Double Take / Presenting Arafat's legacy
The planners of the Arafat museum are trying to balance tribute and truth.
RAMALLAH - Yasser Arafat was back in the news recently when the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera broadcast a Swiss research institute's findings suggesting the iconic Palestinian leader may have died of polonium poisoning.
The report caused a stir in the Palestinian territories and prompted another round of speculation about what precisely caused Arafat’s death. But away from the swirling conspiracy theories, work is underway on a museum to chronicle the leader's turbulent life and present it as a legacy for future generations of Palestinians.
At the Yasser Arafat Foundation, located in a villa in an upscale Ramallah neighborhood, an advisor involved in the preparations, Mansour Tahboub, shared some of the thinking behind what is to be the first contemporary museum in the Palestinian territories that meets international exhibition standards.
A polarizing figure lauded by some as a peacemaker and condemned by others as an unreformed terrorist, Arafat presents a challenge to the museum planners, who want to show all facets of his life, while paying tribute to him as the founder of the modern Palestinian national movement.
A workshop, attended by Palestinian and foreign experts, was held last year to discuss the “curatorial narrative” of the museum. This narrative remains a work in progress, even as the angular stone-and-glass building that will tell it approaches completion.
A curator has yet to be found for the museum – which stands near Arafat's tomb in the presidential complex of Ramallah – and its contents are still being collected. Planned exhibit items include Arafat’s trademark keffiyeh, uniform and other personal belongings. Documents, speeches, photographs, videos and books will be on display, and in a library and audio-visual archive. A bridge will take visitors to Arafat’s windowless office and sleeping quarters, preserved as they were during a prolonged Israeli siege.
Tahboub says that beyond documenting Arafat’s life, the museum’s aim is to convey “the principles and ideas Arafat believed in: Palestine as a homeland, the right of the refugees to return back to their homes, willingness to live peacefully with Israel and other nations, and democracy as a way of rule.”
The aim is to tell Arafat's life story factually, not polemically, as part of the broader trajectory of the people and movement he led, Tahboub said.
“There won’t be slogans stirring nationalist feelings, but it will be a fact-reflecting mirror of this man and the Palestinian people during those days," he said. “We are trying to be as neutral as we can, but of course this is our narrative, it's our story. We view Arafat as a freedom fighter, but we don’t deny that others saw him as a terrorist, and that will be mentioned in the museum. We want to be credible and believable to Israelis or any international visitors who may come here, and to the new generation of Palestinians who didn’t know Yasser Arafat.”
The years when Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization attacked civilians in Israel and abroad will be presented as a phase of the "armed struggle," Tahboub said, adding that the violence will not be whitewashed, but its interpretation will be left to visitors.
“It is not our role in the museum to be a judge, but to give the facts as they are, or at least as we saw them,” he said.
Striking a balance between homage and credible documentation will be a delicate task. Tahboub said he was interested in seeing how this challenge was handled at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem and Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, where the lives and legacies of both leaders are on display.
Among the many photographs of Arafat lining the walls of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, is a series of past covers of foreign magazines on which he appears. A cover of the American monthly The Atlantic features an article titled, “How Arafat Destroyed Palestine,” skewering him for promoting a culture of corruption and personal rule. Tahboub pointed to the inclusion of The Atlantic cover – despite its unflattering portrayal of Arafat – as an indication of the inclusiveness that would characterize the museum.
“We believe in democracy and in having the other opinion,” he said.
Whether the museum lives up to that ideal will be know when it finally opens. The target date is next summer.