Yasser Arafat's endearingly secular anti-Westernism
November 17, 2004
Yasser Arafat died and with him the era of secular terrorists
or freedom fighters, depending on your politics. For those of us
who grew up in the Middle East in the sixties and seventies and
for whom the plight of the Palestinians was a sentimental if not
an immediately important issue, he was, without a doubt, a hero.
I grew up in Iran under the Shah who was blatantly Westernized,
supported by the U.S, and chummy with Israel. He was taking the
country on a fast speed train, fueled by the rising revenue from
oil, to a place called "modernity" where everyone looked
and acted European.
Even though the Shah was very pro-Israel, Iranians were pro-Palestinian
at heart. The way they were fans of Mohammad Ali -- out of a sense
of Muslim camaraderie. It was hard to be a feeling human being
and not be moved by the way the Palestinians were robbed of their
country. This was a time when Islam was an ethnic identity and
not a weapon of mass destruction.
I remember as a girl becoming very angry at what was happening
in Israel. I went to a Jewish elementary school in Tehran where
I was often arguing with my pro-Israeli friends about the Palestinians.
It was in some ways my first political stance. My introduction
to politics came from my sense of the unfairness of a people being
stripped of their homeland because some other people had suffered,
at the hands of yet others, a continent away. My childhood logic
and sense of justice told me that how the Palestinians were sacrificed
to the Israelis was simply wrong.
Compared to the pompous and vacuous character of the Shah, who
had inherited the throne from his father and held on to it with
the heavy-handed help of the Americans, Yasser Arafat looked real.
He was from a wealthy family and could have had a fine life in
any of the cities of the West but instead he chose to fight for
his people. He risked his life and had the courage to make the
collective plight of the Palestinians become synonymous with his
name. He stood up, rather than try to imitate, the West. He did
not try to speak English with an Oxford accent and French like
a Parisian he spoke in the plain Arabic of his ancestors and that
made us all proud.
His contrast with the Shah, who was a puppet of the Americans,
in the eyes of most of us, was enormous and what made him my hero.
Even in appearance he stood out. Instead of the suits and military
uniforms of the Shah and his ministers he wore khakis and his signature
traditional headscarf. With his very person he seemed to be sticking
his tongue out to the all-powerful West. He embodied a certain
pride in ones origins that was so lacking in the Iranian leadership.
Where I grew up our leaders were trying so hard to look good
in their European suits that their deep sense of inferiority
the west could hardly be concealed. The Iranian Revolution was
to a large degree a collective cry against the unconditional
embrace of all things Western. A cry that found in Islam the
which it could build a new language of anti-colonialism.
But Yasser Arafat was not an Islamist.
He was an Arab nationalist and freedom fighter of the old school.
Arafat was single minded
in his quest to reclaim Palestine but he appealed to a sense of
nationalism rather than to Islam. This was the good old days when
terrorists fought for justice rather than for God. As a secular
freedom fighter, I, as a woman, had an easier time admiring him.
It is hard to be a freethinking woman or a soccer-playing girl
like I used to be and root for Islamic Fundamentalists.
But it was easy to see the logic behind the PLO's acts of terrorism.
When someone is stronger than you and bullies you constantly,
beats you up routinely, then picking up a brick and throwing it
is fair. That is how my playground sense of fairness justified
the terrorist acts of the PLO. Israel had an all-powerful army
backed by the most powerful nation in the world and they bullied
the poor, innocent Palestinians. Of course it was O.K to fight
them "by any means necessary."
So I secretly admired Arafat and Leila Khaled, who was the first
Muslim woman, since mythical times, who was a freedom fighter.
I adored her. She was, for many of us, a role model. Because she
fought courageously for her people and embodied a kind of feminism
that was new in our region.
Of course I grew out of my naïve playground radicalism.
I realized early that no cause was great enough for me to sacrifice
my life or that of others. I also realized that the leftists and
the radicals were as chauvinistic as the royalists at least in
our parts. For women none of this really mattered. We never have
had a homeland to fight for. For us the battle was more complicated
and subtle and had to be fought in the ancient battlefield of cultural
mores and religious prejudices rather than anywhere else.
But as a child growing up in Iran the plight of the Palestinians
was my number one cause. I remember in the eight grade, at the
American Community School in Tehran, my geography teacher Mr. Holmes
made us pick a character in the Arab-Israeli conflict to study.
Arafat and Khaled where both taken quickly by those in front of
me so I picked George Habbash, the leader of the PFLP, which was
more left and radical than the PLO.
After I gave my report my mother
made me burn my notes for fear that they may fall in the hands
of the Shah's savage secret police. From then on supporting the
Palestinians became synonymous in my mind with opposing the dictatorship
of the Shah. For those of us who opposed the regime in Iran,
Arafat was the anti-Shah.
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