Theatre of the Real: dances with Arafat - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 13. Theatre of the Real: dances with Arafat

This is the first of four joined-up stories about my journeyings for The Little Drummer Girl, between 1981 and 1983. My subject was the Palestine-Israel conflict. The drummer girl in question was Charlie, a character inspired by my half-sister Charlotte Cornwell, who is fourteen years my junior. ‘Drummer’ because in my story Charlie roused the combative emotions of protagonists on both sides to the conflict. At the time of writing, Charlotte was a well-known stage and television actress (the Royal Shakespeare Company, the TV series Rock Follies), but also a militant advocate of the political far left.

In my novel, Charlie, also an actress, is recruited by a charismatic Israeli counter-terrorist agent named Joseph to play the leading role in what he calls the Theatre of the Real. By representing herself as the radical freedom fighter she has so far imagined herself to be - thus Joseph - by playing herself for real, in other words, and raising her acting skills to new heights under Joseph’s direction, she will make herself attractive to a nest of Palestinian and West German terrorists, and by so doing, save real, innocent lives. Torn between her compassion for the plight of the Palestinians that she has been sent to betray, her recognition of the Jewish right to a homeland, not to mention her attraction to Joseph, Charlie becomes the twice-promised woman in the twice-promised land.

The task I set myself was to share the journey with her; to be swayed, as Charlie is swayed, by the arguments hurled at her by each side, and to undergo, as best I could, her contradictory surges of loyalty, hope and despair. And that was how, on New Year’s Eve 1982, at a mountainside school for the orphans of those who had died in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, otherwise called the martyrs, I came to be dancing the dabke with Yasser Arafat and his high command.

My journey to Arafat had been frustrating, but he was at that time a man so luridly portrayed as the elusive, wily, terrorist-turned-statesman that anything more comfortable would have been a disappointment. My first stop was the late Patrick Seale, the Belfast-born, Oxford-educated British journalist, Arabist and alleged British spy who had succeeded Kim Philby as the Observer newspaper’s correspondent in Beirut. My second stop, on Seale’s advice, was a Palestinian military commander loyal to Arafat named Salah Tamari, whom I first met on one of his regular visits to Britain. In Odin’s restaurant in Devonshire Street, while Palestinian waiters gazed on him in breathless awe, Salah confirmed to me what I had been told by everyone I consulted: if you want to go deep among the Palestinians, you have to have the Chairman’s blessing.

Tamari said he would put in a word for me, but I must go through official channels. I was trying to. Equipped with introductions from both Tamari and Seale, I had twice made an appointment to see the Representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the League of Arab States office in Green Street in Mayfair, twice endured the scrutiny of dark-suited men on the pavement, twice stood in a glass coffin in the doorway while I was scanned for secret weapons, and twice been politely turned away for reasons beyond the Representative’s control. And the reasons very probably were beyond his control. A month earlier his predecessor had been shot dead in Belgium.

In the end I flew to Beirut anyway, and booked myself into the Commodore Hotel because it was owned by Palestinians, and because it was known for its indulgence towards journalists, spies and similar fauna. Until now, my researches had been confined to Israel. I had spent days with Israeli Special Forces, sat in nice offices and talked to present and past chiefs of Israeli Intelligence. But the Palestine Liberation Organization’s public relations office in Beirut lay in a devastated street behind a ring of corrugated-iron barrels filled with cement. Armed men with forefingers on their trigger guards scowled at my approach. In the half-darkness of the waiting room you were greeted by yellowing propaganda magazines printed in Russian and, in cracked glass cases, displays of shrapnel and unexploded antipersonnel bomblets recovered from Palestinian refugee camps. Curling photographs of slaughtered women and children were drawing-pinned to the weeping walls.

The private sanctum of Mr Lapadi, the Representative, is no more cheerful. Seated behind a desk with a pistol at his left hand and a Kalashnikov at his side, he has a pallid, exhausted glower.

‘You write for newspaper?’

Partly. Partly I’m writing a book.

‘You are human zoologist?’

I’m a novelist.

‘You are here to make profit from us?’

To understand your cause at first hand.

‘You will wait.’

And keep waiting, day after day, night after night. I lie in my hotel room counting bullet holes in the curtains as the morning light comes up. I crouch in the Commodore’s cellar bar in the small hours, listening to the musings of the exhausted war correspondents who have forgotten how to sleep. A night comes when I am eating a ten-inch-long spring roll in the Commodore’s cavernous, airless dining room. A waiter whispers excitedly in my ear:

‘Our Chairman will see you now.’

My first thought is chairman of the hotel group. He is going to throw me out, I haven’t paid my bill, I have insulted someone in the bar or he wants me to sign a book. Then slowly the penny drops. I follow the waiter to the lobby and step into pouring rain. Armed fighters in jeans hover around a sand-coloured Volvo estate car with its rear door open. Nobody speaks, so I don’t. I climb into the back of the Volvo, fighters leap in either side of me, another sits himself in the front seat next to the driver.

