Paris with millions in hand is not a struggle

February 15, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

A JOKE MAKING the rounds in the Middle East back in the 1970s placed King Hussein of Jordan - having gone to the great beyond - in the company of Satan in hell.

The devil was showing the Hashemite monarch the rooms where the doomed would spend eternity, so he could choose one for himself.

In the first room Hussein found King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia writhing on the floor, unwashed, tormented by vermin and bugs. Hussein shuddered and asked to see the next room.

In the next room, Syrian President Hafez el Assad was being pulled apart on a medieval rack. No, Hussein shuddered again, pleading for another room.

There he found Col. Muammar el Kadafi of Libya cowering in a dark corner surrounded by scorpions and snakes. Please! No! Hussein pleaded with the devil.

In the next room there was a surprise. There was Yasser Arafat making love to Raquel Welch.

"I like that," said the king. "I'll take this room."

But the devil said, "You don't get it. That's Raquel Welch's punishment."

The story was most popular among Israelis back then, for it managed to demean the king of Jordan, whose reputation as a womanizer at the time far exceeded his reputation as a warrior. And it managed to insult the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who, unlike the Jordanian monarch, never seemed to have any interest in women.

The story came to mind about 12 years ago when the surprising news emerged that Arafat, then about 62, had secretly married a young Palestinian woman, his 28-year-old secretary, Suha Tawil.

And it came to mind again last week when the press in France disclosed that Suha Arafat, now 40 and living in Paris with her 7-year-old daughter, is under investigation by French authorities who want to know about more than $11 million transferred into her account from Switzerland between July 2002 and September last year.

The French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, which broke the story, reported that more than $2 million of that money had been transferred to the account of an interior decorator in Paris.

This is shocking. It reflects a tragedy on two levels.

On a personal level, if these stories are true, they demonstrate the low place to which a young woman of great promise has descended. I was acquainted with Suha Tawil about 30 years ago, when she was a mere child. She was the daughter of Raymonda Tawil, a Palestinian woman of great courage and conviction, a writer and journalist who was committed to liberation and statehood for her people.

Raymonda Tawil was so impressive that she was known as the Pasionaria of the West Bank, after Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, a heroine of the Spanish Civil War who once said, "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."

Raymonda was a source of news and guidance to correspondents covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s and 1980s. She was practically the only voice on the Palestinian side talking as cleverly as the well-organized Israeli public relations apparatus.

The Israelis did not like her and occasionally imprisoned her. It was not unusual to see Suha on visits to the family home in Ramallah. I remember her as a tall, lanky girl with dark hair.

Young Suha spent a lot of her time in Paris where she was educated at the Sorbonne. She was a blonde by the time she married Arafat in 1992. Formerly a devout Christian, she converted to Islam for the marriage.

At first. Suha seemed like a breath of fresh air in the rough and often corrupt atmosphere of Arafat's entourage. She was openly critical of the Palestinian leadership's corruption and lack of democracy. But later she faded from the limelight.

A couple of years ago, she aroused a furor by praising suicide bombers and asserting that if she had a son rather than a daughter, she would imagine "no greater honor" than for the child to die as a suicide bomber for the cause.

Palestinian women have "martyred" themselves in this fashion, but Zahwa, the Arafats' daughter, isn't old enough for lipstick, much less an explosive pack. Besides, mother and daughter spend almost all of their time in Paris.

The other level of tragedy is the corruption implied in funneling more than $1 million a month into Suha Arafat's Paris bank accounts with $2 million ending up in the account of an interior decorator.

Given the conditions in which the Palestinians - for whom Suha would sacrifice a son to suicide - are living, it is a mark against her and her husband that any money would be spent on her to live in Paris. That it would be millions of dollars is tragic indeed.

The French investigators may find that a lot of this money has been used to help the Palestinian cause, but I doubt it.

Consider Suha Arafat's preposterous reaction to the scandal. It was all Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's fault, she said. He leaked the story of the French investigation to distract attention from his corruption investigation in Israel.

"Sharon is trying to fabricate similar scandals [involving] the Arafat family to cover up his scandals," Suha Arafat told the Beirut, Lebanon, newspaper Al Hayat.

There might be another joke to remember somewhere in this story. But the hopelessness and despair of the people Mr. and Mrs. Arafat claim to represent are no laughing matter.

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