Return to Nowhere

Charles Glass

  • Arafat: From Defender to Dictato by Said Aburish
    Bloomsbury, 352 pp, £20.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3629 5

The old dons arrived in armourplated black limousines to pay their last respects. They had often tried to do away with him, but they gave him a royal send-off. He was, after all, the longest-serving capo of them all, a man who commanded respect. King Hussein of Jordan would have laughed to see his adversaries courting his son and heir, King Abdallah II. Spectators could almost hear Hafez al-Assad of Syria whispering into the young King’s ear: ‘Your father knew it wasn’t personal, Abdu. It was business.’ The Sicilian Mafia has much to learn from the Levantine men of honour.

Those who could come did: scions of the Saudi royal family, Netanyahu, Mubarak, past and present Presidents of the United States. Saddam Hussein should have been there. (Hampered by travel restrictions, he may have sent flowers.) All the other godfathers had seen the King as expendable at one time or another. The Saudis subverted his regime and stole his family title, Custodian of the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina. Netanyahu’s people proposed overthrowing him and giving his statelet to a tame Palestinian. Assad’s tried to kill him. The US cut him off when he stepped out of line, refusing to recite the American script for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

King Hussein would have laughed loudest at the tears shed by Yasser Arafat, who had attempted to dethrone him, to assassinate him and to turn his army against him. He lied to the King, betrayed him and negotiated with the Israeli enemy behind his back. Yet he had another purpose in attending: to show his people that he had joined the Arab association of dictators.

The Arabian dons at Hussein’s last rites are the inheritors of the colonial project of 1919, when Britain and France divided the Arab world along unwanted, artificial frontiers and awarded a speck of it to European Jews. Their regimes remain illegitimate, in that their people had no voice in choosing them, and dictatorial, in that they use force to sustain their rule. If Arafat declares his Palestinian state in May, as he has threatened, he will fit the final piece into the jigsaw that the European powers made of the Eastern Arab world when Britain dismantled the Ottoman Empire. He will become, like his fellow mourners, a head of state. No longer a supplicant at their table, he can be a capo among capi.

Is that what Arafat wanted all along, to sit at the table? Was he seeking the chance to emulate the neighbourhood hard men by imprisoning and torturing his people as they did theirs? To sustain a corrupt bureaucracy, obedient to the US and Israel? Is that why his followers have been struggling for 35 years, since his first botched military escapade against Israel on 31 December 1964? He has led the Palestinians through two generations of Israeli bombardment in Lebanon, the suppression of the Occupied Territories, the Intifada; through years of torture, detention without trial, massacre, impoverishment and exile. All for him to join the dictators’ club? For Wales, Richard, for Wales?

Arafat’s father, Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, brought his children up with the illusion that he would win title to stolen ancestral property in Egypt. In pursuit of the elusive inheritance, Abdel Raouf, a mild man in a fez with oversize spectacles and a dark suit, moved his growing family from their home in Gaza to Cairo in 1927. Abdel Raouf’s mother’s family, the Radwans, had owned land on the outskirts of Cairo, which in his lifetime was absorbed into the city and became the overpopulated Abbasieh Quarter. The acreage was worth millions. To chase the legacy through Cairo’s labyrinthine court system, Abdel Raouf sold family farms in Gaza, neglected his trading business and squandered most of his money.

His obsessive quest alienated his children and made his wife, Zahwa Abu Saoud, wretched. She died in 1933, far from her home in Jerusalem. Zahwa’s son Mohammed Abdel Raouf al-Qudwa al-Husseini was only four. (It would be twenty-five years before he assumed the name Yasser Arafat and became leader of Fatah. His nom de guerre would be Abu Ammar.) Mohammed and his six siblings were at the mercy of their father’s fantasies and a succession of stepmothers. When family relations deteriorated, Abdel Raouf sent Mohammed and another son, Fathi, to his late wife’s brothers in Jerusalem. It was an unsettled, nomadic childhood that the boys spent among relations in Jerusalem, Cairo and Gaza. For young Mohammed, it presaged an adult life in which he would rarely sleep for two nights running in the same house. Abdel Raouf eventually won his property case in the Islamic court that oversaw inheritance disputes. It was a pyrrhic victory. The Egyptian Government intervened, kept the property and exiled Arafat’s father to Gaza. In Gaza, landless and broke, he died.

Like his father, Arafat dedicated his life to the futile quest of reclaiming lost title. He has described himself as the Palestinian Moses, come out of Egypt to lead his people to their promised land. Like Moses, he was by culture Egyptian. (His Egyptian-accented Arabic even now grates on Palestinian ears used to the gentler lilt of the Levant.) Like Moses, he became sole leader of a people forcibly banished from their homeland. And like Moses, he argued more with his own people than with his enemies. In other ways, however, the comparison is appalling. Moses, who showed his people the way out of the wilderness, never entered the promised land himself. Arafat stepped gingerly into Palestine, abandoning most Palestinians to permanent exile.

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