In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine
Arafat's Children

Wearing a black dress and a fashionable white jacket, Arafat's dark-haired nine-year-old daughter, Zahwa, stood with her mother, Suha, and watched as her father's coffin was loaded on to a plane. "Don't cry, Zahwa," an Egyptian television announcer intoned as the scene was broadcast on the day of Yasir Arafat's funeral in Cairo. "Your father never cried. He was a man of patience and endurance." The press was naturally eager for a glimpse of the little girl who might inherit the Palestinian leader's fortune. Yet Zahwa was not Arafat's only child. Since the early 1970s Arafat had adopted a number of orphaned children, paying for their schooling and giving them away at their weddings. Of all Arafat's far-flung progeny the one to whom he was probably closest was Raeda Taha, who was adopted by Arafat when she was eight years old, after the death of her father, the PFLP and Black September terrorist Ali Taha.

A lively woman in her early forties with a low smoker's voice, Raeda has sharp features that could be pretty or ugly, a slightly receding chin, and large, beautiful eyes, which are set off to great advantage by her white fur coat and diamond earrings. In 2002, while living in Ramallah, during Operation Defensive Shield, she decided to write a book about her father, who hijacked Sabena Flight 517 from Brussels to Tel Aviv on May 8, 1972, with three accomplices, and was shot dead by a commando team led by Ehud Barak.

"I don't care if he died for Palestine or anything else," Raeda says, when I meet her at a restaurant on a rainy night in Ramallah. "He looked like a movie star," she remembers. "White, perfect teeth, and shining eyes. He was very young." As a child, Raeda knew that the men who came discreetly to her parents' apartment in West Beirut to sip tea were important guests who belonged to a secret world.

"I remember my mother would open the door and I will peek a little bit and I would look to see who they are," she says, naming several well-known international terrorists of the 1970s. "I remember Carlos," she says, of the terrorist who was known as "The Jackal," and who now resides in a French jail. "He would play with us a little bit. Wadi Hadad used to come a lot." Wadi Hadad was the inventor of airplane hijacking as a political weapon; his brother Isad was the owner of the exclusive girls' school that Raeda attended in Beirut.

The day Ali Taha left on his final trip, he hugged his daughters good-bye and promised his wife that this would be his last trip abroad. When her mother heard the news that a plane had been hijacked to Tel Aviv, she called her husband's controller in the PFLP and confessed her fears. "And he told her, 'Not in your wildest dreams. Just go back to sleep.'" The next morning Raeda saw her father's picture on the front page of the newspaper, and took it to the superintendent of her school.

"I knocked at the door and I went in and I put the newspaper behind my back and I told him, 'Mr. Hassan, good morning. I want to ask you a question. What's the meaning of shahid?' And he said, 'Why are you asking me?' I told him, 'Just tell me the meaning.' He said, 'The one who dies for his country.'" Raeda went home, where she found that her mother had been given tranquilizers. The apartment was filled with people, who told her that her father was a hero who had died for Palestine.

"I knew the story by heart," she says. "He did something very heroic that nobody could do. To take a plane from one place to another was a big thing to me." Raeda also remembered the man who had come to her house in disguise before her father left on his final journey.

"I asked my mother when I was probably ten, or nine. I told her, 'Mom, I know this man from his mouth. He had this big mouth, with his lips—you know. She said, 'You're right.'" On the third day after her father's death the mystery man showed up at her house again.

"He called my mother and he called all of us, and he said, 'Listen to me carefully what I'm going to tell you now. I am your father now, and I'll be taking care of you, and you needn't worry about anything,'" Raeda remembers, taking another cigarette from the pack on the table. "He said, 'These children are mine from now on, and their father is my brother, and whatever you dream during the night, I'm ready to make it come true.'"

Being close to the Old Man was pleasant for a child. He was small in size, and had small, soft hands. He liked to kiss Raeda and her three sisters, and play with their hair.

"Your father was a very brave man," the Old Man would say. "He did something very good for Palestine. Your mommy loves you very much, and I love you very much, and whenever you want to see me and whenever you need anything, you can come and tell me." He asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up.

"I told him, 'I want to become an astronaut,'" Raeda remembers. "He looked at me; he said, 'Yeah, maybe.' I told him, 'Like Valentina Tereshkova.' He said, 'Yeah. By the time we go back to Palestine, probably you will be the first Palestinian astronaut.'"

Every few months or so throughout their childhood, and on birthdays, Raeda and her sisters would accompany their mother to a dingy office where her new father sat behind his desk, surrounded by his bodyguards. When he saw the girls, he would stand up and gasp with excitement, and come out from behind his desk. He would grab the four girls, and sit next to them, and kiss them, and ask how they were doing in school. One year, on the birthday of one of Raeda's sisters, a piano arrived. When Raeda went off to college in the United States, Arafat paid her tuition. When she visited him in Tunis, he would feed her ice cream and boast about her grades.

After she graduated from college, she became his press secretary. They ate together often.

"He enjoyed a little gossip, just to let you know that he is normal like you. He would ask me from time to time, 'What about your love life? No love?' I tell him, 'No love.' 'Why? Life is not beautiful without love, my dear.' I told him, 'You should say that to yourself,'" Raeda says, laughing. She taps the ash from her cigarette. "He would notice if I am wearing something new. 'This is a new bag. This is a new dress—I haven't seen you wearing it before.' He likes to get involved in your details, to let you know that he is normal. And he likes to tell you things about himself. You know, 'When I was young, I never liked to eat roheyeh or okra. I never like these two dishes. My big sister, my oldest sister, used to make me roheyeh and okra all the time, and I became a freedom fighter just to run away from her.'" Raeda laughs.

She offers me a cigarette, which I accept in the hope that it might quiet my bronchitis.

"I'll tell you about the last moments I saw him," she says finally. "He was lying down like this, you know, and he had this big smile on him with his training suit, and when he saw me, he said, 'Ah.'" Raeda sighs. "He said, 'So you came. How are you, my love? I miss you.' His hand was white. I was caressing his hand, and then I kissed it, and then he grabbed my hand with his full strength and he brought it close to his mouth and he kissed it. He said, 'Don't worry. I'll be fine. Yesterday I wasn't feeling well at all, but today I am feeling much better.'"

I ask her how many people came to visit Arafat at the end of his life.

"Very few people coming and going," she remembers, of the day before Arafat left Ramallah. "I stayed there until twelve o'clock, and then I told him, 'I wish you a safe trip, and I'll be waiting for you.' He said, 'Wait for me. I will come back.' I said good-bye to him and I left, and he never came back."


EDITOR'S NOTE

An article in the September 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "In a Ruined Country: How Yasir Arafat Destroyed Palestine," by David Samuels, made several references to Mohamed Rachid, a former senior official of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF). Subsequent to publication, Mr. Rachid, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed by Mr. Samuels, contacted the magazine to clarify portions of the article. The references to Mr. Rachid were intended to illustrate certain claims relating to the financial structure and activities of the Palestinian Authority and its late chairman, Yasir Arafat, and not to allege any fraudulent or unlawful conduct on the part of Mr. Rachid. The article did not state nor intend to imply that Mr. Rachid transferred PA or PIF funds to his individual account or used such funds for his personal benefit.

David Samuels has written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. This is his first article for The Atlantic Monthly.
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