washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > Near East > Gaza Strip West Bank

Fight Over Icon Has Plenty of Precedent

Deputies to Arafat Have Long Seen His Wife as Threat

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; Page A18

JERUSALEM, Nov. 8 -- They seemed mismatched from the start: The young bride, Suha Tawil, wore flashy designer clothes. The bridegroom, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was scruffy and grizzled in rumpled combat fatigues. She was a Greek Orthodox Christian, he a Sunni Muslim. He was a legend, the very symbol of the Palestinian people. She was one of his secretaries -- and less than half his age.

She dyed her hair blond in a society of black-haired people, wore form-fitting dresses and pantsuits in a culture where most women drape themselves in scarves and shapeless robes, and drove her own car. All that was more than enough to make Suha Arafat suspect in the eyes of Palestinians grand and ordinary.

"It is already not easy to be a woman in the Arab world," she told the French entertainment magazine Gala in 1994. "But when you become the wife of Yasser Arafat -- a man who for so long remained single -- you are rejected."

In a power structure in which influence was measured largely by proximity to the leader, nothing was more threatening to members of the longtime bachelor's inner circle than a wife, especially a smart, Sorbonne-educated, trilingual one who loathed them and said so.

In a 1998 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, she accused the men around Arafat of tarnishing his image with their "corruption, lack of integrity, a domineering attitude and the adopting of undemocratic methods." She has admonished his closest associates for building mansions while average Palestinians lived in poverty.

These days it is Suha Arafat who is accused of extravagance.

During the nearly three years that Arafat was captive inside his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, his wife and 9-year-old daughter reportedly lived in a multimillion-dollar Paris apartment.

British newspapers have delighted in reports of Suha Arafat's prime seats at Paris fashion shows and shopping sprees with friends such as the wife of Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and the king of Morocco's sister.

French banking officials last year opened an investigation into allegations that $11.4 million was funneled from Palestinian bank accounts in Switzerland to two French bank accounts in Suha Arafat's name in 2002 and 2003. A Justice Ministry spokesman would not comment Monday on the inquiry's status.

When the accusations surfaced last year, Suha Arafat posed a question to Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper: What was strange about Arafat "sending money to his wife overseas, especially when I handle Palestinian matters and interests?"

Suha Tawil was introduced to Yasser Arafat by her mother, Ramonda Tawil, a prominent Palestinian activist and writer. Suha Tawil helped arrange one of his trips to Paris while she was studying politics at the Sorbonne. A few months later Arafat offered her a job on his personal staff in Tunis, where he was living at the time. They married on July 17, 1990.

She has described her first years of marriage as lonely and difficult. She has told Vogue magazine that her husband once compared her to the former Philippine first lady, Imelda Marcos, after seeing her vast shoe collection.

When the couple arrived in the Gaza Strip in 1994 after the Oslo peace accords allowed the Palestinian leader's return, Arafat was content to share their home with aides and Kalashnikov-toting bodyguards, until his wife persuaded him to add a more private second floor. But after she decorated the three-bedroom flat, Arafat said it reminded him of a cabaret and returned to his spare quarters on the first floor, she told the New York Times in 1999. She remained upstairs.

"Luxury is in your father's banker's home, not mine," he cautioned his wife in a reference to her father's banking career, she told the London Observer.

Suha Arafat converted to Islam and tried to win over the Palestinian people by working in behalf of women and children. But as the birth of her daughter drew near in 1995, she undercut her efforts by announcing she would have the baby in Paris because, she said, hospital conditions in Gaza were unsanitary.

Correspondent Glenn Frankel in Paris contributed to this report.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company