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

The portrait of a leader

Amina Elbendary traces the metamorphoses of Arafat's image

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What remains of a man after he is gone? Memories, perhaps; histories -- shadows in the consciousness of others. And images -- shadows on film. As one looks back at the photographs and images of Yasser Arafat after his death it becomes immediately obvious how much of his image was consciously constructed even as it was manipulated and distorted by others, image takers and viewers alike.

There is the rare photo of the young man: a typical 1950s black and white affair, in Westernised garb, the apparel of the urban effendis, suit and tie, head bare, eyes staring. Caption: Mohamed Yasser Abdel- Raouf Al-Qudwah? Yasser Arafat? An engineering graduate of Cairo University.

When we meet the man again he has become something else, someone else, his image having transformed in the process.

The 1960s saw the rise of the Palestinian liberation movement and the creation of organisations that embodied the movement and the struggle, by any means necessary. It was a time of national liberation movements and anti-colonial struggle all over the world, from Latin America to Vietnam. It is then that Arafat's image soon became the symbol of the Palestinian liberation movement. Photos from the 1960s depict him invariably in olive-green khakis, a pseudo-military uniform that echoed guerrilla garb elsewhere, except his head was now usually covered in a kufiya, his eyes shielded by black sunglasses.

The Arafat who emerged then was a freedom fighter, the organisation he headed, Fatah, being involved in the guerrilla warfare against the Israeli occupation. 1968 saw its first major confrontation with Israeli troops at Al-Karamah in Jordan.

It is this image that he so carefully crafted over the years that came to bear so much of the symbolism of the struggle and its Palestinian specificity. The khakis affirmed the belief in armed struggle as the road to a just settlement. The kufiya differentiated the Palestinians from other freedom fighters the world over even as the khakis linked their causes. In a brilliant move, a traditional national symbol, essentially part of the national costume of the Palestinian peasants, was appropriated and taken to refer to an essentially modern political movement.

The symbol was already laden with other memories: the thawra of 1936.

Historically the black and white kufiya, or hatta, was the popular headdress of the peasants. In a society where status was carefully guarded, the kufiya signified lower social status and a rural background. However, during the popular Palestinian revolt of 1936-1939 the kufiya came to be worn by all the Palestinian rebels, regardless of social status, thus creating a national symbol of resistance and solidarity that superseded other differences. The leaders of the uprising had urged Palestinian townsmen to don the kufiya rather than the Ottoman tarbush.

Early pictures show Arafat donning a plain white kufiya -- traditionally worn by Arab notables -- before shifting to the more popular black and white. By adopting the kufiya Arafat was therefore affirming both the popular nature of Fatah's struggle and a direct link with the 1936 uprising, arguably the first popular, armed Palestinian resistance against British colonialism and its support of Zionism, a revolution manned essentially by Palestinian peasants.

Legends surround Arafat's kufiya and the distinctive style in which he donned it, the carefully hemmed crease in the middle of his forehead, its twist and toss in a particular manner to the right of his face in the shape, many insist, of the map of Palestine.

Despite the rugged look, the unshaven face, this was not a haphazard fashion statement.

Part of Arafat's image was also his names.

From the rebellion of 1936 as well, Fatah commanders took the tradition of teknonyms as noms de guerre. While historically the practice refers to the common Arab tradition, where a man is generally referred to by his teknonym, it was adopted by rebels to circumvent surveillance in addition to its symbolic reference. Fatah leaders chose for themselves teknonymic noms de guerre laden with symbolism. Yasser Arafat chose for himself the name "Abu Ammar" -- an allusion to Yasser ibn Ammar one of the companions of the Prophet Mohamed.

It is as Abu Ammar that Yasser Arafat was most often referred to by his people. He had other names as well, chief among them was Al-Khityar: the old man. Both popular names suggest the patriarchal nature of both his image and his relationship to the Palestinian people. Each of those names was in itself part of the image. Arafat the Khityar was nurtured long before he was literally old, for he was their "old man" even then. Thus we see images of Arafat as Father, leading the freedom fighters from one battlefield to another, from one exile to another. He was khityar when they faced the Jordanians in Black September, and khityar when he presided over the various organisations during their Lebanese sojourn. And he was the old man leading his children as they were exiled from Beirut after its infamous siege by the Israelis in 1982. And he remained khityar even when he assumed official sounding titles and positions after the Oslo Accords and returned to preside over the Palestinian Authority from Gaza and later Ramallah.

