Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 November 2004
Issue No. 717
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On Saturday, young Yasser was born

The turbulent outpouring of grief at Yasser Arafat's burial on Friday was cathartic for traumatised Palestinians, writes Nyier Abdou in Ramallah

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Thousands in Ramallah await the body

During the four-decade-long career that took him from guerrilla leader, to political agitator, to besieged president, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was constantly in motion, from Amman to Beirut, from Tunis to Baghdad, to Palestine. In his death, he was still travelling, from Ramallah to Jordan, from Paris to Cairo, and back -- chaotically, triumphantly -- to Palestine.

Under a hot midday sun, Palestinians gathered on Friday to catch a final glimpse of the figure who has so vigorously embodied the cause of Palestinian resistance in the place that for the last three years was his virtual prison. Now the Muqataa, the battered compound that once served as Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, takes on a new role, as the 75- year-old icon's burial ground.

Outside the walls of the Muqataa, tens of thousands of mourners jostled for space, waiting. Fathers raised kufiya-clad children on their shoulders; women leaned against shade- giving scaffolding while hoisting posters of Arafat. Weary Palestinian security forces beat back hysterical mourners, who scaled the Muqataa walls, jumped barbed wire and pounded the compound's entrances with unbridled energy. Young men flashed victory signs at the cameras. Small children waved child-sized black flags.

As world leaders paid their respects in a sombre and lavish military funeral in Cairo, demonstrators surged through the streets around the Muqataa in a cacophony of drums, horses, gunfire and tearful slogans. A riotous march circled the outside walls in an almost ritualistic frenzy, chants rising and falling, parching throats on the last day of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. As masked gunmen passed through the crowd, their rifles raised triumphantly in the air, cheers rose up, travelling as a wave along the roadside with the marchers. The fighters later entered the Muqataa, respectfully submitting their weapons for inspection.

Plans by the Palestinian Authority to keep the arrival and burial of one of the Middle East's most controversial leaders a solemn and quiet affair broke down spectacularly in the afternoon when frenzied followers broke though the gates and relentlessly swarmed the compound. Inside, preparations for a staid event-- the red carpet, the marching band practising in their crisp uniforms, even the freshly painted helipad -- were suddenly overcome with an unstoppable, fervent flow of crowds, moving in wave upon wave to every corner of the compound.

"To us, he was a father," says Anas Ali Assaf, an earnest 20-year-old student at Beir Zeit University. "Now that Arafat is gone, everything has changed. Who will lead us? I am so afraid of what's in store for Palestine."

Assaf dismissed former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Alaa, as poor substitutes for the incomparable Arafat. Of Abbas, who is slated to inherit the presidency in upcoming elections on 9 January, Assaf is sceptical of his tenacity to fight for Palestinian rights. "Abu Mazen was prime minister for what? Twenty days? And he was already willing to give up the right of return and Jerusalem. No one would accept him as our leader."

As news that the helicopters were approaching sped through the crowd like a current of electricity, a tumultuous sea of faces swung upward, the din quieting down to a hum. When the two Egyptian military helicopters appeared as small specks in the sky, screams of " Allahu akbar " -- God is great -- mingled with the violent shouts of security forces, pushing the crowds away from the helipad.

As the roar of the helicopters beat a percussive announcement of the body's arrival, kicking up plumes of dust and rocks, an ecstatic crowd thronged the helicopters, sparking clashes with security forces that verged on the farcical. It took more than half an hour to even open the side door to unload the coffin from the helicopter and confusion reigned as startled Palestinian officials peeked around the door waiting for security to clear the area.

Palestinian forces were so zealous to keep people away from the helicopters that they shot wildly in the air, unwittingly shooting at the still turning blades of the helicopter. The pilot stuck his head out of the window, screaming for them to stop. At another point, a man climbed up onto the helicopter, frantically waving a flag and leading chants in the crowds. Special forces immediately trained their sights on him, clearly about to shoot, when again, the pilot began screaming that they could hit the fuel tank.

The red carpet long forgotten, the bands in their crisp uniforms shoved carelessly aside, mourners refused to let a man who had lived so chaotically to be put to rest so quietly. Due to the sheer bedlam, the body was moved quickly to the marble burial site -- Palestinians insist it is a temporary one, until the body can be moved to a burial place in Jerusalem -- and few, even the photographers, with their long lenses trained from the top of surrounding buildings, managed to see the coffin lowered into the ground.

As the call to prayer rang out that evening, signalling the end of the day's fast and the usually festive end of the month of Ramadan, dazed mourners wandered the grounds of the Muqataa. The sounds of machine gunfire exploded through the air -- a final tribute to a man who, adored or reviled, had unequivocally personified the Palestinian cause for almost half a century. A young woman collapsed in tears, crumpled to the ground as her friends comforted her. Ambulances wove madly through the crowds, ferrying the weak and exhausted, as well as a handful of wounded.

