In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

After Arafat died, on November 11, 2004, there were some who believed that the chaos and violence that he had brought with him to the Palestinian territories might follow him to the grave, and that peace between Israelis and Palestinians might finally be at hand. There were others who noted the absence of any clear cause of death in the voluminous files provided by the military hospital south of Paris where he died. Some of his closest aides and advisers spoke openly of their belief that he had been poisoned. Suspects in the poisoning included the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and the CIA, as well as a team of cyclists for peace who had visited Arafat the previous September. Only the idea that Arafat might have expired from natural causes was deemed too farfetched for serious consideration.

There were also those among his closest aides who found the discussion of the Old Man's death unseemly and distracting. The Old Man was a great figure in history, they believed. It was the Old Man who had created the Palestinian people out of a host of miserable refugees. It was the Old Man who had brought the Palestinians back to Palestine.

Several weeks after Arafat's death I visited the Muqata, his compound in Ramallah, the West Bank city that serves as the Palestinian capital. There I found groups of workmen carrying garbage out of the ruined buildings as if they were excavating the burrow of an animal. As I stood and watched, a group of a hundred soldiers in matching brown uniforms emerged from their barracks and stood more or less at attention as they were inspected by a senior officer. These are the faces of Palestine, I thought, the faces of the conquerors and the conquered of the past thousand years—sharp-featured Arabs, fierce-looking Turks, light-skinned Europeans, dark-skinned Egyptian-looking soldiers from Jericho and Gaza. In response to their officer's command, they turned and faced a rubble-strewn field above which hung a poster of Arafat in a Soviet overcoat, waving good-bye. The Arabic motto on the poster read, "On Your Way to Fulfill the Palestinian Dream." Behind him was the golden dome of the Mosque of Omar.

The Bodyguard

In the weeks that follow Arafat's burial in the parking lot of the Muqata, beneath an honor guard of transplanted olive trees, members of Arafat's inner circle decide, one by one, that it is important for his story to be told, and agree to talk to me.

Awaiting their pleasure, I arrange to stay in a private apartment in East Jerusalem that belongs to a friend, and that is otherwise empty during the winter. In the mornings, as I wait outside in the rain for a car to pick me up, I watch the children walk to school—the boys holding hands with boys, the girls in hijab walking to a nearby girls' school that Jewish would-be terrorists have tried to blow up with a bomb. The girls wear the hijab close to their skulls in a way that pulls back the skin on their foreheads and prevents stray hairs from escaping. They also wear blue jeans under their skirts. Across the street is the Don Derma family restaurant, which quaintly advertises "cocktails" and serves ice cream and coffee in the evenings.

I have different cars and drivers depending on what day it is and where I want to go. When I want to go to Gaza, or to the refugee camps, I travel in a white Land Rover with a sticker from an international aid organization where three of my friends have found work. Most of my official meetings are arranged for me by two local translators, without whom I am often as helpless as a child. The going rate for a translator with decent contacts is $150 to $200 a day. N., a hard-core supporter of Fatah, speaks seven languages, including German, Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew. She was born in Haifa and carries an Israeli passport. She was recommended to me by a Palestinian functionary in Ramallah who welcomed the opportunity to monitor my movements and contacts. N.'s loyalty to Fatah means that she has connections that more neutral translators lack; when she hands off unmarked packages to men who dart out of storefronts and alleyways near al-Manara Square, in Ramallah, I decide that it is best to play dumb. Her favorite game is to drive the wrong way through oncoming traffic at checkpoints as the soldiers draw their guns and order us to stop. "Sahafia—journalist!" she will shout, leaving me to plead our case.

One evening I go to see one of Arafat's bodyguards, Abu Helmi, at his well-secured apartment in Ramallah. To reach the Qalandia checkpoint visitors must pass the ugly concrete wall that divides the outer Arab villages from East Jerusalem, and then an open field of rubble. To the left of the rubble there is always a traffic jam at the checkpoint. After four years of war, crossing from one side to the other remains a haphazard affair. The road is cut by a snarl of concrete blocks and barbed wire whose makeshift appearance belies the fact that it is a permanent feature of the landscape. Getting through the checkpoint from Jerusalem to Ramallah takes about thirty to forty-five minutes. The return trip to Jerusalem can take up to four hours. After my days with N. are over, I sometimes go back out with Q., a translator who is close to members of Arafat's private guard. Q. grew up in Jerusalem and hates Fatah, and is an excellent source of rumors and gossip. At night the potholes are harder to spot, and the road stinks of burning garbage.

On the night that Arafat was buried, Abu Helmi stayed up with the rest of the Old Man's guards to see who would come and pay their respects. He was amazed that so many of the inner circle didn't come.

