I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
My Life in the PLO: The Inside Story of the Palestinian Struggle
Pluto Press 2011
As I had depressingly reinforced to me earlier this year in Melbourne, some people don’t believe that knowing any background to an issue is of use in understanding or being politically committed to it. I disagree, and given that few of us want to read analytical tomes for fun, I reckon that memoirs are an interesting and engaging way to learn about political events and, in cases such as My Life in the PLO, by the late Shafiq al-Hout, to get a ‘warts and all’ look behind the historical scenes.
Al-Hout, born in Jaffa and one of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced to flee by the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, was a major player in Palestinian diaspora politics for decades. But as a representative of the PLO and a journalist, he remained to one extent or another apart from the factions which dominated the PLO, and his memoirs include both praise and criticism for parties, armed organisations and individuals such as Yasser Arafat, George Habash, Fatah, Al-Saiqa, the PFLP and a plethora of less well-known figures and groups.
For many readers his take on the character of Yasser Arafat will be of most interest. Here, Al-Hout maintains an interesting balance, describing Abu Ammar through perhaps the first two-thirds of the book with affection, respect, and in his own words, ‘love’. He recounts humorous anecdotes about Walid Khalidi’s attempts to persuade Arafat to shave off his famous stubble before his 1974 speech in front of the UN General Assembly, and also shows a tenderness for ‘Arafat the man’, unmarried and apparently rather lonely for much of his long career. But despite his description of Arafat as a person always forgiven by those around him, no matter what he did, Al-Hout’s later writings on Abu Ammar gradually become bitter and regretful, portraying a paranoid, autocratic leader in the 1990s and beyond who failed to address the growing corruption and complacence within the exiled PLO leadership in Tunis, and who made serious political errors – greatest amongst them the Oslo Accords – because of his egotistical refusal to accept advice and discussion. Al-Hout’s picture of the last 15 or 20 years of Arafat’s leadership of the PLO chime with the accounts of writers such as Hanan Ashrawi and Raja Shehadeh, who have painted a picture of Fatah and PLO leaders in Tunis who were out of touch with the needs of Palestinians living in the West Bank, in Gaza and in the camps of Lebanon:
“Abu Ammar could at least have told me that there was an attempt to work through another channel [Oslo] that offered more hope than Washington, and that it was in our national interest to maintain secrecy until the time was right. That was possible, and perfectly legitimate in the diplomatic world. But it was quite unacceptable to keep things under the table, because of their lack of confidence in the correctness of the steps being taken.
I decided to start reducing my visits to Tunis as much as possible. Whenever I did go, I made sure not to stay long, preferring always to return to Beirut, despite the many problems there. There were financial strains on the PLO and a continuous failure to cover our basic expenses, for example the salaries of the martyrs’ families, or the costs for the treatment of chronic medical cases, such as open heart surgery and kidney dialysis, treatments perhaps considered too much of a luxury for Palestinian refugees.”
Shafiq Al-Hout died in 2009, but his comments on Arafat’s descent into authoritarian egotism seem fairly prescient in the light of the fates of various other Middle Eastern political leaders in the last year:
‘Abu Ammar was of course not the only Arab leader with this affliction. Several others have contracted this malady in our time: some have already paid for their mistake and fallen, while others remain in power. Their time has not yet come. There is a popular saying in Arabic: “Pharaoh, who made you a pharaoh?” [Translator’s note: the well-known implied response is: “Because no one stopped me”.’
Al-Hout is also very open about other aspects of Palestinian history which many versions gloss over or skirt around: he doesn’t shy away from talking about the internecine conflict between Fatah and Syrian-backed groups such as Al-Saiqa in northern Lebanon in the early 1980s. I’m just old enough to remember how this, and Israel’s bombing of Tripoli to try and prevent the evacuation of Fatah forces, made the city a byword for hopelessness and violence, now, it seems, largely forgotten. Al-Hout is also open about the various attempts on his life during his political career – by countries hostile to the Palestinian cause, but also at times from factions within his own movement.
Al-Hout’s writing style has some of the formality (sometimes pomposity) of many political memoirs; he regularly refers to his background in journalism, and I had to wonder occasionally if the somewhat leaden style was imposed by the translators. But it is lightened by flashes of humour and humanity, and although he takes his role in the PLO very seriously, Al-Hout is comparatively humble about the limits on his power and influence. This makes My Life in the PLO very readable (I got through much of it lying in the bath on Boxing Day), as well as being an absorbing tour through 70 years of Palestinian history and politics.