A woman in Ramallah handed me a book last year about Yasir Arafat that made me want to track down the author. The cover is red, with a picture of Arafat smiling, and the title: The Truth, the Whole Truth About Yasir Arafat, the Man Who’s Led Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for 37 Years. On the back cover, it says, “In this book, I put between the hands of the reader what has never been said before about the man who led one of the greatest and longest liberation movements in the world. With all modesty, I present the reader with information in opposition to what Palestinian, Arabic, Islamic, Western, and Israeli research and study have determined about this man.”
When you open the book, all the pages are blank. There’s nothing in it, except a one-paragraph note from the author saying if readers want to find out something about Arafat, they should write their own thoughts in the book. “I’m confident that you will have something to write,” it says, “because every person views President Arafat as he wishes.”
Half the Palestinians I’ve shown the book to get furious, and the other half burst out laughing, at least partly due to shock. People here don’t usually joke about Arafat that way: in public, in a form that could land on his desk. The book is also a joke on anyone who opens it, hoping for insight. It’s true that everyone has a story about Arafat.
A 26-year-old waiter named Mohammed Badah sat in a café two weeks ago and told me, with ABBA playing in the background, about meeting Arafat last spring. He said he’d been talking one day to a friend of his, who works in the muqataa with Arafat, and Mohammed had been going off, saying, “Arafat is a dictator; he’s like Saddam.” His friend said, No, no, no, if you meet him he’s not like that; he’s friendly and sweet.
So, on a Friday morning, Mohammed went to the muqataa, at his friend’s insistence, and met Arafat as he was coming out of morning prayers, surrounded by bodyguards. “And my friend came up and said, ‘Mr. President? This is Mohammed, my friend. He’s from Deheishe camp [the refugee camp where Mohammed grew up], and he loves you so much.’ And I was like this [he made a chattering sound with his teeth]: He’s the president! And Arafat, he kissed me and said, ‘Hi, son, how is life, how are you, how are the guys in Deheishe camp?’ And he asks me, ‘How’s your family? Are they okay?’ And you’re thinking to yourself: He knows my family! He’s so smooth.”
Mohammed talked about him the way people sometimes talk about Bill Clinton: Maybe they don’t like him, but when they meet him, even though they know he’s famous for charming the pants off people, they find themselves charmed anyway. One man told me about Arafat recognizing him more than a decade after meeting him, and remembering exactly what they’d talked about. Others told me about being encouraged in their career by Arafat, like a father.
An agricultural engineer, Fuad Abu Saif, told me about being glued to the radio when he was a teenager, listening to Arafat’s broadcasts on the secret PLO channel from Lebanon. “I was only 16 and it gave me power. He was like a logo for us, a flag or something like that.” Another man said, about hearing Arafat on the radio, “It was the first time I felt there was a beginning to organizing the Palestinian people, to feeling proud, to feeling nationally proud.”
Arafat created “a Palestinian identity to face Israel,” wrote Said Aburish in a biography called Arafat: From Defender to Dictator. Arafat also returned the Palestinian fight to Palestinians, rather than leaving it to Arab governments that had shown, according to Aburish, a “willingness to subordinate the interests of the Palestinian people to larger Arab interests or to personal aggrandizement.”
By the time Fuad, the agricultural engineer, was at university, in the late 1990s, Arafat had returned to the West Bank and Gaza, after years in exile, to create a Palestinian state. But Fuad found him more remote in person than he had been on the radio.
“They told us we would have an hour with him,” said Fuad, who was part of a group of student leaders who had been promised a chance to tell Arafat about problems at the university, including arrests of students by the Israeli army. “But we stood with him for five minutes, and then he left.”
He remembered what Arafat said at the brief meeting, and repeated it, with a lot of sarcasm: “‘We are together in our struggle until we achieve our freedom. And one day, a Palestinian child — a girl — will raise a flower in Jerusalem, in the walls of the Old City, after we liberate Jerusalem.’ And then he left us.”
A lot of Arafat stories go like this: from admiration to disillusionment. But some people never became disillusioned. How a person sees Arafat depends in large part on whether he blames him for what the Palestinian Authority (PA) did, and didn’t do, in the last decade.
The mayor of Beit Jala, Raji Zeidan, said, “He was deprived of the opportunity to create a state by the occupation. Israel wasn’t serious about ending the occupation, because they always wanted the land.”
The deputy mayor, Dr. Yusuf Abu Jareis, saw it differently: “I will tell my grandchildren we had a serious leader, a real leader, but he should have started building the state — the infrastructure, the societies — and he didn’t. He was able; he had the chance to build a state. He had the whole world with him to do this, and he didn’t. And we are paying for this today.”
Besides negligence, corruption in the PA was driving Palestinians crazy long before it became a target of criticism from the United States or Israel. A journalist named Raed Othman remembered a PA minister explaining to him how PA corruption often worked, with Arafat using money rather than hard work to buy fealty . “I asked the minister, why are you doing this to people? He said he’d once sent two letters to Arafat, one asking 60,000 shekels for the ministry and another asking for the same amount of money to buy two cars. He said Arafat signed the letter to give him two cars, but he didn’t sign the letter for the people.”
Arafat also kept what were known as “black files” on anyone whose allegiance mattered, carefully noting any “financial misdeeds, whoring or cowardice,” according to the Aburish book. Whenever reasoned argument or money failed to get someone on his side, Arafat would pull out his file and let him look at it.
Fuad, the agricultural engineer, drew in the dust on the window of his pickup to illustrate the corruption problem as he saw it. He drew a dot — Arafat — and then a circle around it.
“Arafat knows around him there is a lot of corruption. All the Palestinian people told him, there is corruption around you, next to you. He said, ‘Okay, but they are thieves since 20 years, and who knows what will come if I bring in new [people]?’ He is one of them. He is in them. And he doesn’t do anything.”
But a police captain, Fadal Badrin, said only, “Anyone who works, errs,” when I asked him if he thought Arafat had made any mistakes.
“He formed our identity,” he said. “He is the father, the leader. I had feelings I couldn’t describe when I shook his hand.”
The man who published the joke book about Arafat, the one with the blank pages, is a television journalist in Bethlehem named Nasser Laham. I asked him why he published this book, which he did with his own money, at significant personal risk; Arafat doesn’t like being criticized. He said, “I want people to think. No one deserves to be our god. People have to say something. They have to do something. Okay, shit, Israel is our enemy. Okay, after that? What about our internal things? What about our democracy, our life? We need people in Palestinian society to make a civilized society, to make democracy.”
The second Intifada, with its deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians, has undermined one of the main achievements of the first Intifada: the rendering of the Palestinian cause sympathetic around the world. The second Intifada has also obscured the fact that the first Intifada was not just mainly non-militant, it was also a populist movement that started without Arafat. Democracy was never going to come from Arafat. He cultivated followers, not citizens.
The first Intifada showed that the Palestinian cause is bigger than Arafat. It also created some local leaders, like Nasser Laham, who published the book, who are committed to a bottom-up, nonviolent struggle. Maybe with different leadership at the top, they’ll be able to make progress doing what Arafat couldn’t: building a state. But maybe not. After trashing Arafat for 10 minutes, Fuad, the agricultural engineer, switched gears.
“Out of all of them, I wish he will stay alive,” he said. “There are others worse than him that will rise.”