In her interviews to the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Yasser Arafat’s widow Suha has revealed many hidden aspects of her late husband’s life. I knew that the late Palestinian leader used to provide assistance and aid to people in need other than just Palestinians. Some believed that he was squandering the budget dedicated to the refugees and the martyrs’ orphans while others believed his aid revealed his humanitarian side which extended beyond his people. However, I could never perceive the extent of Abu Ammar’s intelligence when it came to investing this tender act in politics.
Suha Arafat relates that when former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in prison, Abu Ammar decided to take care of the education of his daughter Benazir Bhutto. He said to the future Minister: “[General] Zia Ul Haq will kill your father, allow me to take his place and take care of your education.” I do not doubt Arafat’s emotional motives because back then, no one could have imagined that Benazir would become Pakistan’s leader and no one could have thought that the Bhutto family would still be involved in the country’s politics.
Yasser Arafat wanted to give Bhutto’s daughter all earthy powers that Palestinians had been deprived of: Education. In fact, every Palestinian family found in education an alternative home and believed that education represented their dignity in the diaspora. One day I heard Arafat proudly saying: “Palestine now has more graduates than Israel.” And when the Palestinians left their land for exile, they left as teachers and students. There are generations in Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf and Iraq that are beholden to Palestinian teachers for their education.
The first time Yasser Arafat was officially received in London was in 1997. His visit came at the same time as our return to Lebanon after spending 24 years in the spacious city. I received an invitation from the Pakistani embassy to attend a reception in Arafat’s honor at Carlton Tower. I immediately informed the embassy of my attendance but I wondered afterwards: what would take me to the Pakistani embassy; I, who almost declined 95 percent of such embassy invitations? Couldn’t Yasser Arafat have found an Arab embassy to host his reception? Didn’t the Palestine Liberation Organization have the right to send the invitations? And was the League of Arab States afraid of hosting the reception of the first Palestinian leader to Belford’s country upon an official invitation?
I thought of disregarding the invitation but then remembered that I had already confirmed my presence. I said to myself: “When will I have another opportunity to see Yasser Arafat, now that he has partially returned to Palestine and we won’t be able to visit him unless passing an Israeli gate?”
I was among the last guests to arrive. Yasser Arafat was standing next to our friend Bassel Akl. Abu Ammar was known for his warm, long-lasting hugs. After he had hugged me, he lifted his head and asked me: “I thought you were abroad! Is it possible that we came to London and you didn’t show up?” I stuttered and apologized and he then asked me: “When will we see you in Palestine?” I replied, “When I will be free to enter the country?”
I never knew that that would be the last time I would see Arafat. And when I read the interviews with his wife, I knew why the Pakistani embassy had thrown the event.
That old Palestinian farmer knew how to amazingly tie unexpected relations and how to sadly destroy natural ties.
The writer is a well-known Egyptian writer. This article was published in Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper on Nov. 27, 2011 and translated by Stanela Khalil.