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

Memories and memorabilia

Randa Shaath shares her personal recollections of Abu Ammar

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From top: Arafat surrounded by Randa and her mother Safaa Zeitoun, Tunis 1983; more...

Glued to the TV screen, as are millions of others around the world, we are watching the funeral of President Yasser Arafat in Cairo and then in Ramallah. My two brothers are here, their wives and my best friend. My nephew and niece are nearby playing with lego though they cannot help coming to look at the screen from time to time, standing for a while mesmerised by the unfolding scenes. The children ask a lot of questions. "How did Abu Ammar die?"

"Why did the Israelis imprison him for 3 years?"

"Wasn't he a nice man?"

I think back to the day before. The funeral in Paris was so dignified and I wonder how can I thank France for so graciously acknowledging his stature. And now the sea of people in Ramallah cannot be held back. They show how much he was loved, how much he will be missed. His will to fulfill the dream, his dream, of a free Palestine, will not be buried with him.

We lost Al-Khityar, the old man; Abu Ammar. It is a moment when a lifetime is condensed, when memories stick together to create a chronology of their own. Images pass in front of me.

I think back to the first time I saw him in the early 1970s. I was nine and we were living in Beirut. The doorbell rang and I opened the door to a man I had not seen before. I lead him to the living room and call my father -- Nabil Shaath. When he sat down he took off his kufiya and I thought he looked strange. He tried to kiss me and I was frightened and ran to my bedroom. My parents were embarrassed that they could not bring me back to greet him properly.

I grew up to see Abu Ammar from a more intimate perspective. He loved and respected my late mother, Safaa Zeitoun, who worked for a time in his office. In Beirut she answered his letters and sent his photograph to admirers around the world, photographs he always insisted on signing before they were mailed. We had boxes of them at home. His favourite food was honey and my mother would bring him jars from Mudiriyet Al-Tahrir, near Alexandria, where my Egyptian uncle and aunt worked.

Later, and following the Palestinian exodus from Lebanon, whenever Arafat needed my father he would always call my mother and ask her permission to bring him from Cairo to Tunis. If my father stayed late for a meeting Abu Ammar would call and ask her to forgive him. And when my mother died in 1985 he came to Cairo to give condolences to all of us in our home.

In his presence I felt both endearment and awe. I did not meet him many times though he was part of our family life. He once visited us in our house in Cairo with Abu Jihad. It was late afternoon and the two men were tired and needed to rest. Abu Jihad slept in my eldest brother's bed and Abu Ammar slept in my youngest brother's bed and I was completely jealous. He always remembered the occasion, saying that when he sleeps at Nabil's house he sleeps in Ramy's bed.

And whenever my brother accompanied my father to Tunis Abu Ammar would offer his bed to my brother and sleep in a different room. My brother would come back and boast about watching satellite TV in Abu Ammar's bedroom. In Tunis I saw him quietly pass his sleeping bodyguards, making sure they were covered as they lay.

Arafat had a wonderful memory. He once recognised me among a large crowd of people when he had not seen me for years. Another time I went to greet him with a friend in Cairo. When my friend introduced herself he responded warmly, asking after her father who was among a group of Egyptian intellectuals who had traveled to support him during the siege of Tripoli in 1983.

When Arafat returned to Gaza in 1994, my father joined the Palestinian Authority and moved there. I stayed in Cairo. My father kept sending me souvenirs: Abu Ammar's signature on a state banquet menu or a document from the Nobel Prize ceremony.

I was already a professional photographer assigned to cover the return. All along the road, between Gaza city and Rafah, tens of thousands were waiting on balconies, rooftops, cars and trees. Hours before his arrival elderly people had positioned themselves on plastic chairs put out for them along the motorway where Arafat was supposed to pass. There were Palestinian flags flying everywhere, from houses, mosques, trees and walls.

When he finally arrived the crowds surged forward, cheering, clapping, singing and dancing. I was in a truck with a lot of other photographers on our way to the Rafah border. I met a journalist who was completely antagonistic to Arafat's politics and who announced the fact on every possible occasion. Yet he was dancing by the highway waving a flag with a picture of Arafat on it. I asked him why he had come to greet Arafat and he told me: "Today we feast, tomorrow we can disagree."

In the euphoria surrounding his return to Palestine it was as if the image of Arafat, that permanent symbol plastered on the walls of every Palestinian city and village, had suddenly acquired a life of its own.

Now he is gone. We will keep alive his hopes, his dreams and his steadfastness till Palestine is free.

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