|The Death of a
Fawaz Turki, email@example.com
The death of national leaders in our lives, like the death of kings on a chessboard, is a traumatic experience.
There is nothing more gut-wrenching for a people than the passing away, after unspeakable humiliation heaped on him by the enemy, of a leader who had embodied in his persona their struggle for self-definition and their aspiration for self-determination; and equally nothing more gut-wrenching for chess players than to be told, after an opponent had brought out his queen and slashed at their knights and pawns like an enraged beast, check mate — leaving them strangely stripped, humbled at their very core.
That is why in political life, to avoid that fate, we vote national leaders out of office; and in chess, to pre-empt the appalling mortification of seeing our king go face down on that quadrate board, we say “resign” or “remiss.”
No other writer in literature has communicated the close affinities between the game of chess and the game of politics than Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel “King, Queen, Knave,” where both games are presented as a form of animate geometry, a focus for our inward preoccupations and meditations on reality, both a duel between two dialectically opposed forces (in the case of the former, Black and White, and in the latter, colonizer and colonized) plotted in a way where the stakes are death.
The Israelis — or more specifically, Ariel Sharon’s Israelis — sent the 75-year-old Yasser Arafat to his death a broken man, having spent the last three years of his life incarcerated in his battered compound.
The contemptuous ease with which these Israelis did that was made all possible by the grace and acquiescence of their American, big power patrons in Washington.
The way they have tormented and subjugated the native people of Palestine, destroying their homes, uprooting their trees, robbing them of their land, invading their cities, bombing their refugee camps, assassinating their patriots, degrading them at checkpoints, and, above all, denying them the will-to-live as a free people, will never be forgiven by the Palestinians or shown mercy by history.
That vindictive stance has already nauseated the overwhelming majority of people in the world, including a great many in — yes, there too — the United States.
Yet, it must be admitted that Palestinians all the while did not move their pieces around the board well, having enlisted for a leader a man who lacked intellectual dash and a perceptive grasp of his people’s place in the balance of power, a man who in the end would not make total veracity, scrupulous integrity and democratic norms the touchstone of his leadership.
Though throughout his long career Yasser Arafat reflected the very pluck, tenacity and courage that his own people were imbued with, he failed to employ those traits at critical moments when history presented him with its challenges.
He failed, in other words, to demonstrate the adroit and audacious moves you would have expected from a man who had played the game virtually all his life.
What was the source of that scission in the man?
I do not have the competence or the interest to contribute anything to the reams of arm-chair, wanton psychologizing about the Palestinian leader (this columnist, now chastened, was berated by some readers recently for his bad taste in writing an obituary of the man days before his death), but my speculation is that Yasser Arafat was, very simply, one of those people who just never grow with their job, who move around the treadmill of long-held views about the world, even as that world changes around them.
And the world constantly changes around us all, all the time, and we either adapt to those changes or we perish, along with the cause we espouse.
Put more in context, when history presents a people and their leadership with a turning point, they have the choice of turning with it or being left by the wayside.
The game of international politics requires of its players a particular genius for grasping the systemic nature and interconnectedness of world events.
There are men who will devote their entire lives to nothing but, say, the study Sumerian potsherds, of the mating patterns of a certain species of apes in New Guinea, of the conjugation of verbs in a dead language, of the biography of an obscure historical figure, or of minor baroque and rococo eighteenth century drawings, and end up compacting their entire lives into one pursuit, oblivious to the outside world. And it matters naught to them that no one outside their discipline will care for, or wish to take the trouble to evaluate, their findings. They soldier on in nirvanic solitude.
But these men are not political leaders whose job is to lead nations, understand the contemporaneous world and strategize the role their people should play in the global dialogue of cultures. Truth be told, it is not immediately clear that the late Palestinian leader displayed a trenchant style in that regard.
The game of politics, whose workings represent the building blocks of human history, is limitlessly unpredictable (who would have been mad enough to suggest, say, the imminent collapse of the British Empire as the Belle Epoque was coming to an end on the eve of World War I, or daring enough to glean the disintegrative process that brought about the demise of the Soviet Union 14 years ago?).
And in like manner, the game of chess has more possible variants than it is within our ability to conceive. Consider this: It is estimated, according to the literary critic George Steiner, that playing one game a minute, the entire population of the globe would need two hundred and sixteen billion years to exhaust all conceivable ways of playing the first ten moves that the protagonists in Nabokov’s novel played.
Yasser Arafat’s life ended, we like to think, on a note of grace as his body was finally interred by his people in the city of Ramallah, its streets resounding with their lament.
What is the end game of this conflict between the occupier and occupied, Black and White, in Palestine? Is there, metaphor aside, a future perfect in the grammar of our history there? Do we possess the tools of insight, the habits of imagination, to envision details of the ideal in that holy land?
At her deathbed, Gertrude Stein was surrounded by friends who were curious to know if the literary giant had some last, profound thoughts about life’s meaning.
“So what’s the answer?” asked one of them.
“What’s the question?” replied Stein.
What we see before us in Palestine today is that, at a truly seminal level of relating to the conflict, the occupier is now captive to the victim.
It is enough to say that Palestinians, in a rite of defiance and honor to the leader whom they buried last week, did not lower their heads in fear, as before a gust of wind, but swore allegiance to the legacy of struggle for independence and freedom that he had enjoined them to uphold all his life.