The Palestine Liberation Organization is headquartered across the street from a lingerie shop and next to a bookstore in a Miami Beach-style building. The building is seven stories high, with terraces, and enough security at the door to make anyone feel safe. The doorman sports a submachine gun.
The headquarters, at least the part of it that is out in the open, is located in a section of town unquestionably controlled by the PLO. Its army mans the checkpoints and its troops patrol the streets. Its slogans are on the walls and its posters are everywhere.
A visitor is stopped at the door, searched and then allowed up. The information office is on the fifth floor. What is on the other floors I do not know. I do know, however, that this is not the place to find Yasser and Arafat and the PLO brass. Where they are is a secret and the location is constantly changed In Beirut, this is the prudent thing to do.
The information office is a bright, sunlit room. People come in and out all the time -- Swedes and Japanese on this day. The room is neat, clean. There is nothing clandestine about it. For all the talk about a guerrilla organization, you might as well be in offices of a college newspaper.
The room is wallpapered with posters. Some are the standard stuff -- Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Castro, Mao. Some are of Palestinian or Arab martyrs, but some are of a whole different nature. They show alleged Israeli atrocities.
The posters show dead children, allegedly killed by the Israelis. The posters show men being beaten. They show bombed villages and refugees and prisons and soldiers pushing around women. They show the Israeli-Arab conflict from the other side. It is the side that more and more the rest of the world is beginning to see.
One poster is of Carlos, the nom de guerre of the Venezuela-born terrorist. In America, he is a killer of innocent people. Here is a hero. Here, everything gets turned upside down and the bottle instead of being half full is half empty.
For me, this is strange. For me and most Americans the world always has been turned the other way. It was a given that the Israelis or the Zionists or the Jews or whatever term you want to use were right and that the Arabs or the Palestinians or the PLO were wrong. It was a given that somehow the British had a right to give land they did not own as a Jewish homeland and it was a given that the people who lived on that land would go away, buzz off, take a powder -- disappear? You tell me. I no longer know.
Here in this room the assumptions are different. Here it is the Israelis who are bad. They steal. They stole the land, to begin with. They kill children and old women. They bomb villages and kill Boy Scouts and they are the ones who have pushed a whole people -- the Palestinians -- into a Disapora much like the one Jews experienced for years. It is all here in the posters. m
In the Middle East, Palestinians are everywhere, and wherever you go, someone makes the by-now trite observation that they are the Jews of today. They have no homeland. They are, for the most part, better educated and more skilled than the Arabs they live among. They are supposed to be good at making a buck, at trading, at commerce. I wonder if they also are thought to be pushy.
But there is one striking similarity -- at least for me.
In the homes of Palestinians, in their offices and in their stores, you sometimes see pictures of Jerusalem. I recognize it right off, even though I have never been there. I recognize it because similar pictures can be found in the homes of Jews.
Lately, the PLO has found its footing. In Austria, it has been given diplomatic recognition. India, too. Groups come here all the time. The PLO seems liberal with its money. It will pay expenses -- the air fare, the hotel rooms. The Israelis have done the same thing for years but now many Americans are coming here. Jesse Jackson kicked it off and now there is such a thing as PLO chic. For some people, things can never be tragic, complex, have a history. Things have to be black and white. In the last couple of years, the PLO has come up white.
In the hallways, armed men walk back and forth. In the room, a man comes and gives me a form to fill out. It asks the same information as a passport -- name, place of birth, date of birth, etc. It even requires a picture. It is like a passport. I have asked to visit the land of the Palestinians -- the south of Lebanon and the camps in Beirut.
On the phone the day before a man asked my name. I said it over and over again and he could not understand. Finally I spelled it. You could hear him smile. "Ah," he said, "Cohen." Now I write it down on the form and a man takes it into another room.
I wait. I wait for someone with a gun to point to one of the posters and ask me what I think. I wait for one of them to ask if I have ever given money to Israel, if I have relatives there. A man comes into the room. He is dressed in jeans, a blue shirt and a blue V-neck sweater. He approaches me and smiles. His name is Mahmout.
He will take me to the camps.