Suha Arafat Is a Very Different Sort of Palestinian Freedom Fighter

February 4, 1999

Suha Arafat: Arab Militant in High Heels


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Suha Arafat, the first lady of the Palestinian territories, maneuvered her blue BMW through the chaotic streets of Gaza City, blond hair flying as she dodged donkeys and peddlers.
Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, at home in Gaza with their daughter, Zahwa, 3.

Behind and beside her, security cars struggled to keep her covered as Palestinians stopped on the street to stare: a woman driver is a strange enough sight in this poor, Islamic society, but Madame Arafat chauffeuring herself?

Sitting in a bodyguard's lap, her daughter, Zahwa, bilingual in French and Arabic, chattered away until they rounded a corner under a giant billboard of Yasir Arafat. "Papa!" she said merrily, looking herself like the image of the Palestinian leader -- if he could be imagined as a 3-year-old girl with a blue hair ribbon.

"She is totally her father," Mrs. Arafat said. "A real authoritarian."

Mrs. Arafat, 35, would seem an unlikely partner for the 69-year-old Palestinian revolutionary, who remains forever wedded to his cause.

She was raised in a well-off home in the West Bank, educated by nuns and refined at the Sorbonne. Her black patent leather high heels clash with his combat boots. And her deep-seated Christian faith and Western assertiveness seem at odds with his world: desperate Gaza with its veiled Muslim women.

But in ideology Mrs. Arafat, whose husband is to meet on Thursday with President Clinton in Washington, is every bit the fiery Palestinian freedom fighter. And if there is such a thing as pillow talk in their modest residence, where the spartan first floor is his and the stately second-floor extension belongs to her, Arafat surely gets an earful.

Mrs. Arafat is a merciless critic not of her husband but of his government, willing to do battle on Palestinian television with advisers she believes are dragging down Arafat and the Palestinian people.

"Every beautiful flower ends up surrounded by weeds," she said. "I'm fed up with criticizing them. It doesn't do any good. History will be their judge."

Nonetheless, during a long afternoon in the living room of their home, Mrs. Arafat -- surrounded by images of Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II and a young Arafat with lantern and gun -- was scathingly critical of many key ventures of the Palestinian Authority.

She dismissed the new Yasir Arafat International Airport, which operates under strict Israeli security supervision, as "a branch of Ben Gurion in Gaza," referring to the airport outside Tel Aviv. She ridiculed the thriving Palestinian-run casino in Jericho as "a disgrace."

"I hate it," she said. "It's the most shameful act that the economic counselors of the Palestinian Authority did. Right across from a refugee camp, no less. We have no hospitals, no sewage, sick children, a whole sick society. But, oh, we have gambling. Great."

And she mocked the American-brokered peace agreement signed by her husband and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in October. She did not attend the signing ceremony in Washington, and since the agreement's fulfillment has been frozen for two months, she feels justified.

"Each time we're going to get how many new inches of land, we have to make a celebration?" she said. "It turns out it was only a photo opportunity."

For years after they were secretly married in Tunis almost a decade ago, Mrs. Arafat was dismissed as a "decoration" for the longtime bachelor, particularly by the inner circle of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who could not bear the sight of their fearless leader making goo-goo eyes.

"It was not easy to enter into their world," she said. "It is a man's world, and very closed -- like a family with a lot of intermarriages, and, well, you know the result of that."

But by speaking her mind and by establishing humanitarian institutions in Gaza, Mrs. Arafat has earned a place for herself as a Palestinian leader in her own right.

"She is like a big mother for the people," said Randa Bamia, the director general for international relations at the Palestinian tourism ministry. "She feels a lot for their miseries, and she's very popular because of it. At first they wanted to make her out to be frivolous, but really she lives much more modestly than the wife of almost any minister in her husband's government."

In "Arafat, From Defender to Dictator," a new biography of Arafat published in London by Bloomsbury, Said K. Aburish, a Palestinian-born journalist, said he had tried to but could not find any basis to rumors that Mrs. Arafat took advantage of her role by making business deals.

As she did this past autumn, Mrs. Arafat often spends months at a time abroad, usually in Paris, where her parents keep an apartment. That has fueled other rumors, that she was away on shopping sprees, but she said she spent most of her time there raising money for her relief organizations. In her Gaza life style, there is no obvious bounty of any mad spending.

Compared with the villas of some Palestinian officials and businessmen, the simple house rented by the Arafats is humdrum and middle-class. Mrs. Arafat said she had to beg her husband to add the second-floor addition so she and Zahwa would not have to share the lower floor's two rooms with the Palestinian leader's security entourage.

When she finally unveiled the tasteful but hardly lavish second floor, Arafat told her it looked like a cabaret and returned to his monk's quarters downstairs, she said.

When Mrs. Arafat is in town, she visits Gaza's refugee camps regularly, soaking up their tales of hardship and also their complaints about her husband's government, many of which she cannot help but agree with.

Mrs. Arafat endeared herself to many in the camps when she refused on principle to accept a VIP pass from the Israelis that would have allowed her to cross Israeli roadblocks without the hassle that most Palestinians face.

Mrs. Arafat keeps a small office at one of her relief organizations, a foundation for physically disabled children. The center is a bright and modern place, filled with the latest developmental toys, and Mrs. Arafat seems to have a personal relationship with the children.

They stroke her hair, and she hands out chocolates and quizzes the teachers about their progress. Presented with a problem by her staff, she wonders aloud if she can find a donor to solve it, remarking that a French delegation is visiting on Wednesday.

"Some people in the Authority are not very helpful," she said. "They want to talk politics but not humanitarian things. But people are fed up with politics. So what if Netanyahu gives up 30, 40, 60 percent of our land? The people want food on their table, and decent health care.

"The president is doing a lot," she continued, referring to her husband. "Sometimes he screams at me when he comes home. 'Can you imagine today you cost me $100,000, Suha?' But he is very kind this way."

Sipping black coffee spiced with cardamom, Mrs. Arafat spoke of intense pressures on her husband to put off the declaration of a Palestinian state on May 4, the date that the Oslo peace accord set for the conclusion of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I think, as Suha and not as the wife of Arafat, that this date is sacred," she said, "and nobody in the world has the right to make us bargain it away. We can't go on and on in this ambiguous condition."

Depressed about what sees as a failing peace effort and corruption within the Palestinian Authority, Mrs. Arafat said her vision of the future is "black."

Born in Jerusalem, Mrs. Arafat grew up in an affluent and political household, first in Nablus, then Ramallah. Her father was a banker, and her mother, Raymonda Tawil, a well-known and provocative journalist who was frequently placed under house arrest by the Israelis. When she met the Palestinian leader, during a trip to Amman, Mrs. Arafat was working as a free-lance journalist based in Paris. Smitten, he hired her to do public relations for the PLO in Tunis, where she nominally converted to Islam before they married.

"I married a myth," she said. "But the marriage helped him step down from his pedestal and become a human being."

More tender than the old guerrilla leader, her husband still lives in a kind of bubble, focused on the struggle, she said. Once he sat next to Catherine Deneuve at a dinner without seeming to notice, and Mrs. Arafat had to educate him about the French actress by using her Paris Match magazines, she said.

But the real instruction comes from Zahwa, who was named for the Palestinian leader's mother. An irrepressible and commanding little girl with a mop of curly hair, she stormed and complained when she did not see her father enough.

Now, when he is in Gaza, his bodyguards pick her up from school and take her to his seaside office. A veteran watcher of CNN on the lap of her mother, Zahwa tells her father about Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan and Monica Lewinsky, all the important TV characters.

"Zahwa softens Arafat," Mrs. Arafat said.

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