“IL ME MANQUE TERRIBLEMENT"
Recollections of Yasser Arafat by Saeb Erekat. From La Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, Vol. 24, Issue 94 (Winter 2005)
I think I was one of the last Palestinians to meet Yasser Arafat. I met him for the first time in 1991; it was in Algiers, after the Madrid Conference. I remember that he asked me to give him the kaffiyeh that I’d worn at the Conference, and I gave it to him. Then I complained to him about the attitude of some of the other members of the delegation who, for example, had spent enormous amounts on phone calls, etc. He looked at me and asked me what planet I was from. Then he took me aside and asked me some questions. Up till then, my contacts [with Arafat] had for a long time been through Abu Jihad, and then through Akram Haniyyah.
After that, we went regularly to Tunis to report on what was happening at the Washington talks, and he began to get to know me. I remember the first time he got mad because of something I said to him. I wasn’t intimidated, and retorted that I wasn’t there to see things through his eyes or listen with his ears. “I express my opinion, and it’s up to you to decide. You can take or leave what I tell you, but you can’t stop me telling you what I have to tell you”. From then on, I always presented him with the various options open to him, and told him things that he didn’t like to hear. And he got used to this new way of doing things. He started to like this kind of thing, and to like me too, and he always let me express what was on my mind or in my heart.
I made clear to him that he was the one who made the decisions, that I knew my limitations, that I was neither a former prisoner nor someone who had taken part in the armed struggle. I was an academic, a professor specializing in conflict resolution and negotiation, and I was trying to put all of that at the service of the movement. I wasn’t paid by anyone, I had refused all the perks, I had declined even to use an official car, I lived in my father’s house, and all of that allowed me to be myself and to say what I said. Over the last 14 years I offered my resignation to President Arafat more times than the rest of the Palestinian leadership combined…
What I found striking about him was his sharp and distinctive sense of humour. He really knew how to laugh, and how to make fun, of himself, of others, of me… He nicknamed me “the Jericho devil”, explaining to all his visitors that I was the devil left behind in Jericho after Jesus had been [tempted] there. I used to answer him that life would be boring without devils, and I would leave the angels for him.
He had a heart of gold and could be incredibly receptive to the distress of the poor, the sick, the needy. I was struck to see him respond to so many requests from people in need, who would ask for help with medical treatment, or for educational expenses. Sometimes, just as he was going to bed, a woman or man or youth would appear up in the corridor, he would have them come in, listen to them, and look for ways to help them. He always behaved like a leader: I respected and admired him for it, and learned a great deal about the nature of leadership.
On a personal level, and contrary to what is claimed, he felt a strong emotional bond with many people. I think that those who accuse him of coldness were themselves indifferent to him – those who used him just to get various papers signed etc., and accused him of indifference in order to justify their own cynicism.
He was a man who displayed great compassion, great loyalty, great faithfulness. I have seen him welcome people who had accused him of treason on T.V.: he never questioned them, he kissed them, invited them to his table, fed them from his own hand, and never asked them why they had attacked him like that.
He wasn’t perfect. He could be bad-tempered and lose his cool during political debates – I witnessed that so many times, with so many different people, myself included….. I must admit that I am hardly an angel either and that I lose my temper easily too. I was never intimidated, I used to tell him exactly what I was thinking. I would challenge him: “You’re wrong. You could have done this or that better, or in a different way”. He would get angry and yell at me: “Don’t lecture me, nobody tells me what to do!” I would answer: “God gave us two ears and a tongue: I use my tongue, you should use your ears!” I don’t know if any other leader would have put up with behaviour like that.
Arafat the man lived in conditions that I couldn’t have put up with for even a few hours. I wouldn’t have lasted an hour sleeping in his bed in the Muqata’a…
He was a hermit when it came to his personal life and his personal needs. It was striking – bearing in mind that he was one of the most celebrated personalities of the second half of the twentieth century – to see how he treated himself, how he ate, drinking nothing but water and fresh fruit juice… the lifestyle of a hermit. He didn’t want anything for himself, he warmed himself with a space heater, he didn’t even have central heating… Once when he had to replace a carpet he finally settled on one that was so cheap and nasty that if I’d dared to put something like that in my house my wife would have thrown me out! You could say he lived like a camel…
He was a man who understood things. He could take things apart and arrive at an understanding of how they worked that was extremely detailed and sophisticated, but at the same time completely instinctive and intuitive. He used to look into my eyes and tell me what I was thinking, and he would be right. He was really a very complex personality. The connections that his mind made between things, events, situations, people, national and international affairs, were unbelievably exact and appropriate. He intuitively understood the connections. He instinctively and brilliantly understood before us what we understood only after difficult analysis.
He rejected any mediation between himself and his people. He didn’t like that at all. He hated it when I would come to tell him that the farmers of Jericho, my hometown, were sending him some message or other through me. He would look at me without saying anything, and I knew that he wanted to hear it from the farmers themselves, or the women, or the Boy Scouts, or the orphans, or whomever. Even when it was a message sent from Lebanon, he would contact the person in Lebanon directly, so as to recreate a direct relationship between them. That’s how he was. There are people who think he acted this way because he didn’t trust anyone, but that’s not true. He did it because he was attached to his people. He wanted to do things himself because he wanted to show the people that he was with them, in solidarity, and that nothing would stop him coming to their aid. I think he saw more of the world and had more contact with the ordinary people than any other member of the PA or the PLO. He was more open to his people, more tuned in to his people, than all his ambassadors or ministers or employees, or any of us.
And I miss him terribly.
© 2005 Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes
Interview by Ilan Halevi in Ramallah, 16 Jan 2005.
Translation, and all errors therein, by Lawrence of Cyberia.