Abu Helmi is a simple man, of unbreakable tribal loyalties. His eyes fill with tears at the mention of the Old Man as he shows us photographs from the old days. Thirty pounds heavier than in the earliest of the photos, but with the same dark hair and bushy moustache, Abu Helmi bears a marked physical resemblance to Saddam Hussein. It was Abu Helmi's job to travel ahead and make the arrangements when the Old Man visited foreign countries. When the Old Man's plane went down in the Libyan desert, Abu Helmi suffered an injury to his back. He walks stiffly over to a wide chest of drawers, which contains several thousand photographs of the Old Man taken on airstrips in Mali, Uganda, Comoros, and other faraway places where the Palestine Liberation Organization invested its money and the Old Man was welcomed as a head of state. There are photos of the Old Man with Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli, and in a pilgrim's robes in Mecca.

"I don't want to speak about Abu Ammar as a president or a revolutionary leader; I want to speak about Abu Ammar the father," Abu Helmi begins, referring to the Palestinian leader by another of his familiar nicknames. ("Abu Ammar," meaning "father of Ammar," is a fossilized cognomen for "Yasir," which refers to a faithful companion of the prophet Muhammad.) As he speaks, Abu Helmi stirs his coffee with a sugar spoon that he squeezes gently between forefinger and thumb.

"For many years, at nights, we would suddenly wake up, with him coming over to see if we were covered, if we were sleeping or resting," Abu Helmi says. "During the meals, when there were no guests, we always ate together. He was always insisting, giving us food, spreading, cutting, saying 'Eat, eat.' If he was really happy with someone, he would insist that he feed him from the food on his plate into his mouth. He was always keeping us patient and telling us, 'Patience is not measured by the hour.'

"Always he would notice very small details—even if someone hadn't shaved for a day, he would always notice it and say, 'Why haven't you shaved?' He insisted that we wear ties and that we look good and that we appear to the world as we are, as civilized people."

"Did Abu Ammar enjoy that people around him had lavish things although his own life was so modest?" I ask.

"He was very pleased," Abu Helmi answers. "He never minded. He used to say, 'These people deserve to live—they should enjoy their life.'"

"Would he remember a mistake long after it had happened?" I ask.

"He doesn't forget. Not the right or the wrong. For us, he never refused anything. Once my niece, the daughter of our martyr, my brother, she was about to get married, and I went in to ask permission to attend that marriage in Jordan, and Abu Ammar immediately agreed, and he insisted that I carry a present of gold. Whenever there was a celebration or wedding, and we used to invite him by card, he would send the congratulations."

Abu Helmi's youngest son, who speaks fluent English, and is paralyzed from the neck down, is carried in through the living room and laid on a hospital bed, where he can hear the conversation. Abu Helmi's daughter brings more coffee from the kitchen.

"Abu Ammar started his day at nine a.m. until one-thirty in the afternoon," Abu Helmi says, wiping a bit of coffee from his thick black moustache. "One-thirty was his nap time, and lunch until four-thirty. Then it would stretch late into the night. Whenever he woke up to pray the dawn prayers, which was about three-thirty, he would always come out to check on us and to see what was going on, 'Do I need to make any phone calls?' He was always in constant surveillance of his work. Any issue or request that reaches the hands of Abu Ammar—it must be solved immediately."

After the Israelis attacked the Muqata in 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, the Old Man sandbagged the windows for fear that he would be shot by Israeli snipers. Proclaiming himself to be under siege, he refused to leave the Muqata until his final illness, in October of 2004. On sunny afternoons he positioned a chair in the breezeway between the ruins of the compound's main building, a former British prison, and the modern office building next door. Here he talked on his cell phone and read telegrams from foreign ministers of Europe, African heads of state, and other notables expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the careful records of which were preserved on his presidential Web site. "Nahnu la al-hunud al-humr [We are not the red Indians]," he often proclaimed to the reporters who came to see him. On slow afternoons he liked to sit outside the Muqata with his guards.

"We would always be gathered around him," Abu Helmi remembers. "Sometimes we would bring fruit and peel it for him or make cookies here at home. He would ask, 'From where did you bring this?' And we would say, 'We made it at home, it's cheaper than buying it at the market.' He would say, 'Look at this guy, look how he's dressed.' He would always say, if he saw a chocolate, 'This is too much calories,' or 'Too much fat.'"

"How did Abu Ammar feel about Yitzhak Rabin?"

"He loved him," Abu Helmi says, with all apparent sincerity. "When I mention Rabin, I say, 'May God bless his soul.' That means great respect and great affection."

"Do you remember what Abu Ammar felt about the Israeli leaders who followed Rabin—about Peres and Netanyahu and Barak?"

At this question Abu Helmi laughs, and makes a sharp cutting motion with his hand.

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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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