n Beirut’s Mar Elias camp for Palestinian refugees, Yasser Arafat never died. His pictures hang in every corner; graffiti and flags remind visitors of his legacy and the cause he fought for.
Ten years after his death, this has never been more obvious. Official commemorations were not to start until Tuesday afternoon, but the camp was plastered with Palestinian flags and logos on Monday, and residents were keen to talk.
He was “the father of all Palestinians”, As Abir, a 19-year-old student, said, proudly noting that like Arafat – known as Abu Ammar – her nickname was Um Ammar.
“I always loved Abu Ammar … his death saddened me very much,” the young woman with a keffiyeh wrapped around
her black hijab, said. “He won’t be forgotten, not if we keep celebrating him daily.”
In the streets of Mar Elias, different generations all tell their own stories of Arafat, a leader most never met. Rumours about the circumstances of his death are rife, and many firmly believe that he was murdered by poison.
Even 10-year-old Ahmed Abu Daher, who took us to the camp’s People’s Committee, a camp administrative body, was eager to chime in.
“I was four when we left Gaza and settled in Beirut” the boy said, before stopping to think. “I always heard stories of Abu Ammar, but I forget a lot… I was never good in history class.”
At the Popular Committee office, financial officer Abu Bilal,70, said Arafat had never left Mar Elias’ narrow alleys. “He’s always present. This camp avoided the Lebanese war and the war of the camps because of his perseverance and rules. Abu Ammar did not want this camp to be dragged into the chaos of 1975 at any cost because of its location in the heart of Beirut.”
Abu Bilal never met Arafat but said his leadership was keenly felt there. Most of the Palestinian parades and memorials took place at Mar Elias camp, in an open space on the northern side of the camp.
Mar Elias was set up in 1952. What started as a cluster of disorganised tents to provide temporary shelter soon turned into a camp hosting some 400 families. The numbers steadily increased until there was a recent spike after the eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
And the camp residents are adamant they will abide by unspoken commitments they feel they’ve long owed Arafat.
Abu Ammar, they say, did not want to see the camp overrun by armed men. And according to Abu Bilal, in Mar Elias he will always be credited as an honest and patriotic leader who “tried to protect this camp. He did not want it nor it’s inhabitants dragged into any war… I remember him always saying ‘Take care of Mar Elias’.”
“Abu Ammar’s national constants were unbreakable,” Abu Bilal continued. “I salute his commitment. He was a very rare diplomatic personality and we needed and still need that in the Arab world.”
Published on The New Arab https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/features/2014/11/11/arafat-in-the-alleys-of-mar-elias