Badr Al-Harini, a 27-year-old worker, was seated on the ground with his friends in a huddle off to the side of the burial site. He said he had "no hope" for the future of Palestine.

"Arafat was the last good man in all of Palestine," he says, his face drawn. "Without Arafat, we cannot realise our dream of building Palestine." Asked if he thought things might change, opening up the chance for new dialogue with Israel and a rebirth of the peace process, Al-Harini is despondent. "I don't think so, not without Arafat. I don't know who could possibly take his place -- maybe the next guy will just sell the Palestinian people to Israel."

"Arafat really wanted peace," agrees Mustafa Musleh, a 21-year-old student slumped against the wall of the compound and whose father was incarcerated in Israel for being a member of Hamas. "These people, Abu Mazen, Abu Alaa, they don't want peace for Palestine. They want to be president. They want to make money." Though Arafat has clashed with Hamas in the past, Musleh says he was a unique figure. "Even though he was Fatah and my sympathies are with Hamas, I still say he was a good leader."

It is a poor vote of confidence for the figureheads of the Palestinian leadership, now gingerly moving into new positions in the post- Arafat era. But some young activists saw Arafat's tight grip on Palestinian politics as part of the problem. Though tentative with their hopes, they don't see Palestine descending into anarchy, but rather entering another phase of its fight for statehood.

"Arafat was the best leader in the world to run a one-man show," says Faris Aouri, a 22- year-old activist working with the Palestinian Peace Coalition in Ramallah, which was part of the independent negotiations between Arab and Israeli intellectuals and activists that produced the so-called Geneva Initiative. Arafat, says Aouri, was a brilliant tactician, at his best when up against the wall. But he lacked long-term vision in his leadership.

"His issue is that he never had a long-term strategy," he says. "He could get out of a crisis, but he could not move things forward after."

Asked if he was hopeful that there would be new life breathed into the peace process now that the death of Arafat has broken the stalemate, Aouri hesitantly suggests that the coming change of government could be a catalyst for progress. The term "peace process", he adds, with evident disdain, is an Americanism that carries unwanted undertones. "A 'process' is something that may never end," he says. "We're not looking for a process, we are asking for peace."

"All of us in Palestine, we grew up with revolution and war," says Munadel Rafiq, a wiry 20-year-old student at Beir Zeit University who was visiting Arafat's grave with friends on Saturday. Wearing a kufiya around his neck and a T-shirt that said "Free Palestine", Rafiq said that his generation had never really lived in peace.

"When Abu Ammar came here," Rafiq said, using Arafat's nom de guerre, "he gave us hope and a sense of safety, the chance to even think about something different."

Asked if he expected to see lasting peace in his lifetime, Rafiq seemed sceptical. "There's no way in hell there will be real peace until a number of things happen," he said, listing a string of "non-negotiable" conditions before he could see any real peace with Israel -- the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, a state with all of Jerusalem as its capital, the release of prisoners.

Conceding this was a tall order, Rafiq said, "Okay, yes. This is going to take a very long time. I guess we want everything. We want to have a peaceful life and to have our land, and we will fight for that. It's inside us."

Less than a week after Arafat's death, the Muqataa has already begun to take on the qualities of a shrine. The day after the burial, on the Muslim holiday known as Eid Al-Fitr, thousands of faithful once again flooded the grounds of the Muqataa to perform the midday prayer. The grave, now piled high with flower wreaths bearing emotive missives from mourners, hosts a steady stream of official delegations paying their respects and prayers.

Outside the compound, young boys scamper along the walls, training disturbingly realistic toy machine guns on imaginary targets and each other. Visitors mill around the entrance, greeting long-lost acquaintances and exchanging numbers.

Lina Hijazi, a feisty 13-year-old with wide eyes and a singsong voice who fought her way through the burial with her friends, says that Arafat was "everything to us", and that he lives on in the struggle for Palestine. "For us, President Arafat did not die," she says. "We are going to continue to fight for our country and we will continue his dream."

Resting in her hospital bed at Ramallah Governmental Hospital on Saturday, 31-year- old Maysoun Taysir, a quiet, slip of a woman, says that she and her husband hadn't decided on a name for their child when she went into labour on Thursday evening. Around the room, Taysir's relatives, dressed in mourning black on this happy occasion, nod in agreement.

After the emotional events of Friday afternoon, young Yasser was born. "I'm sure there are many more," says Taysir.

"We're hoping that he'll be just like Yasser Arafat," she adds. Her eyes, indeed, look hopeful.

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