Remembering Arafat: “We’re almost there”

Remembering Arafat: “We’re almost there”
Unfailingly polite, but somewhat of a puzzle, Arafat had a keen sense of mission and a strong sense of humour.
9 min read
11 Nov, 2014
Arafat: grandiose but only in sense of mission [Getty]

Yasser Arafat’s first visit to Washington, in September of 1993, was a moment of personal triumph. It was also seen as a disaster by many of his people, but then not everything Arafat did was celebrated. From the beginning he divided people while always flashing a smile. The smile was true, but even those closest to him sensed that he kept an abacus in his head – toting up who owed what to whom.


A modest looking man in a chequered keffiyah – “grandiose” but “only in his sense of mission”, as one commenter put it – he’d come to the US to sign the Oslo Accords, which were memorialized on the White House lawn when he reached past a beaming Bill Clinton to shake the hand of the theatrically hesitant Yitzhak Rabin.


This “awkward moment,” as the New York Times reported, was ably stage-managed by the oh-so-graceful Clinton, who

        I am here among my people, and I am eight miles from Jerusalem. We're almost there.

- Yasser Arafat, 2004

deftly shepherded the handshake, which brought an audible sigh of relief to those onlookers seated on rows of wooden chairs to witness the event. Hadn’t Rabin hesitated? What if he’d actually refused to take Arafat’s hand? What if he’d eyed Arafat suspiciously – and walked away? What then?


I had met Arafat during a visit to Tunis five years previously, had visited him several times since and had come to know him well – so, when he came to America that first time, I trailed in his wake, taking my cue from those who arranged his visit. I remember, still, how astonished I was after his arrival at his hotel on the night before “the handshake,” where a crowd of Palestinian-Americans awaited him. There was a smattering of applause and he smiled and waved and then ascended the winding stairs that overlooked the hotel lobby. He stopped halfway up, turned to the crowd, began to speak – and was immediately interrupted.


“You! You! You’re a traitor,” a young Palestinian-American man in the audience shouted in Arabic, and he raised his fist and shook it at him. Arafat raised his hand and smiled, but the young man was undeterred. “We counted on you, and now look where you are,” he said angrily. “You have signed an agreement with them. Who gave you that right?” Arafat tried to explain, but the man was adamant. “Arafat sold out,” the man shouted. Arafat’s colleagues moved towards the man, but Arafat shook his head, nearly imperceptibly, and allowed the young man to continue – until, seemingly spent, he fell silent. Arafat smiled, thanked his greeters for coming to see him and then went to his room.


The next night, I was told, there would be a reception for Arafat, who would be meeting with leaders of the Palestinian-American community in one of the hotel’s conference rooms. I looked forward to the event with anticipation, visualizing a room of tables and chairs set before a lectern (perhaps with the Palestinian colours emblazoned on its front), from which Arafat would explain why he had signed the accords, how he planned his return to Gaza and the West Bank – and the prospects for future. That’s not what happened.  


I arrived early at the conference room to find it bare of chairs and tables. A lectern was nowhere to be found, the lighting was poor and there wasn’t a microphone in sight. I approached one of the organizers of the event, a prominent Palestinian-American, to ask if I could help him organize the event. Perhaps I could begin arranging the chairs – “you know,” I said, “help set up the room.” He looked at me, puzzled. “It is set up,” he said.


The scene was in stark contrast to the event the Israelis had organized late that afternoon at another prominent Washington hotel, where Rabin had spoken to Jewish American leaders. The room in which Rabin appeared was meticulously prepared, with a bank of alternating Israeli and American flags on a raised platform in front of rows of long tables on which were laid colourful briefing books, complete with pencils and pads of paper. Here and there, in the room, portable microphones were strategically placed so that those in the audience could ask Rabin questions – and a dim spotlight lit where he would speak.

Arafat speaks at the UN in 1974 [file]

Rabin arrived, was greeted with applause, waved to the crowd, was effusively introduced, presented a prepared script, answered questions – and departed.


Not so with Arafat. The PLO chairman was fifteen minutes late to his briefing, swept into the room to muted applause, and stood in front of an audience that stood twenty deep in a semi-circle around him. The first row of onlookers were so close all they needed to do was reach out to touch him. He was supposed to speak then, and he did so for a few short moments, but he wasn’t prepared to give a detailed briefing – and so didn’t.

