TCS Daily

I, Arafat

By Jon Haber - November 16, 2004 12:00 AM

When the BBC's groundbreaking mini-series I Claudius was in production, the cast (which consisted of some of Britain's finest actors) struggled with a dilemma: how to portray the global leaders of their day (the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius) in a family drama that seethed with bitter family rivalries, backstabbing and greed.

To sort out the problem, the production contacted Robert Graves, author of the original two-volume I Claudius historical novel, who explained that he balanced the characters by viewing the Roman imperial dynasty through the lens of the modern day mafia. That insight helped turn the BBC's I Claudius into some of the best drama in television history.

That tale came to mind during the last two weeks as many of us tried to figure out the farce that seemed to be playing out at the deathbed of the PLO's Presidenté for Life (now ended) Yasir Arafat.

For days on end, hundreds of journalists camped out near a French military hospital could not tell the world one of the basic facts of the story they were sent to cover: whether their subject was alive or dead. At Arafat's side stood his wife Suha, who prevented Arafat's long-time lieutenants from viewing the dear leader, accusing them of trying to "bury him alive" in an inflammatory statement to Arab TV.

In the end, it was all hugs and kisses, followed by a final demise, a fiery burial and continued mystery as to the final cause of the Palestinian leader's death.

Looked at through the prism of global politics, the antics in Paris and Ramalah over the last two weeks seem peculiar indeed. But if one thinks about what transpired not as the death of George Washington or Churchill, but instead as an episode of the Sopranos, all of the pieces fall into place.

Like the family whose name marks the HBO underworld series (where even a father-daughter college trip can turn into an opportunity for extracurricular murder), the real and political "family" of the late Mr. Arafat is rife with conspiracies and unstated agendas. On the surface, the Sopranos (like the Corleones) are all about family, but that does not prevent one family member from "whacking" another when necessary (just ask Abu Abbas who has had to dodge bullets before he even assumes Arafat's mantle).

As with any mafia-like enterprise, the glue that holds the storylines together is money. For Tony Soprano, the ability to "earn" trumps family loyalty or years of friendship, the envelope stuffed with cash passed under the dinner table acting as the price of continued loyalty.

In the case of the Palestinian national movement, the cash stakes are so high that no envelope is big enough to hold the dollars, no table high enough to pass them under. From the Palestinians' own reckoning, Arafat has been in control of billions upon billions of dollars during his reign, money donated by Arab countries, skimmed off foreign aid donations, extracted from expatriate Palestinian workers (without their consent), or generated from various world-wide legitimate and illegitimate businesses and shake-down operations.

While it is generally agreed that Arafat's fortunes have declined of late, there may still be more than a billion dollars at stake, money that may be stuck in Swiss bank accounts to which the PLO leader had sole access (which means he actually managed to take the cash to his grave). Alternatively, those funds may be accessible, which means it is up for grabs whether they will be used to build a Palestinian state, or finance terrorism and continued criminal activity for decades to come.

In every mob tale, the death of the clan patriarch begins with a weepy cemetery-side scene, followed by a series of power struggles and grabs for turf that usually ends in many, many corpses of "made" men. Unless people of good will are seriously interested in seeing a change of course in the Palestinian national movement, expect the guns to start blazing soon.

As for the passage of Arafat himself, one could be consoled by thinking of John Donne's quote that "every man's death diminishes me for I am of mankind" (which is followed by the more famous line that asks not to "know for whom the bell tolls..."). However, in compiling news articles that covered the life and potential cause of death of the PLO strongman, I can't help but think of an exchange between the former Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, who was once accused by his rival Gladstone of being destined to die at the gallows or of some social disease. To this affront, Disraeli simply replied: "That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

Jon Haber has worked as a film writer for the Boston Globe and movie reviewer at WBUR in Boston. He now runs SkillCheck, Inc., a software publisher in Burlington, Massachusetts, and occasionally finds time to write about the intersection of politics, film and culture.


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