Text size

At 6:05 P.M. yesterday, members of the Presidential Guard asked people at the graveside of Yasser Arafat to vacate the paved courtyard around the grave for the changing of the guard. Once an hour, the honor guard changes.

A unit (unarmed) in olive drab marches out of the Muqata toward the grave. Its commanders salute the commanders of the out-going unit and they change places, their faces expressionless.

But beyond this military precision, the pilgrimage to the grave and the gatherings in the meeting hall of Arafat's office were an informal affair of the people.

As is custom, the relatives of the deceased stood and received the visitors. In the receiving line were the members of the PLO executive committee, headed by Abu Mazen, a kaffiyeh draped over his shoulders; members of the Fatah central committee; Nasser al-Kidwah, Arafat's nephew; Muslim and Christian clerics; Umm Jihad and her son, Jihad al-Wazir, as a special gesture to Abu Jihad, whom Israel assassinated; representatives of women's organizations and NGOs.

From 10 A.M. until 2 P.M., and again from 6 P.M. until 2 A.M, thousands passed through the line, shaking hands, kissing, stopping to exchange a word or two. They then looked for a place to sit in the big hall. Later, they left through another door, where everyone was handed a date, as is custom on the death of a martyr.

Arafat is considered a martyr, either because he died during Ramadan or because his death has been attributed to suffering due to his continued confinement by Israel in the Muqata. Two sheikhs read passages from the Koran, each in his turn, in clear and pleasant voices.

In contrast to traditional mourners' receptions, in which men and women are separated, there was no such separation at the Muqata. It seems the PLO's tradition as a liberation movement has trumped the increasing "orthodoxy" of recent years. The number of women was lower than that of the men, but no one has bothered to set aside a special area for them. Neither was there separation between the "important" and the "unimportant," between Christians (including a group of nuns and a few priests) and Muslims, between villagers and city-dwellers, religious and secular, right and left.

Some of the women were red-eyed from weeping. But around 6:30 P.M., the only one of the hundreds of people in the hall who was heard weeping loudly was Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's economic adviser, seated next to Finance Minister Salam Fayad.

The sadness of the occasion was diluted by a sense of joy at a meeting among friends. It was an opportunity to exchange impressions of the funeral day. Many were still agitated from the chaos of the event, especially of the danger to those who climbed walls, trees and the half-ruined buildings of the Muqata, or from the armed men who shot from the crowd. But others said it was "orderly chaos," as Dr. Hanan Ashrawi put it, with official protocol and the need for VIPs to give boring speeches giving way to spontaneous love for Arafat.

The talk and the meetings continued next to the grave. A well-known wit, a computer expert and always the first to spread a new joke around town, said that as the helicopter carrying Arafat's coffin flew over Palestine, Abu Ammar asked in amazement, "What, Palestine is still here after my death?" But then he felt the need to apologize, saying that Arafat, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, loved to hear jokes about himself.

At 6 P.M., a group of young people from the Jalazun refugee arrived, carrying a picture of Arafat, reciting Koran verses and repeating "the people is not dead."