Look into Yasser Arafat's bedroom - and legacy

Museum opening today in Ramallah details late Palestinian leader's metamorphosis, but comes with controversy

RAMALLAH (West Bank) • It is not often that one gets a glimpse inside the bedroom of one of the world's most controversial leaders. And the creators of the Yasser Arafat museum here hope it will change some perceptions of the late Palestinian leader.

Officially opening today, 12 years after his death in France, it details his metamorphosis from a hunted revolutionary and guerrilla leader to a diplomat and peacemaker. At the same time, it recounts the Palestinians' struggle to free themselves from Israeli occupation.

Visitors will be able to see the original office, meeting room and even the 54 sq ft bedroom where Arafat lived out the final three years of his life under an Israeli siege.

"We have kept it exactly as it was," Mr Nasser al-Qidwa, Arafat's nephew and president of the new Arafat Institute, told journalists recently during a tour of the facility.

The importance to Palestinians of the museum, which has been more than six years in the making and cost about US$7 million (S$9.7 million), is clear. The shiny new building sits adjacent to the Palestinian president's headquarters, known as the Muqata. Its entrance takes visitors past Arafat's tomb, a solemn Ramallah landmark where admirers come to pay respects to their legendary leader.

"The Yasser Arafat museum displays the Palestinian experience," said its director Mohammad Halayka. "It is the only venue in Palestine that presents the Palestinian narrative of events from the last century."

Inside, more than 120 displays detail in words and photos the lives and travails of Palestinian leaders and people. Rare footage of events such as what Palestinians call the "nakba", or catastrophe, the 1948 war when Palestinian civilians were uprooted from their ancestral homes during Israel's creation, play in looped cycles on state-of-the-art television screens.

An enclosed footbridge brings visitors into the sparse quarters where Arafat lived from 2001 to 2004. The tiny bedroom, with its meagre furnishings, seems intended to negate Israeli rumours that the Palestinian leader siphoned off millions in aid meant for his people. A 2003 Forbes magazine article listed his fortune as at least US$300 million; others say it could have been more than US$1 billion.

In his former room, a single metalframed bed sits neatly made in a corner. Nearby, a traditional Muslim prayer mat is draped over a simple wooden chair, and opposite is a closet displaying four stiff military uniforms and a pile of more than a dozen keffiyehs, the traditional Arab headdress that became the Palestinian leader's trademark.

Also on display is an outdated TV set - likely his only link to the outside world - as well as shoe-shining equipment and a collection of his woollen hats. He was known for his meticulous attire.

In his office, a pair of his darkrimmed eyeglasses sits on his desk. Trophies and gifts bestowed by international admirers decorate a bookshelf. On the wall is a photo of his daughter Zahwa and the portraits of two pro-Palestinian activists: American student Rachel Corrie, killed in 2003 by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, and Tom Hurndall, a British activist with the International Solidarity Movement, killed in 2004.

While the museum, with its modern multimedia displays and rare historic artefacts, appears well ordered, Arafat's legacy does not come without controversy. The museum's message contrasts starkly with Israel's version of his life story, as well as the Palestinian narrative.

The controversy starts almost from the first display: a replica of a house overlooking the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. A sign says it was the home of Arafat's grandfather and the place where the Palestinian leader was born.

Yet Israelis, and most historians, say Arafat was born in Egypt, arriving in Jerusalem only after the death of his mother when he was four years old.

"This is the house where he was born. The stones are real. We brought them from the Old City, even though the house no longer exists," said museum tour guide Dana Abdein.

Another mystery that the museum does not resolve is how Arafat died in November 2004 at age 75.

Many Palestinians, including his wife Suha, believe he was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210, although there has been no conclusive evidence to support this. Some Palestinians say he was murdered by Israel, while others point to an internal Palestinian conspiracy.

"I am convinced his death was not natural and that he most likely was poisoned. Israel assassinated Arafat," said his nephew.

Wherever he was born and whatever the cause of his death, Arafat came into the world in 1929, and his actions helped to shape and unify the Palestinian identity. His involvement in the Palestinian cause began when he was a teenager, even before Israel's creation in 1948.

But it was only after 1967, when the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria suffered heavy losses to Israel during the Six-Day War, that Arafat became the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a powerful symbol of Palestinian resistance.

For the next 20 years, he and his followers launched countless attacks on Israel, cementing his reputation among Palestinians as a revolutionary leader and among Israelis as a terrorist. Israel holds him responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israeli civilians in terrorist attacks during the first and second Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, in the late 1980s and early 2000s.

In the 1990s, he changed his tactics and his politics when he began to engage in diplomacy with the Israelis, leading eventually to the now-failed Oslo Accords. That path earned him a share of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Israel's then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

"There is not really enough space in any museum to adequately display Arafat's legacy," said director Halayka. "He brought unity, national pride, freedom and fight to the Palestinian people, and people really miss him."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Look into Yasser Arafat's bedroom - and legacy'. Subscribe