Meeting Mrs. Arafat
By Darrin Zammit Lupi
With the body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat being exhumed as part of an investigation into whether he was murdered eight years ago, it was pretty clear that we were going to need some reaction from his widow Suha, who has lived in Malta for the past few years. A journalist from The Times, the local paper I also work for, and I fixed an appointment to meet her at her apartment in the seaside town of Sliema, a short drive from the capital Valletta. Coincidentally it’s only some hundred or so meters away from the spot where Fathi Shaqaqi, the founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, was assassinated by Israeli Mossad agents in 1995.
Ms Arafat welcomed us into the bright and spacious seafront apartment. Sideboards and tables were full of framed photos of Yasser Arafat – some showing him with world leaders, others depicting him as a family man playing with his young daughter. She asked that I shoot the photos I needed before we started the interview, so my eyes immediately settled on a large painted portrait of her late husband, which I felt would make an ideal background.
Conversation was relaxed and friendly. I had the pictures I needed after shooting for a minute or two, so I sat down, enjoyed an exquisite cup of Arabian coffee prepared by her personal assistant, and listened in on the interview. The plan was to then get a brief comment from her on video afterwards.
She talked at some length about her memories of her husband and wanted to set the record straight that, contrary to what had been widely reported in the build-up to the exhumation, she had refused to allow an autopsy to take place in 2004, that she was never asked for permission and that his body was never in her possession, but that it was with the Palestinian Authority and was taken to Ramallah and buried there.
The interview was interrupted intermittently by her ringing phones – “they hadn’t stopped all morning,” she sighed.
On the stroke of noon, she suddenly sprang up from the sofa and hurried to the next room and switched on her TV, inviting us to join her. She wanted to watch the wreath laying ceremony at Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum in the West Bank live on TV. She sat down on the sofa beneath a large landscape oil painting in her TV room just as the live transmission started on Palestinian TV. This was unexpected for us. My colleague and I never imagined we would have this kind of opportunity. We suddenly found ourselves witnessing a small slice of history, as this 49-year-old woman, wiping tears from her eyes, watched people she knew and recognized paying their respects at her husband’s tomb as his body was exhumed behind large blue tarpaulin sheets by an international team of forensic experts.
Convinced that she would ask me not to take pictures (the arrangement had been only for a few posed portraits before the interview) I nevertheless asked her if she would mind if I made some pictures. A lesson I learned a long time ago – if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t get. She nodded that she was fine with it and I immediately sensed that I was extremely privileged to be able to witness and document this historic but intimate moment. She then seemed to forget I was in the room, as her eyes glazed over and memories came flooding back to her – memories of a man the world knew and regarded as a freedom fighter, a terrorist, a statesman, the father of a people, but who she knew primarily as a loving husband and father to her daughter.