, too, had been postmarked in Trenton on October 9. Three days after the Leahy letter surfaced, Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old widow who lived alone in rural Oxford, Connecticut, was diagnosed with inhalational anthrax. She died two days later.

Lundgren was the last anthrax victim of the 2001 bioterror spree. A total of 22 people had been infected, half of them with inhalational anthrax, and five inhalational victims had died. Of the 146 then-current EIS officers, 136 helped with at least one part of the investigation. Nearly a third of them went out twice, and some were redeployed four or five times.

EIS alum Larry Altman, a New York Times science reporter, complained of the "distressing lapses in communication with the public" during the anthrax investigation, as did alum Philip Brachman. "You won't ever prevent hysteria," Brachman said, "but you feed hysteria by not releasing information." In future bioterror events, he advised that "a single and well-informed source" should be the spokesperson.

CDC director Jeff Koplan probably should have been allowed to be that person, but at the onset of the anthrax scare, he was forbidden to make public statements. Tommy Thompson made his life miserable by insisting on personal updates several times a day.

The FBI and most other experts concluded that the perpetrator was probably a U.S. citizen, perhaps an unhinged scientist with the expertise to produce finely milled anthrax spores. (In July 2008 military scientist Bruce Ivins, who worked with anthrax at Fort Detrick, Maryland, committed suicide as the FBI was amassing circumstantial evidence that he had sent the anthrax letters. Some critics remain unconvinced of his guilt.)

In the wake of the anthrax letters, the Bush administration and Congress threw billions of dollars into bioterror preparedness, much of it going to the CDC and to state health departments. Tommy Thompson called for an EIS officer in every state, but some states had weaker public health infrastructure and lacked good supervisors. Instead, EIS alums called career epidemiology field officers (CEFOs) were posted to such states, though they focused primarily on terrorism and emergency response.

The new bioterror money undoubtedly improved preparedness for many potential public health emergencies, but other problems were underfunded, according to EIS alum Barry Levy, editor of the 2003 book Terrorism and Public Health. "These bioterror initiatives have, in general, distorted public health priorities," complained Levy, "and drained human and financial resources away from addressing current public health problems, including tobacco- and alcohol-related diseases, gun-related injuries and deaths, HIV/AIDS, and mental health disorders."

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