by Azzam Tawfiq Abu Saud
The year was 1964. A bald man came to visit us in Jerusalem; he called my father “uncle.” I had never before met the man. The following day, my father asked me to accompany him to our house in Jericho to help him with some people he had invited to lunch. My father swore me to secrecy concerning everything I would hear and see. I was surprised to find that the guest who was at our house the previous day was leading the discussion and that the rest of the guests were a number of notables from Jerusalem. Among them were Dr. Daoud al-Husseini and Ishaq al-Duzdar, both former members in the Jordanian parliament; Omar Al Khatib current Palestinian Ambassador to Jordan; Rassem al-Khalidi the former governor of the Central Saudi Bank; the financier Abdel Rahman al-Kaloti; Yasser Abu Saud, and, of course, my father, Tawfiq Abu Saud who was a professor at Birzeit College. They were all arrested a few months after that meeting.
Two months after the 1967 War, the same man visited us and he was accompanied by Fahmi al-Hammouri. My father asked me to prepare coffee and close the back door. I did get the gist of the conversation, but I recognized the man when I heard him a few months later addressing a student union seminar in Cairo; he was presented to us as the new president of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — Yasser Arafat.
It was amidst the turbulence of the Buraq (Wailing Wall) uprising of 1929 that Arafat was born in the Abu Saud house, which was located in the Fakhria Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He had a spacious vaulted room with windows that overlooked the Dome of the Rock, the Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall. His mother, Zahwa Abu Saud — known as Umm Jamal — had traveled to Jerusalem from Cairo to give birth among her family, in keeping with the tradition of the time and because she felt lonely in Egypt. The child’s mother named him “Yasser” according to an agreement she had with her cousin to call both their newborns Yasser — the same Yasser Abu Saud who attended the 1964 meeting at our house.
Also following tradition, 40 days after giving birth, Zahwa left her family and went back with her children to Cairo. She had moved there with her husband Abdel Ra’uf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini a few years earlier, after he had sold his grain shop in Khan el-Zeit Street in the Old City of Jerusalem. Basically, they went to Cairo to follow up on an inheritance from the Damardash Waqf (endowment), which was one of the largest endowments in Egypt, and Abdel Ra’uf al-Qudwa eventually became the trustee.
However, Zahwa visited Jerusalem with her children regularly every summer. Her last summer trip was in 1933 when she gave birth to her son Fathi. She died as a result of a sudden illness a few months after she returned to Cairo. Salim, Arafat’s maternal uncle, and Raji his cousin, traveled to Cairo to attend the funeral. They took Yasser and Fathi, Zahwa’s youngest sons, back with them to Jerusalem, while Jamal, In’am, Mustafa and Khadijeh stayed with their father in Egypt.
The young Yasser and his brother Fathi lived for more than two years in the care of their uncle Salim. The latter had not been blessed with any children, so he looked after them as if they were his own, and they played with the rest of the Abu Saud children in the quarter; their playground was often the courtyard of the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount).
A Political Family
The Abu Saud family was quite active in the politics of the day. At that time, Sheikh Hassan Abu Saud played a prominent role in the events that fueled the Buraq (Wailing Wall) revolt. He was the founder of Rawdat al-Ma’aref School in Jerusalem and was one of the close associates of the Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, head of the Islamic Higher Council (al-majles) in Jerusalem — they all accordingly came to be known as majles. Dr. Hussam Abu Saud, on the other hand, was one of the major pillars of the opposition (al-mo’aradah), which was led by Ragheb al-Nashashibi. The children were constantly exposed to political discussions and arguments between the council’s followers and the opposition. These arguments made an indelible impression on their minds, which was further deepened by the 1936 strike and the revolt that broke out thereafter. The strike, however, had a very negative effect for the children, as their uncle Salim was among the many who lost their job in the wake of the events. To alleviate the load on his relative, Abdel Ra’uf al-Qudwa sent back for his children. Also, Yasser had by then reached school age, and to enter first grade he needed a birth certificate. This was easier to acquire in Cairo than in Jerusalem, due to the strike. His father, who from the outset did not like the name Yasser, got him an Egyptian birth certificate with the name Mohammad. Later Arafat himself used both: Mohammad/Yasser.
