Mrs Arafat, already liberated: Suha Tawil, young and glamorous, is accompanying her husband, grizzled and 64, on his first visit to London. Janie Lawrence met her in Tunisia

Janie Lawrence
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:20

The tatty waiting room in the Tunisian villa is dominated by the image of one man. Those slightly bulbous eyes, that half-smile - Chairman Yasser Arafat has long been an unmistakable figurehead of the Palestinian quest for a homeland. Few assumed that affairs of the heart had any place on the agenda of a man wed for so long to an ideal. Even fewer would have bet that he would marry. Or that his bride would be Suha Tawil.

Put Mrs Arafat in a line-up with the current crop of Tory Cabinet wives and she wouldn't look out of place. Her husband may favour traditional Arab headwear but Suha's style is an expensive blend of soigne Parisian chic and Sloaney conservatism. The daughter of a well-established Palestinian family - her father is a wealthy banker, her mother, Raymonda Tawil, a prominent writer, political activist and founder of the PLO's Paris office - Suha is classy and attractive. Well-educated, too: she studied linguistics and economics at the Sorbonne. And, surprisingly perhaps, for an important figure in the PLO, rather girlishly sweet.

The Arafats arrived in London yesterday for a two-day official visit, his first to the UK. As the international prominence of the organisation rises, she would appear to be a public-relations asset; yet senior figures in the movement do not view her in such a positive light. Suha conforms neither to the traditional idea of what an Arab woman should be, nor that of the Palestinian revolutionary. Her presence has seriously ruffled some feathers.

An hour after the appointed time I am ushered upstairs to her office. 'I am so sorry to have kept you,' she says warmly, explaining that she is exhausted after a gruelling trip to China. 'We had 60 hours' travelling non-stop in five days. I told him (Arafat) I will travel, but not long distances. He's used to it but I am not,' she sighs.

An outsider, especially a female one, can't help but question the match for different reasons. Choosing a husband is always tricky, but adopting the surname Arafat would seem to contain more than its fair share of pitfalls. For starters, there is the matter of a whopping age gap: he is 64, she is 30.

A corner table next to the sofa is crammed with a Hello]-type photo collection of the rich and famous: Suha with the Pope, Suha with Queen Noor of Jordan . . . but today the poise that has guided her through meetings with world leaders is wobbly. She checks nervously with the photographer that her purple Louis Feraud suit is appropriate. As she is battling with a headache, she is concerned that she will be too pale for the photos.

'Sometimes your body revolts on you. But it's just a matter of use,' she insists. 'This month was sometimes difficult - busy and very rapid. But it will become a part of my life. He has been doing it for 40 years.'

Clearly the stress is taking its toll. We have been talking for only five minutes before she orders a glass of water. Several minutes later we come to another halt as she summons a plate of sugar lumps.

Her former life, as she readily agrees, was 'normal', living in Paris, where her mother had decided to take the family, for reasons of security, from the West Bank. But afternoons of carefree shopping (hardly a popular PLO activity) on the Champs-Elysees have gone. Normality now consists of constant surveillance for fear of kidnap or assassination attempts.

Why was she prepared to relinquish her freedom? If the answer is uncomfortably simplistic, at least it sounds sincere. 'I think because I love this man. This is the only reason,' she says, shrugging her shoulders.

Their first introduction came in Jordan in 1984, via her mother, Raymonda Tawil, a Palestinian activist and author. They did not meet again until 1989, when she was 26. She had just finished her studies at the Sorbonne and was given responsibility for protocol during the Chairman's visit to Paris. When he proposed, they had barely spoken.

'Did I have reservations? Of course. I found it very shocking. But I felt the same way and I could not say no.

'I don't feel an age problem with him,' she says. 'He's very charming, very refined and very attentionne. People have a tendency to treat very important people as if they are not human beings, as if they are extraterrestrials. Everybody else will treat my husband as a machine, I know him as the man.'

When they became engaged Suha went to work for him, ostensibly acting as his economics adviser. 'I came working for him because we wanted to get married. It was a pretext. We had to be very discreet about it. Nobody knew. Not even my mother.'

They married in 1991, in her villa, with only two friends for witnesses, but didn't announce it publicly for several months. From that day forward, to have and to hold in a goldfish bowl. Attractive young woman with older powerful man, catapulted into the spotlight, resentful old retainers . . . it has a familiar ring to it. The parallels are not lost on Suha.

'Poor Princess Di. Poor Princess Di. Any important person becomes extraordinary. I do my hair like this and it becomes an extraordinary movement,' she says frustratedly. The empathy is palpable.

While Suha may not wear the uniform of a revolutionary, political activity has coloured her life. As a little girl in Nablus, Jordan, she hid under a bed, terrified, as Israelis conducted a house-by-house search for her future husband. Raymonda says, 'Our house was a political salon on the West Bank. Arafat's picture was in the house and his name would be mentioned a hundred times a day.'

That the PLO leader should become a member of the family was a different matter. 'At first we worried very much,' says Raymonda. 'He was the most wanted man in the world. And I feel that when I go to see her it's like being under house arrest. But Suha is a survivor and she is made for Arafat. She understands him.'

Nothing, however, could have prepared Suha for her current lifestyle. It is not conducive to peak health. She never goes to bed before 5am - 'I can't sleep before him and he is working until then.' Ear-rings in one safe house, shoes in another. It's a madly chaotic existence. From one day to the next she rarely knows when, where or even if she will see him.

'This is thrilling,' she says in a comment laced with sarcasm. 'He comes. He does not come. I open the door in the morning and I find maybe 60 persons. I phone. 'Can I go out? Is the road open?' This kind of life - even with all the stress - it puts salt on it.'

We pause again. Plainly she is feeling ghastly. 'Yet her charm never wavers. Water, sugar lumps, apple slices, nausea, dizziness. Is she . . .? No, she stresses, press reports are wrong. She isn't pregnant. Although, yes, she would like a child, with 'God's will'.

If marriage has altered her life beyond recognition, it seems to have had a minimal impact on her husband's. 'I think he's still a bachelor in his habits,' she says with only a hint of resignation. And she rounds on me sharply when I suggest that perhaps she's attempting to exert some wifely influence. 'I'm against a woman changing a man. I don't think you have to change a man in order to keep him. When he's not here I have my own life. You can't live in a shadow. I am not a lady for cutting ribbons for exhibitions.'

Has she aspirations, then, to hold a governmental position? 'No, I don't want to be in any government because I hate bureaucracy,' she says with verve. This does not stop her being forthright about her vision of the new Palestine. 'Democracy must rule. We have to be avant-garde, we have to be the pioneers. Why be a mediocre state?'

The status of women particularly concerns her. Brought up a Christian, she converted to Islam on marrying, but her perspective still owes more to the former. 'I am a logical feminist. That is, to give all the rights to women without being the enemy of men. All rights without any stops. It won't be easy. You will have rejection. But I tell my husband, if you won't accept to do that for women, I'll be the first person to demonstrate in front of the palace against you.'

Private education, wealthy banker father, forceful intellectual mother - her background has little in common with many of her future neighbours.

'Maybe we lived a privileged life, but we were not passive to the happenings on the West Bank. On the contrary. We were backing them, visiting them, and these refugees made our cause known to the world,' she says passionately.

As Middle East negotiations intensify Suha can expect little respite from the pressure. Isn't she resentful that her marriage must trail in second place? The answer is quiet, firm. 'It's not a question of the PLO coming before my marriage. Everything has its time. I accept that.'

(Photographs omitted)

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