The Essential Arafat

Arafat: The Man and the Myth. Thomas Kiernan. W.W. Norton & Co. $9.95 281 pp.

SOUTHERN LEBANON was known as "Fatahland" not so long ago, but villages which once teemed with Palestinian fedayeen now welcome the Syrian occupation which has at least momentarily crippled the Palestinian guerrilla movement. As Syrian President Hafez Assad dictates terms to Fatah leader Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian military and political assertiveness of April 1975, which touched off civil war in Lebanon, seems far away. Arafat's enforced meekness is even further removed from 1974, when he stood before the United Nations General Assembly, riding the crest of Third World acclaim and proclaiming the ascendancy of the Palestinian liberation movement. But resurgent optimism about a final Arab-Israeli peace still focuses on Arafat, that mysterious figure in the middle, and the central question has become: will he accept half a loaf for the Palestinians?

Despite the plethora of attention Arafat receives in the news, the English-speaking world actually knows very little about him. While this is partly the result of a general lack of thoughtful and unbiased news coverage of the Arab world (particularly in the United States), it is also due to the myth which Arafat himself has built up around his activities. Thomas Kiernan's efforts in his recent books to unveil that myth are long overdue. While many gaps in our knowledge of Arafat necessarily remain, it is reassuring to see that Kiernan has been able to produce a portrait of this elusive individual which enhances Americans' perception of recent happenings in the Middle East.

The greatest strength of Kiernan's biography is that it is more than just biography; the author carefully interweaves the story of Arafat with the Palestinian experience from post-World War I days to the present. Of course, it would be impossible and senseless to isolate Arafat's story from that of his people, but Kiernan (who just last year published a historical survey of the Middle East) interrelates the two so tightly that his book is as much the story of the movement as of the man.

Arafat opens with the 1929 Wailing Wall riots in Jerusalem which began an era of escalating violence and established the reign of terror of Hajj Amin al-Husayni, Grand Mufti (Muslim religious leader) of Jerusalem, the extremist leader who created "the Palestinian problem" by rejecting moderation and sowing intra-Arab dissension prior to the founding of Israel. The turbulent childhood of Rahman al-Qudwa (in later life Yasir Arafat) is shadowed by Palestinian fear and hostility to a growing influx of foreign Jews; it is the conflict between opposing reactions to this threat which marks young Rahman's coming of age. As relatives of the Muftis and prominent businessmen themselves, the future fedayeen leader's family had felt the bludgeon of al-Husayni's fanaticism even before Rahman's birth. Caught in the power struggles between the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood and the followers of the Mufti, Rahman and his contemporaries--all eager to fight for the Palestinian cause--find themselves pawns in the previous generation's game.


While early recognized by those in power as a "natural leader," Arafat's effective preliminary organization of infant guerrilla cells typically remained on the inactive level. This seems to be a recurrent theme of Arafat's life. Kiernan shows how his "leadership qualities," while impressive, were based more on rhetoric, the resourceful intimidation of rivals, and the creation of a myth than on carefully-thought-out action. The author portrays his subject as a charismatic but dangerously impractical firecracker whose leadership consistently has needed the tempering hand of more pragmatic strategists in order to turn propaganda into organization, and organization into action. Thus, Fatah's rise to prominence appears to have been more the result of the ideological and tactical guidance of those close to Arafat than of "Abu Ammar" (Arafat's code name) himself. And the group's earliest strikes against Israel were due to the planning and materiel of Syrian officials. As Arafat appears increasingly hamstrung in 1976, the intriguing question arises: how much is his powerlessness a reflection of "the way it's always been?"

Kiernan's portrayal of the Palestinian movement is a sympathetic one, and in showing how Arafat's role grew out of the frustrations of his early years the study is in a sense sympathetic towards its protagonist--although the reader is not left with a particularly warm regard for Arafat. Kiernan's treatment is admirably detached and well-balanced--his critique of Arafat is implicit rather than blatant.

There are three marked weaknesses to Kiernan's biography, one of which the author could do little about: the lack of information from Arafat himself. As Kiernan explains in his foreward, upon launching the book he asked for and received Arafat's promise of assistance. But when Kiernan returned to the PLO leader in 1975, it became clear that his expectations differed from those of Arafat's, who had pictured the biography as a propaganda vehicle and refused to help Kiernan dig below the myth which his subject had so carefully constructed. Kiernan relied for most of his information on interviews with members of Arafat's family and "Abu Ammar's acquaintances. However, this belies another source of weakness, for Kiernan had to depend on an interpreter in conducting his interviews. It is regrettable that such an investigation, where impressions and the capacity to instill trust in one's interviewee are so vital, that the author could not speak Arabic.

Kiernan's book is also a bit disappointing towards the end, for he basically wraps up his detailed treatment of Arafat and Fatah in 1965, following it with a quick run-through of events during the past decade. While it is probably more important to give a detailed narrative of the earlier years, since less is known of them and they provided the psychological as well as political basis for Arafat's subsequent actions, Kiernan would have strengthened his treatment by not running out of steam before the reader's curiosity runs out. The superficial outline of events from 1965 to 1975 is easily gotten from other sources; Kiernan's knowledge and source material could have been more usefully applied to digging for the dynamics and personalities below those events, as he did with the earlier years.

Despite such disappointments, however, Kiernan's biography of Arafat is a much-needed and helpful addition to Western literature on the Middle East. Although Arafat's star is low on the horizon at this point in time, it is certainly not burned out. Whether or not a "solution" is imposed on the Palestinians, we have not heard the last of Yasir Arafat--and the more we know about his past, the more we can guess about the future of the world's most volatile corner.