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Area's Palestinians Mourn Loss of a Symbol

Despite His Flaws, Leader Represented Struggle, Some Say

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page A16

No one would call Sami Parbhoo a slavish follower of Yasser Arafat's. Over the years, the 32-year-old Takoma Park resident has freely criticized the Palestinian leader's rule. The mismanagement. The reports of corruption. The centralization of power.

And yet, when Parbhoo, a Palestinian immigrant, woke up yesterday and learned that Arafat had died, he was shocked. Suddenly, his heart felt heavy.


"He tried so hard," said Dalia Shaat, 25, who works at Mount of Olives store in Falls Church. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

__ ARAFAT REMEMBERED __
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Photo Gallery Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was laid to rest after memorials in Cairo and Ramallah.
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Video: Thousands Greet Arafat's Coffin in Ramallah
Video: Arafat's Funeral in Cairo
Narrated Slide Show: Arafat's Life
Timeline: The Life of Arafat
Photo Gallery: Palestinians Mourn
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__ Live Discussions __
Transcript: Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for Al Hayat
Transcript: Henry Siegman
Transcript: Fawas Gerges
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__ Special Report __
Yasser Arafat, 1929-2004
Full coverage, more features.

"I'm surprised at how upset I was," said Parbhoo, who works for a Department of Transportation contractor. Despite Arafat's flaws, he brought the Palestinians' cause to the attention of the world, Parbhoo said. "He represented the struggle."

In the Palestinian world in Washington -- a world of thousands of immigrants, of grocery stores where al-Jazeera blares and hummus comes in four flavors, of cafes where people smoke "shisha" pipes, of restaurants with displays of baklava the size of pool tables -- the mood was somber yesterday.

Arafat was remembered at the Palestinian Authority office at Dupont Circle, where the phone rang constantly with condolences. He was remembered with a moment of silence before a concert at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery on Virginia Avenue NW, where a Palestinian rapper known as the Iron Sheik was performing.

And Arafat was remembered at the Jerusalem Restaurant off Leesburg Pike in Falls Church, where Parbhoo and his relatives were eating couscous and chicken and nut-filled pastries, to the full-throated accompaniment of a taped Egyptian pop singer.

"For the past few years, we were not very happy with Arafat," said Parbhoo's mother, Miranda Conyers, 54, a linguist from Fairfax. But ever since she was a child in Bethlehem, she said, "he represented Palestinians. Now that he's gone, I don't know what's going to happen. It scares me."

"Everyone is talking about it," said Mahmoud Subuh, 38, a Palestinian working at the restaurant. "It's like, the sun comes up, Arafat is there. It's part of us."

Arafat was not universally mourned in the Washington area. Jewish leaders condemned his support for violence and said he had been an obstacle to peace.

"I know that he's been a hero to many Palestinians, but the fact that he received the Nobel Prize for Peace without ending his encouragement for terrorist activities is indicative of the way he has misled the Palestinian people and the rest of the world," said Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, senior rabbi of Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Northwest Washington.

Barry Freundel, rabbi of Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, said, "Arafat was a person who perpetrated a great deal of evil and destruction."

How, asked the critics, could you admire a man whose career was intertwined with terrorism?

Many Palestinians in the area said they rejected the use of violence against innocent civilians. But they said they understood why some Palestinians tolerated, or even applauded, terrorism.

"Violence comes from frustration," Subuh said. The spectacular hijackings and other Palestinian terrorist acts of the 1970s were "aimed at telling the world we were not being treated as humans," he said.

The Washington area is home to thousands of Palestinians, a diverse mixture of Muslims and Christians who came from the Palestinian territories, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations. Several national Palestinian organizations are based here, and Palestinians in the area hosted dinners for Arafat during his visits.

"A lot of them know him. Some of them revere him. Some of them thoroughly blame him for things. It is quite a mix," said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine. He and another local Palestinian American, George Salem, flew to Cairo yesterday with a U.S. delegation attending Arafat's funeral.

The reverence for Arafat was evident at the Mount of Olives grocery store in Falls Church, which sells Middle Eastern merchandise.

A large black, white, green and red Palestinian flag had been placed in the front of the store, and customers gathered around a television broadcasting al-Jazeera's coverage of the Arafat legacy.

Dalia Shaat, 25, a worker at the store, lived in Kuwait as a child, then immigrated to the United States. To her, Arafat was a peerless Palestinian symbol. She waved off questions about his shortcomings.

"It's the same thing to a Palestinian person as President Bush's dying would be to you," she said. "He tried so hard. I never met anybody who committed their whole life for one cause."


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