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Arafat museum opens on anniversary of his death

Juicebox Gallery

By PM collaborators - November 10, 2016
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Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Yasser Arafat] [museum]

For forty years, Yasser Arafat dominated Palestinian politics. He was there through it all: Black September; the catastrophe in Lebanon; Oslo; the two intifadas. Mahmoud Darwish proclaimed that Arafat shaped “Palestinian national identity.”

And yet Arafat died back in 2004. Beyond a marble mausoleum and a small mosque, there is nothing to commemorate his life.

This is about to change. On November 10, coinciding with the twelfth anniversary of his death, is the official opening of the Yasser Arafat Museum.
It’s an impressive project, $7 million and six years in the making. The prominent Palestinian architect Ja’far Touqan designed the elegant marble façade. Experts from Egypt were flown in as advisors.  
 
The museum places Arafat’s personal struggles in a wider Palestinian context. “Arafat represents the largest chapter of our political life,” Mohammed Halabya, the museum’s director, told Palestine Monitor. “This museum is a way of telling the Palestinian story.”
 
Indeed, a large part of the museum explains Palestinian history in broad strokes, with barely a mention of Arafat himself. Channelling the visitor down a winding corridor, the exhibits show Palestine’s stumble from an Ottoman province to an occupied rump.
 
Props, like a copy of the Balfour Declaration and fezzes worn by Palestinian nationalist in the 1920s, provide some colour. A wonderful collection of photographs, charting all aspects of Palestinian life over the past century, also help.  
 
Obviously, Palestine’s relationship to Jews and Zionism is still fraught, but the curators have tried to remain reasonably even-handed. For example, they discuss the destruction of a Hebron synagogue by a Palestinian mob in 1929. The suicide bombing of Israeli civilians, for example in Jerusalem in 1996, are also acknowledged.
 
Still, given the history of the region, there is a lot of scope to highlight the dreadful ordeals of the Palestinian people. “It is our experience. It is our story. For our new generation, people need to know about their history,” Halabya said.
 
In one touching section exploring the 1948 nakba, keys are strewn next to a collapsed tent. They belong to Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 and never returned. Elsewhere, visitors see a scrolling list of Palestinians killed in Israeli prisons.
 
Not that Arafat himself is absent from all this. Rather, his personal life is interwoven into the wider Palestinian struggle. In one alcove, designers have shown what Arafat’s home in Jerusalem would have looked like during his childhood. The building has since been destroyed by Israel.
But if Arafat takes the backseat earlier in the exhibition, by the end his story dominates the narrative. His Nobel Peace Prize takes pride of place, near a section of the Kaaba donated to him by a Saudi prince.
 
And while the earlier exhibits thoughtfully mix Arafat’s story with that of Palestine, details of yet another audience with Bill Clinton or Jacques Chirac feel a little out of place, especially with the terror of the second intifada on the wall opposite.
 
Indeed, when the curators wholly embrace Arafat and his personal story, the effect is more moving. This is particularly evident in the second half of the museum. The first section is in a swanky new building. But walk across a passageway, and you are transported back to the pokey corridors and cheap wooden chairs of the muqata’a in the 1990s.
 
This is what’s left of the old building. For years, it served as Arafat’s headquarters. But in 2002, Israeli troops besieged the compound, and destroyed much of it. Arafat, and several hundred supporters, were trapped inside for 34 months.
 
In 2002, Hassan Shtaikul was one of Arafat’s bodyguards, besieged with his boss and eating “only one meal a day” to save food. He remembers sleeping eighteen to a room.
 
He has since swapped his khakis for a swish blue suit, but he is still proud of the museum. “Arafat is vital to the history of the Palestinian people,” he said.
 
In this section of the museum, the atmosphere is grim. Black tape covers the windows. Dina, a tour guide at the museum, explains this was done to stop Israeli snipers picking off Arafat or his supporters.
 
Arafat’s tiny bedroom, with just a bed and a few books, has also been poignantly preserved. Kalashnikovs hang from the side of bunkbeds. Details like this help bring out the brutality of Arafat’s existence during those long months.
 
Many of Arafat’s possessions, including his Nobel Prize medal, were in his office in Gaza. Following the brief 2006-7 civil war, the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank cut off ties with each other. Despite an agreement to form a 'national unity government’ in Ramallah in 2014, reconciliation attempts have since failed.
 
This left the museum in a bind, unable to recover all of his possessions. According to Halabya, the medal was transferred “via political channels.”
 
“Arafat represents unity – for all Palestinians," he argued. "This museum is meant for everyone.” 

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