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The Truer Palestinian Face

By Diana Abu-Jaber
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page B07

No matter what you think of Yasser Arafat or his politics, his death marks the loss of a public face for Palestinians. Americans complained that he was too rough, too ungainly. More grizzled warrior than elder statesman, he didn't have a sleek Western exterior. But this was also his power: He didn't look American. He was a Palestinian.

I learned early that, where the Palestinians are concerned, image is a tricky thing. My Palestinian grandmother came from Bethlehem and married my gruff, Jordanian grandfather, a Bedouin by ancestry. Wealthy, yes, but sophisticated, no.

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My father grew up to become the fencing partner of the dashing Jordanian King Hussein, and his brothers attended parties thrown by the glamorous Queen Noor. And no one talked about being Palestinian when I was growing up. To be Jordanian was practically synonymous with being Western, charming and fashionable. To be Palestinian in Jordan meant that you were a refugee -- resentful, unknowable, poor and dangerous.

But, Dad tells me, his Palestinian mother was the sophisticated one in the family, the one with education and class. She put together one of the first libraries in Jordan, right in her own home.

The word "philistine" means "boorish and backward"; it comes from the word for "Palestinian." It is a derogatory word that demeans an entire culture, and it is used with relative impunity in this country.

But my grandmother, like so many Palestinians, was educated because she had to be. Because so many Palestinians are dispossessed of their land, they have to carry their culture and history in their heads.

The arrangement between my grandparents was that my grandmother kept their children with her in a house in the city during the winter, when they would be educated. She then turned them loose to my grandfather during the summer, when they would, in her words, "run around like wild animals." In this way, my father was raised between their two worlds.

Yasser Arafat may not have been an ideal -- or even a desirable -- spokesman for the Palestinians, but at least he had a name and a face. The danger for the Palestinians now is of disappearing altogether as their public image shrinks, as their lands shrink. So many people in this country seem to believe that the Palestinians are merely thugs, violent criminals, Philistines, interested only in wreaking havoc, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps with Arafat's death we have an opportunity to see a new face for the Palestinians, someone with a little more diplomacy and fashion sense. But I hope it will also be someone with passion, education and sophistication. After all, this person has to represent the Palestinians.

The writer is a novelist.


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