Just as he crafted his images in photographs turning them into icons of the Palestinian liberation movement, so too, one suspects, did he craft his political image. Many companions and compatriots have referred -- some more critically than others -- to Arafat's autocracy and his patriarchy. Despite the objection of many to this role, they still seemed attracted and amazed by its hold over people. In many photographs Arafat appears the benevolent patriarch, the shepherd looking after his sheep. He is there in his rugged apparel with his people, eating with them, walking the streets of the refugee camps, carrying the children. The charisma of the freedom fighter attracted activists of various political hues. And he actively sought them out, all the while trying to bring more powers into the fold.

And it is not only to his popular base that Arafat was reaching out. We see images of him with virtually every political player in the 20th century; with rebels and statesmen alike, friends and foes alike, shaking hands and somehow trying to co- opt them and win them over with his -- sometimes excessive -- ebullience. He stood in his khakis before the UN General Assembly in 1974, offering the world a choice between the gun and the olive branch: "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

Over the years the khakis and the kufiya remained the emblems of the man and his struggle. During the hype that surrounded the signing of the Oslo Accords and the White House lawn celebration in 1993, Western media wondered whether Arafat would shun his gun and khakis now that the struggle -- they insinuated -- was over. But Arafat did not. He arrived on the White House lawn, all smiles and hugs, in his pseudo-military uniform and his kufiya. The struggle was not over. Yet despite that symbolic stance, he did not exhibit the theatrical -- even racist -- reluctance his Israeli "partner" demonstrated on the lawn. He had no qualms about shaking hands with the powers of the day since he had a goal in sight.

Intentions aside though, history was to catch up with Arafat's symbolic stance.

Western detractors blame Arafat for having failed, they argue, to make the necessary transformation from freedom fighter and revolutionary to statesman and politician. He couldn't go the last mile, they claim. Palestinians -- critics and proponents alike -- counter that despite the concessions Arafat made, Israeli administrations continued to fail him and did not deliver on their promises. In the place of a final settlement and a viable sovereign state came reoccupation. Ever the mediator between various interests and opposing viewpoints, Arafat would not indeed, grant the last concessions and turn against internal opposition.

Oslo and its aftermath cornered Arafat, some argue. The reoccupation rendered him a president of an authority under siege, or "irrelevant" as the US and the Israelis wanted. He continued to appear defiant, his image unchanged, this time talking to international reporters by candlelight as his Ramallah headquarters were bombed. The Israelis would not imprison him but he would die "a martyr, a martyr, a martyr," he insisted. Arafat repeatedly renounced "violence" and reaffirmed the commitment to a diplomatic solution. Yet he never played the last card, never completely renouncing the main objectives of the Palestinian struggle. It is part of the sophisticated image the man constructed for himself that despite the military attire he spent more of his career in all types of negotiations with domestic and international powers than on battlefields. And at the same time, though he was seen to have renounced the armed struggle he continued to maintain links with a plethora of paramilitary organisations. Till his death, Fatah continued to include a military wing called the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. After his death, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades changed its name to the Yasser Arafat Brigades thus adding to the sophistication of the man's legacy.

The last photographs of Al-Khityar show him in khakis yes (did he even own any suits of any other colour?), but his head is covered with some East-European-inspired snow cap, waving his hands to the crowds, blowing them kisses as he was being lifted into the Jordanian helicopter that was to carry him to his deathbed. It is only the olive green of the coat which remains of the revolutionary fighter, the rest having literally become the image of an old man, head covered, beard whitened, and all -- a grandfather rather than a Father. One cannot help wondering that his companions didn't stop to think about the kufiya as they dressed the old man. Why didn't someone wrap one on top or beneath the damned snow cap? Or wrap it around his shoulders like a shawl? Could it still be Arafat without the kufiya? Did he ask for it?

At the people's funeral in Ramallah, the coffin was wrapped in the Palestinian flag. The flag kept slipping as the coffin moved from one wave of shoulders to the next. Someone tried to put it back, someone else placed a kufiya, briefly, in its stead.

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