Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Efraim Karsh on Arafat's Egyptian Accent

This is from Arafat's War: The Man and his Battle for Israeli Conquest; New York: Grove Press, 2003, pp. 11-12:
. . . during his decades at the helm of the PLO, Arafat has never been able to overcome the widespread displeasure among the organization's rank and file with his strong Egyptian accent. Dialects and accents constitute a central element of collective identity in Arab societies, not least among Palestinians with their persistent sense of loss and the attendant attempt to construct a national consciousness. Every Arab can detect, on the basis of dialect, accent, or intonation, his interlocutor's regional origin, and Arafat's accent leaves little doubt as to his Egyptian, rather than Palestinian origin. Salah Khalaf (better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Iyad), Arafat's close associate throughout their political careers, recalled his deep dismay at discovering, during their first meeting in Cairo in the 1950s, the heavy Egyptian accent of an aspiring chairman of the Palestinian student union. He wasn't the only one to feel this way. When in the spring of 1966 Arafat was arrested by the Syrian authorities for involvement in the murder of a Palestinian activist, Abu Iyad rushed to Damascus together with his fellow Fatah leader Farouq Qaddoumi, to secure his release. In a meeting with General Hafez al-Assad, then Syria's defense minister, the two were confronted with a virulent tirade against Arafat. "You're fooled that he is a Palestinian," Assad said. "He isn't. He's an Egyptian agent." This was a devastating charge, especially in the light of the acrimonious state of Egyptian-Syrian relations at that time, and one that rested solely on Arafat's Egyptian dialect. Yet for Assad this was sufficient indictment. "You can go to Mezza [the prison} and take [him] away," he said eventually. "But remember one thing: I do not trust Arafat and I never will." Assad was true to his word until his death on June 10, 2000.

Such is the extent of Arafat's sensitivity to his Egyptian origin that in his meetings with his subjects in the West Bank and Gaza, whom he has come to rule since the mid-1990s as part of the Oslo process, he is regularly accompanied by an aide who whispers in his ear the correct words in Palestinian Arabic whenever the chairman is overtaken by his Egyptian dialect.

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