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

Mahmoud Darwish

Farewell Arafat

By Mahmoud Darwish

Arafat surprised us by not surprising us. Some fusion between the ailing man and the ailing narrative had preordained the end, preventing the tragic hero from imparting his unique imprint upon his fate. This time, there was no miracle, no surprise: the tragedy was reduced to a long, drawn-out, banal television serial.

Arafat had gradually schooled us in his continual departures. Time and again he would drill us in his extraordinary, unanticipated confrontations with death -- by aerial bombardment or in a civilian airplane crash in the desert -- which, by some seemingly miraculous power, he outran into the embrace of life. We shared with him a journey that addicted us to striking out towards destinations glittering with the lure of the impossible and radiating a pastoral lyricism to help us endure the hardship of the road.

Moving from one exile to another, our subject drew away from and drew close to the heart of the subject matter. In that rhetoric that draws banners in blood, we would say that he enriched the idea and revived the memory, that he effaced the boundary between reality and myth. We needed a legend and part of this legend came true. However, a legend needs to touch down on reality. Will ours pass the test on the ground? The question remains pending.

Yasser Arafat was the man who could tame the contradiction in exile, with a blend of pragmatism, religion and metaphysics. By virtue of his superhuman dynamism, his total identification of his private with his public life, and his unbounded diligence he transformed himself from leader into luminous symbol.

Arafat was not an engineer who paved roads; he cleaved them through minefields. It will be some time before history sorts out its files on this man/phenomenon. However, it has already granted him the medal of honour in the science of survival, and for some time to come it will be engrossed in his adventure/miracle of setting fire to ice. Arafat led a revolution against all odds, perhaps because it was ahead of its time, or perhaps because it came too late. Or, perhaps again, because the regional balances of power would not permit anyone to strike a match near the oil fields... and in the vicinity of Israeli security.

He did not win military battles, neither in the homeland nor in the diaspora. But he did win the battle of defending our national existence. He placed the Palestinian question squarely on the regional and international political map. He gave shape to the national identity of the Palestinian refugee, lost and forgotten at the edges of oblivion. He caused the Palestinian reality to take root in the human consciousness and succeeded in convincing the world that war starts in Palestine and peace starts in Palestine. Yasser Arafat's kufiya, folded and fixed in place with symbolic and folkloric importance, became the moral and political guide to Palestine.

However, in condensing all issues into his person, he became perilously vital to our lives... like the paterfamilias who was loath to allow his children grow up and become self-sufficient. He therefore gradually instilled in us the fear of orphanage and the fear that the idea would die in the event of his physical absence. Then, because of his many close scrapes with death, a Palestinian mythical subconscious coalesced around the sense that he would never die. Thus, the legend ranged into the metaphysical realm.

Yet, surprises were brewing elsewhere. When venturing back from the heights of Hellenic hermeneutics, the symbolic being had to shed some of the burden of his epic stature. A country had to be built and administered and new means were needed to end the occupation. He was now exposed and vulnerable; he could be touched, whispered about, brought to account. It was also the hero's misfortune to have to conquer his enemies in uneven battles and, simultaneously, to safeguard his image in the public imagination from festering protuberances.

Yes, steeped in the negotiating spirit of Saladin and filled with the forbearance/clemency of Omar [the second Rightly Guided Caliph], he returned to a new reality, not mounted on a white steed or on his feet leading his camel -- horses and camels have no place in the rhetoric of these modern times -- but rather riding the crest of the Oslo agreement. As obsessed with security as this agreement was, as cautious as it was in its optimism and as open as it was to ambiguous intentions, he nevertheless bore one joyful thought in his mind: even Moses never made it to the "Promised Land."

It was only the first step to statehood, he said. Palestine was still over there in the issues pending the final status negotiations -- the status of Jerusalem, the right to return and the other thorny questions -- and that the road to that place led not through Oslo but through the terms and references of international legitimacy. Yet he knew that those terms and references were no longer all that valid in the unipolar world, in which Israel had been elevated to sacred heights from where it hands down its divine guidance to the White House.

He also knew that to Israeli officials presidential emblems, identity cards and passports signified no more than symbolic fast-food meals meant to stave off a national identity's craving for independence; and that he now resided in a prison furnished only with the illusion of things, and that when granted permission to go from his Ramallah prison to his Gaza prison, his wardens would not object to a red carpet or a national anthem.

Here began the ordeal of the president, and the onset of his political and moral ailment. This great prisoner, sentenced to harsh Israeli terms and conditions, could neither advance towards the Israeli understanding of the peace process nor retreat from the rudiments of the traditional struggle. Nor was it a consolation that the one to rue Oslo and betray its implications was the "Israeli partner" who withdrew from the partnership. What was to be done?

No one disputed the Palestinians' right to resist. The second Intifada was a natural expression of their national will and their determination to revive hope in a true peace that would bring them freedom and independence. However, many questions arose over the means that would serve this end, while averting the danger of satisfying Sharon's thirst to lure them into the military arena so that he could paint his war against the nascent Palestinian entity as part of the global war against terrorism, now that America had effaced all distinction between national resistance and terrorism.

Arafat could only cast his lot upon an unresponsive fate and a miracle that would never bend these unyielding times. The Muqataa, his headquarters and only home, was collapsing around him room by room. Over and over he boomed in a prophetic rumble that he would die a martyr, sending a passing chill deep through the Arab marrow. However, repetition has the effect of reducing tragedy to the ordinary and thus it was with the siege on Arafat: it became all too familiar. Three years of poison, three years of fetid air, three years of the American taunt, "He's no longer relevant," three years of Israel's dogged drive to strip him of his powers and the power of his symbolism. The Palestinians, however, have always proved capable of creating symbols: the siege on him represents the siege on us, his suffering equals our suffering. He is with us, inside us, just like us. We love him because we love him; we love him because we do not love his enemies.

He did not surprise us this time. This time he had prepared us for a final farewell. The besieged left the confines of his siege to call upon death in exile and to furnish the legend with the necessary clever ending. He gave us time so that our sorrow could find the appropriate tools of expression and so that we could gradually reach the age of weaning. There is something of him in every one of us. He was the father and the son: the father of an entire phase of the history of the Palestinian people, and their son whose rhetoric and image they helped foster.

We bid farewell to Arafat, but not to the past. Now we embark on a new phase of history with unknown possibilities. But should we not first set our feet down in the present before we begin to fear what tomorrow might hold?

Translated by Peter Daniel. ęCopyright Mahmoud Darwish

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