November 18, 2004
The Blood of Arafat
There are reports that Yasser Arafat died from a blood disorder. His death, and in particular these reports, reminds me of a strange photograph that flew across the wires a couple days after Sept. 11. In it, Arafat was giving blood at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, arm outstretched and primed with a green tourniquet, needle in vein, blood flowing into a vial that would soon be en route to New York City. His donation would become part of what was quickly becoming a vast stockpile of blood for survivors who were thought and hoped to be clinging to life under the collapsed towers. I was in New York that day, and I remember studying the image and wondering about all the buckets of blood he himself had spilled. The more I looked at the photo, the more it seemed as if he was wondering about the same thing.
At the time, we knew his body was wracked with shakes, although in the frozen image he was still. We also knew -- and the photo showed this -- that he was a modern warrior dying before us, broken into a thousand pieces, his skin a flimsy parchment, a flicker of fear crossing his eyes. He was a man whose blood had already drained away. Did the leeching begin long ago, his blood receding little by little as he witnessed horror upon horror, or did it begin to recoil when his brother in peace, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, or did it retreat quickly -- perhaps on Sept. 11 -- as he saw the grotesque blow that felled both lower Manhattan and his dream of a Palestinian state?
A man awash in his own blood might see certain images flash before him. Yasser Arafat was involved for much of his life in the fight for Palestinian liberation. He has been linked to two of the late 20th century's most iconic acts of terrorism, both committed by factions of his Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1972, a group of Arab gunmen calling themselves Black September kidnapped the Israeli Olympic team from their apartment in Munich and demanded the release of Arab prisoners. No deal was made and the gunmen massacred the athletes. In 1985, a group of Arab gunmen calling themselves the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine took over the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean, hoping to draw attention to their plight. They shot the wheelchair-bound Jewish stroke victim Leon Klinghoffer in the head and then threw him overboard. The man in charge of this operation now lives in Gaza City.
Who would receive Yasser Arafat's blood? I considered this as I pondered the meaning of the old warrior giving blood. Who would want it? Who, near death, would not want it? The act of the donation -- blood coming from the Middle East -- echoed of the rousing call to holy war: blood of the martyrs; blood of my brothers; blood on their hands; we will water this soil with the blood of your sons....
Blood has been coursing through the region ever since Cain slew Abel, pitting brother against brother in a murder spree without end, the river of life now running red right into the 21st century, from Arafat's veins into -- whose? Would it save the life of a Jewish banker? A janitor from the Dominican Republic? A tourist from Japan?
What secrets were in Arafat's blood? What messages did it carry? Did it thunder or whisper? Was there comfort in its currents? If there is such a thing as "bad blood," would that be the blood of an assassin? If said assassin has had a change of heart, would his blood now pulse with forgiveness?
Of course, blood is blood and that's why the Red Cross labels blood only in terms of type, not who gave it. In that respect, Yasser Arafat of all people was now a universal donor, however his blood was typed and whatever markers of his own life that it conveyed.
But there would be no special flights from Gaza arriving at JFK. As it happened, Arafat's blood was among the hundreds of pints of blood that would not be needed. Among those mired in the twisted and flaming wreckage of the World Trade Center, there were few survivors: even as he gave his blood, there was nowhere for it to go -- no lifelines to be pierced, no arteries to flood, for thousands had been instantly incinerated and as I watched Arafat give the gift of life, I realized that we were all breathing their ashes.
My guess is that Arafat knew his blood would not find its way to the United States, never to mingle with the blood of Americans who had died for their jobs. He was making an empty gesture; given the events that came hours before, he knew that it would be obliterated, reclaimed by the shifting sands.
So now, as Arafat himself walks off into the Sahara and joins Pharaoh in the tomb, what are we to make of his legacy? In many ways, it is marked by big, empty gestures all along. Consider the images: Yasser Arafat flashing the peace sign; Yasser Arafat giving flight to a dove; Yasser Arafat kissing babies; Yasser Arafat receiving the Nobel Prize; Yasser Arafat shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin. In the end, all we are left with is the truth behind the pictures. To that degree, the picture of Arafat giving blood is the most honest of them all. Skip the PR part and in spite of himself, we learn all about the man: the photo is still about Yasser Arafat's blood, which we now hear was running with disease.