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 towards 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 grammar with 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 at them 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.