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And that’s when it started. In the first row of greeters were a semi-circle of middle-aged Palestinian women, many of them in traditional dress – respectable, serious, upright. They went at him now, as I listened (mouth agape, I suppose) to what they said.


“Look at you, just look at you,” one of the women, middle aged, proper, unafraid and opinionated, said. “Why are you wearing that scarf? Take off that scarf and put on a suit. You’re in America now.” Arafat smiled, chuckled, nodded and shrugged.  


Another woman joined in, “And shave,” she said. “Will you please shave?” People in the crowd tittered at this, until the woman who’d offered the advice stared them down. She turned back to Arafat, speaking in clipped Arabic. “You look … ” and the man next to me, translating, struggled to find the right word. “The closest word in English, he told me, “is ‘scruffy’. She says he looks ‘scruffy’.”


It’s not the worst thing ever said about Arafat. Down through the years, and particularly during the second Intifada, Arafat was the target of a kind of recreational hysteria. Ariel Sharon (complicitous in the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps) called him a “mass murderer”. Benjamin Netanyahu measured him against Hitler and Stalin (which leaves me to wonder: would he have engaged in a peace process with der Fuhrer or Koba, as he did with Arafat?). Ehud Olmert (sentenced to six years in prison for bribery) clucked away at his corruption. An Israeli friend of mind once called Arafat a “master thief,” but not even thirty minutes after complaining that “all of Israel is owned by the mafia.”


I must have known a different Arafat. In the over thirty (or so) times that I met with him before his death – ten years ago this day – I found him to be unfailingly polite, if somewhat of a puzzle. After his appearance in Washington, I visited at his offices in Gaza. It was the first time I had seen him there. He was seated behind his desk and we exchanged pleasantries. I asked him what it was like to be back in Palestine. He thought for a minute, then looked at me and winked. “Watch this,” he said, and he reached over and hit the buzzer on his desk.


A young man appeared then, at his office door, and saluted. Arafat shouted at him: “You’re late! Where’s my lunch?” The young man, a part of his security detail, answered him smartly. “Right away, sir,” he said – and fairly sprinted for the door. But the young man had barely exited when Arafat hit the buzzer again. And when the young man dutifully reappeared, Arafat shouted at him yet again: “Well, where is it? I want my lunch.” Arafat did this once more, with the young man fairly quaking, until Arafat’s aides burst into laughter – and the young man, chagrined, joined in. Arafat turned to me, answering my question. “See how powerful I am,” he said. “I can order lunch.”


I visited Arafat twice more that year, and then again during the next summer. In July of 1996, my son and I had lunch with Arafat at his Gaza headquarters (these were always communal affairs, and Arafat ate ravenously), along with an Islamist scholar who assured his audience that “Abu Ammar” (as he carefully and purposely referred to him) was “a direct descendant” of the Prophet. “And I will prove it,” the man said, and began to trace Arafat’s family lineage, which consumed twenty endless minutes. Arafat never looked at the man, never so much as glanced at him, and never said a word, though at one point he looked directly at me – and rolled his eyes.


One of the last times I saw him was at the Muqata, his Ramallah compound. The second Intifada was then just winding down, but an Israeli tank still circled his offices, churning the road to dust. I stood at a corner across the street from the Muqata, timing my sprint to the passing of the tank. I calculated that the tank took precisely one minute and 34 seconds to pass the point where I was standing – so as soon as it churned by, I ran for the compound gate.


I was greeted at the gate by a security guard, shaking his head as I wheezed my way forward, sweating in the heat of the day. Minutes later, I was seated on Arafat’s left at the head of a long table as he leafed through some papers. He only looked at me after many minutes, raising his eyebrows. “I’m a little worried about you,” I said. He cocked his head. “But why?” The question was genuine, but it took me by surprise. “Mr. President,” I said, raising my voice, “perhaps you haven’t noticed – but there’s an Israeli tank out there that could put a shell in this office at any second.” He took this in: “Yes,” he said. “I’ve noticed. But you shouldn’t worry. I am here among my people, and I am eight miles from Jerusalem.”


He hesitated then, glanced down at his papers, and then looked back at me. “We’re almost there,” he said, “we’re almost there.”


Mark Perry is an author and writer living in Washington, D.C. @markperrydcPerry is an author and writer living in Washington, D.C. @markperrydc


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.