Arafat: From Defender to Dictator
by Saïd K. Aburish
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 360 pp. $25.95.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Aburish, a Palestinian journalist living in London, has Yasir Arafat's number. He shows how the leader of the Palestinians is in many ways an Egyptian (having been born and reared in that country, living there until the age of 28, and still speaking Arabic like an Egyptian), his deep grounding in Islam, and his abiding parochialism (describing him as someone with "an international veneer and a tribal core"). Capturing the elusive and contradictory nature of his subject, his book is an excellent place to learn about the personality and career of Arafat (but wait, there's a catch).
With almost a sense of wonder, his biographer notes that Arafat is short, ugly, and disorganized; that he writes badly, is uninspiring, and acts too impulsively; that he is "devoted to politics, but without any specific ideology." How, then, he muses, did a person with such qualities rise to become a world figure? By obsessively, energetically, imaginatively, and persistently fusing his personality with the Palestinian cause. (It takes nearly an hour to tie his Arab headdress so that it resembles the map of Palestine.)
But there is a huge problem with this biography. Aburish is wildly unreliable—to the point of parody—when it comes to politics. Nearly all he writes about the United States and Israel is flawed. For example, he absurdly ascribes the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to Henry Kissinger's "selfish" rivalry with Secretary of State William Rogers—as though Middle Easterners had nothing to do with the conflict. Unless you work full time on the Middle East, steer clear of this book. Fortunately, there is an alternative, the best book ever written about Arafat (and the barely acknowledged source of many of Aburish's ideas): The Mystery of Arafat, the short 1995 study by Danny Rubinstein, an Israeli journalist.1
1 Reviewed in MEQ, Sept. 1995, pp. 90-91.
Related Topics: Palestinians | Daniel Pipes | March 1999 MEQ
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