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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Arafat Theme Park

Like a perpetual memory machine, the tomb of Yasser Arafat grows more elaborate with each passing day.

Just 11 weeks ago, as Arafat lay dying in a hospital bed outside Paris, this bare-dirt corner of the iconic Palestinian leader's debris-strewn Mukata headquarters was one of the most blighted sights in the entire West Bank.

Today, a national shrine is rising from the rubble, replete with landscaped gardens, newly transplanted mature olive trees and Palestinian flags framing a steel-and-glass burial chamber whose doors open toward the holy city of Mecca.

With all eyes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focused on the prospects of a long-overdue ceasefire, the high-speed deification of Arafat's wreath-strewn gravesite has passed almost unnoticed. But it is nonetheless fascinating to watch the almost daily adornments accrue.

However much Palestinians promise that, in the fullness of time, Arafat will make one last journey to be reburied in his beloved Jerusalem, the embellishments underway at this supposedly temporary gravesite come with a sense of permanence.

... Habash is now executive director of the National Committee for Immortalizing the Symbol of the Immortal Leader Yasser Arafat.

The astonishingly fanciful title means he oversees a 50-person committee charged with reinventing the Mukata compound as a kind of Arafat theme park.

What exists today, he says, is just the beginning. Plans are being hatched for a mosque, a library and a national archive on the grounds of this former British police headquarters.

The partially destroyed apartment complex nearby, where Arafat spent his final three years, has been under 24-hour guard since the former leader's death.

Habash's committee is viewing it as a future museum.

Habash, who has been at Arafat's side since their days of exile in Beirut in the 1980s, admits to being something of a packrat.

From reel-to-reel tapes of early Palestinian Liberation Organization meetings to the tiniest scraps of paper initialled by Arafat, he calculates some 5 million pieces of Araphernalia have been preserved for future historians.

"Even those (Palestinians) who didn't like Arafat feel that they have lost something very important," says Habash.

"What we want to do is turn the Mukata into the permanent symbol of the Palestinian people — a symbol that will be as great as the symbol of George Washington."

National symbols are no less important to neighbouring Israel.

Yet none of the tombs of that nation's founding fathers — from Theodore Hertz to David Ben Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin — can be described as anything but modest, compared with the shrine evolving around Arafat.

"That is one big different between our cultures," notes professor Yehuda Gradus, director of the Ben Gurion Institute and overseer of the former prime minister's gravesite in Israel's southern Negev desert.

"Arafat to them was almost like a ghost. He was built into this enormous figure, which is a very common phenomenon throughout the Third World.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that there will be such a spectacular site."

Gradus says the Israeli inclination is to construct national memories focusing less on its leaders and more on the ideas they represented.

Consequently, while Ben Gurion lies in a rather ordinary grave, Israel has invested heavily in the nearby Ben Gurion Institute for Desert Research, where some 85 scientists live and work to this day, advancing the former leader's trailblazing ideas about reclaiming the desert as a habitat for humanity.

"Ben Gurion was a very modest man," says Gradus. "And so he has a modest grave.

"But he also was a visionary. He believed that by leading the world in this field, Israel would be a light unto other nations, achieving scientific advancements and exporting this knowledge of desert development for the benefit of all."

Such separation of man and motive appears unlikely to ever apply to Arafat.