It was before the first light of day when the prayers started. They came crackling through mosque speakers as tired and worn as throats weary from two intifadas worth of shouting. They permeated stone and concrete walls of camps and villages, and roused fitful dreams in the sleepy heads of the resistance, and they didn't stop. They didn't stop like the everyday morning call to prayer of Ramadan. They continued all morning, all afternoon, and into the night. "He's dead," they said when I awoke, "the old man is dead," but everyone already knew. |
That day there was a demonstration in the town square in Nablus, as in every Palestinian town to memorialize Abu Amar, known to the rest of the world as Yasser Arafat. Shops, schools, and other establishments were closed for 3 days to show respect. Likenesses of the late president plastered the territories from the sides of buildings to the hoods of taxis. Crowds gathered in the streets donning their keffiyas, carrying flags, banners and guns, shooting into the air to punctuate eulogies. It was a show of pride, nationalism, unity, and defiance. It was a show of love, reverence, and grief.
That night his body was flown to Egypt for a service before coming to Ramallah the next day for burial. All of the checkpoints in the West Bank were closed to prevent people from travelling to Ramallah. The day of the service the streets of Ramallah were filled with people, mostly men, but there were also groups of women singing and chanting, and families, and young girls. Arafat's complex, the Mukata, is surrounded by a concrete wall topped by barbed wire, which people scaled en masse, crowding the top of the wall, and clinging to the barbed wire to get a better view. The rooftops of surrounding hotels and homes overflowed with shebab and journalists. People gathered on the roof and in the courtyard of a neighboring human rights organization to look on, and to say midday prayers, and when rooftop access was denied to onlookers, Palestinian men started to shimmy up pipes on the side of the building like a trail of ants. When climbers became too numerous, journalists on the roof poured water on them. From my perch at the top of an olive tree I could see groups of men representative of every political group in Palestine marching to the Mukata, from Hamas with their swords, to the PFLP, carrying banners, flags and palm fronds. Riders on horseback paced the streets with French and Palestinian flags. I saw one man climb a telephone pole and cling to the top with his body clenched around it for at least an hour.
Inside the Mukata, thousands of people milled about, crying, chanting, waiting. When the helicopters came into view, the sound of the crowd was immense, rhythmically chanting his name, drowning out the sound of the approaching blades with whistles and shouts, and tearfilled cries of "Allah Akbar!" The heicopters hung in the air above the crowd for a moment, glinting the same gold as the sun and the dust, and hills of the middle east, clearing a place to land amongst the seething mass. Palestinian soldiers on jeeps cleared a corridor through the crowd, shouting and shooting into the air. Those in front locked arms to defend their position against tens of thousands, all wanting the same thing, to be near him. After what seemed like an eternity, filled with much confusion, they brought the coffin quickly through, and people poured after it. Machine guns blasted into the air, through clip after clip, memorializing him with ear shattering noise and puffs of smoke, and with that, it was done.
A friend remarked to me that although she had always been extremely critical of Arafat's administration, she felt like a family member had died. Perhaps a family member who she didn't get along with, but a family member just the same. For those of us born after 1967, Arafat has been a fixture, a given, the only symbol of Palestinian leadership, and love him or hate him, his life and death have been profoundly meaningful in the course of the life of a nation, and he will be missed.