The fact that their father had married an Egyptian woman after their mother’s death increased the attachment of Yasser and his siblings to their maternal uncle’s family. Salim, for his part, had grown extremely fond of them, and they, in turn, remained faithful to him as is obvious by the letters they wrote him. Yasser visited his uncle on many occasions and especially during the summer holidays, so he developed a tight relationship with Jerusalem. The family also owned a plot of land in Ras el-‘Amud, a small part of which Yasser and his brothers and sisters inherited. He loved his plot of land with its panoramic view of Jerusalem; it was a great source of pride for him.
Whenever Sheikh Hassan Abu Saud visited Cairo, he would always go see his cousin Zahwa’s children. He was often sent by the Mufti who regularly consulted with the Egyptian leadership at the time, and the sheikh always received Egyptian and Arab leaders in his salon in Egypt. But the British banished Sheikh Hassan to the Seychelles Islands for six months during the World War II; later he was allowed to return only to Egypt and not to Palestine. This was at the beginning of 1946; the children who were then in Cairo, among them Yasser used to meet at his table every Friday. He had befriended the sheikh’s children, and they would all race to offer coffee to the sheikh’s guests so they could overhear some of the leaders’ talk and then brag about it in front of their friends. Arafat had always considered Sheikh Hassan his spiritual father.
There is no doubt that Yasser Arafat’s childhood and youth were important stages in his life. All the anecdotes and memories had an obvious impact on the formation of his character and were a fertile ground for the development of his national and religious stances. They also paved the way for the emergence of his leadership disposition.
An Active Youth
As a young man, Yasser, along with Musa Abu Saud, Sheikh Hassan’s eldest son, participated in 1947 in a weapons purchasing campaign to provide the Palestinian resistance fighters with arms. Their main source was the debris of German weapons left behind in the Egyptian desert after the Battle of Alamein. In fact, this was the main topic of a conversation I had with the late president one month before he passed away.
In 1957, after the Suez War, in which Arafat took part as an Egyptian reservist, his older brothers and sisters, in an effort to put a stop to his political involvement, asked their cousin Raji Abu Saud, who was working in the public works department in Kuwait, to seek an appropriate position for their brother. He had by then graduated as an engineer, so he obtained a position in the public works department in Kuwait and lived with his cousin, but this could never make him forget his love for his country or his enthusiasm for politics and resistance. On the contrary, it was in Kuwait that the establishment of Fateh was initiated, and it was from there that he and his companions led the movement.
A Caring Relation
Yasser Arafat remained proud of the fact that his maternal uncles came from Jerusalem and that he was born and spent part of his childhood there. So, when he came back to Palestine after the Oslo Accords, he met with Abu Saud family members regularly. He took care of them, tried to solve their problems and asked after everyone, old and young. He especially looked after Tharwat Abu Saud in her old age. She was the wife of his cousin Raji, in whose house he had lived during his stay in Kuwait. Upon learning of his death, this old woman fell off her chair and died a couple of days later.
Arafat’s love for Jerusalem never waned. He ate its sesame bread with olive oil and thyme at breakfast all his life. He loved its domed houses, the sound of the muezzin (Muslim call to prayer) from its minarets, and the smell of incense from its churches. He loved above all its rich history. Unfortunately, he was not allowed into the city after his return, except one stormy night when he was traveling from Bethlehem to Jordan after having attended the Christmas midnight mass. The stormy weather prevented him from using his plane, so he went to the bridge via Jerusalem and had the chance to breathe in its air, albeit for a very brief moment — a moment pregnant with a thousand memories.
He had always wished to be buried in Jerusalem. Although this has been denied him (for now), I am sure Jerusalem will always remain with him, as he will always remain with us.