Arafat: whistling grief

BBC is reporting today that it is confirmed that Arafat had high levels of radioactive polonium in his body when he died–though it is not confirmed that this was his cause of death, or who had poisoned him.

Reading the reports, I’m having strong memories of Arafat’s funeral, in Ramallah, on November 12 2004. I was there with my colleague Sami Al Jundi, along with tens of thousands of Palestinians, packed into the Muqata (Arafat’s compound) to pay their last respects to a man who was in so many ways a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

The helicopter carrying Arafat’s remains from Egypt to Ramallah was spotted in the sky–still a speck–and the young men who were sitting atop the Muqata walls began whistling. That’s what I remember most about that day–the raw, grief-filled emotion of that whistling–a muted form of calling out–which got louder and rawer as the helicopter grew closer, lowered, and landed, and Arafat’s remains were removed, passed from hands to hands and interred.

I don’t know what it will mean/what it will lead to if it is confirmed that Arafat was, indeed, killed by that poison or if it is definitively determined who poisoned him.

But I know that the people who were packed in the Muqata that day, mourning the symbol of their resistance and their struggle for freedom, are further than ever from that freedom, from their right to live with self-determination and dignity. That is what I mourn for now, when I reply the scene of the burial in my mind, and the sound of the raw, emotional whistling rings in my ears.

Sami Al Jundi and I outside the Muqata in Ramallah after Arafat's funeral

Sami Al Jundi and I outside the Muqata in Ramallah after Arafat’s funeral

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