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April 15, 2003

A Brief History of Yasir Arafat

A terrible administrator but brilliiant crafter of image, says David Brooks, in this Atlantic Monthly report.

Yasir Arafat claims that he was born in Jerusalem, but he was actually born in Cairo. He claims to belong to the prominent Jerusalem family of Husseini, but he is at best only distantly related to it. He claims that he turned down a chance to go to the University of Texas, but according to one biographer, the Palestinian-born writer Saïd K. Aburish, it is highly unlikely that he was ever accepted. He claims to have disabled ten Israeli armored personnel carriers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but Israel didn't even have ten APCs in the sector he was in. He claims to have made millions as a businessman in Kuwait, but this, too, is almost certainly untrue.

Obviously, Arafat is a congenital liar. But there's more to it than that: his lies are all designed to create an aura of romance around himself and the Palestinian people. Arafat is the most bizarre political leader in the world today, in that he has obliterated all considerations of ordinary living and has fused himself completely with his cause. He's never had anything like a regular home life. He has no interest in comforts, possessions, or normal pleasures. He has no interest in social issues, books, or cultural matters. Aburish says that Arafat has been to a restaurant exactly once in the past forty years. The life of total political commitment has turned him into a surpassingly strange creature, and he has a rapacious hunger to possess the Palestinian cause entirely by himself.

If you wanted to talk psychobabble, you'd blame his father. Arafat's mother died in 1933, when he was five. His father was a small-scale textile trader who spent much of his life obsessed by a tortuous and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit to reclaim some land in Egypt that had been in his family 150 years before. He was not close to his son, and sent him as a boy to live in Jerusalem for several years with relatives. The two were soon estranged. Arafat later changed his name (his given name is Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al Qudua al Husseini). When his father died, Arafat—remarkably, in view of Arab custom—did not bother to attend the funeral. [more]