We are racing through a smashed city in pouring rain with a chase Jeep on our tail. We are changing lanes. We are changing cars, we are darting down side streets, bumping over the central reservation of a busy dual carriageway. Oncoming traffic is scurrying for the kerb. We are switching cars again. I am being patted down for the fourth or sixth time. I am standing on a rain-swept pavement somewhere in Beirut, surrounded by armed men in streaming capes. Our cars have vanished. A street door opens, a man beckons us into a bullet-pocked apartment house with empty windows and no lights. He gestures us up a tiled staircase lined by ghostly armed men. After two flights we reach a carpeted landing and are ushered into an open lift that stinks of disinfectant. It jerks upwards and stops with a huge jolt. We have arrived in an L-shaped living room. Fighters of both sexes are propped against the walls. Surprisingly, no one is smoking. I remember that Arafat doesn’t like cigarette smoke. A fighter starts to pat me down for the umpteenth time. The unreason of fear overtakes me.

‘Please. I’ve been searched enough.’

Opening his hands as if to show there’s nothing in them, he smiles and backs away.

At a desk in the smaller part of the L sits Chairman Arafat, waiting to be discovered. He wears a white keffiyeh and khaki shirt with crisp box-creases, and totes a silver pistol in a holster of plaited brown plastic. He doesn’t look up at his guest. He’s too busy signing papers. Even when I am led to a carved-wood throne at his left side, he’s too busy to notice me. Eventually his head lifts. He smiles ahead of him as if remembering something happy. He turns to me and at the same time leaps to his feet in surprised delight. I leap to mine. Like complicit actors we’re gazing into each other’s eyes. Arafat is always on stage, I’ve been warned. And I’m telling myself that I’m on stage too. I’m a fellow performer, and we have a live audience out there, maybe thirty strong. He leans back and reaches out both hands to me in greeting. I take hold of them and they’re soft as a child’s. His bulging brown eyes are fervent and imploring.

‘Mr David!’ he cries. ‘Why have you come to see me?’

‘Mr Chairman,’ I reply in the same high tone. ‘I have come to put my hand on the Palestinian heart!’

Have we been rehearsing this stuff? He is already guiding my right hand to the left breast of his khaki shirt. It has a button-down pocket, perfectly ironed.

‘Mr David, it is here!’ he cries fervently. ‘It is here!’ he repeats for the benefit of our audience.

The house is on its feet. We’re an instant hit. We enter an Arab embrace, left, right, left. The beard is not bristle, it’s silky fluff. It smells of Johnson’s Baby Powder. Releasing me, he keeps a hand possessively on my shoulder as he addresses our audience. I may walk freely among his Palestinians, he declaims - he who never sleeps in the same bed twice, handles his own security and insists he is married to nobody but Palestine. I may see and hear whatever I wish to see and hear. He asks me only that I write and speak the truth, because only the truth will set Palestine free. He will entrust me to the same chief of fighters that I met in London - Salah Tamari. Salah will provide me with a hand-picked bodyguard of young fighters. Salah will take me to South Lebanon, Salah will instruct me in the great struggle against the Zionists, he will introduce me to his commanders and their troops. All Palestinians I encounter will speak to me with total frankness. He asks me to be photographed with him. I decline. He asks me why. His expression is so radiant and teasing that I risk a truthful answer:

‘Because I expect to be in Jerusalem a little before you are, Mr Chairman.’

He laughs heartily, so our audience laughs too. But it’s a truth too far, and I’m already regretting it.

After Arafat, anything else feels normal. All the young fighters of Fatah were under Salah’s military command, and I had eight of them as my personal bodyguard. Their average age was seventeen at most, and they slept or didn’t sleep in a ring round my bed on the top floor with orders to keep watch from my window for the first sign of enemy attack from land, air or sea. When boredom overcame them, which it easily did, they would take a pot shot with their pistols at any passing cat lurking in the bushes. But most of the time they spent murmuring among themselves in Arabic, or practising their English on me whenever I was about to fall asleep. At the age of eight they had joined the Palestinian boy scouts, the Ashbal. At fourteen they were reckoned fully fledged fighting men. According to Salah, there was no one to touch them when it came to aiming a hand-held rocket down the barrel of an Israeli tank. And my poor Charlie, star actress in the Theatre of the Real, will love them all, I am thinking, as I scribble down her thoughts in my battered notebook.

With Salah to guide me and Charlie as my familiar, I visit Palestinian outposts on the Israeli border and, to the putter of Israeli spotter planes and bursts of occasional gunfire, listen to fighters’ tales - real or imagined, I don’t know - of night raids by rubber boat across the Galilee. It isn’t their derring-do that they boast of. To be there is already enough, they insist: to live the dream, even for a few hours, at the risk of death or capture; to pause your stealth boat in mid-crossing, breathe the scent of the flowers and olive trees and farmlands of your own homeland, to listen to the bleating of the sheep on your own hillsides - that is the real victory.

With Salah at my side, I walk the wards of the children’s hospital in Sidon. A seven-year-old boy with his legs blown off gives us the thumbs-up. Charlie has never been more present. Of the refugee camps, I remember Rashidieh and Nabatieh, townships in their own right. Rashidieh is famous for its football team. The pitch, which is of dust, has been bombed so often that matches can be arranged only at short notice. Several of its best footballers are martyrs to the cause. Their photographs are propped among the silver cups they won. In Nabatieh, an old Arab man in a white robe notices my brown English shoes, and something colonial about my walk.

‘You are British, sir?’

‘I am British.’

‘Read.’

He has the document in his pocket. It is a certificate, printed in English and stamped and signed by a British officer of the Mandate, confirming that the bearer is the rightful owner of the following smallholding and olive grove outside Bethany. The date is 1938.

‘I am the bearer, sir. Now look at us, who we have become.’

My useless rush of shame is Charlie’s outrage.

Evening meals in Salah’s house in Sidon gave an illusion of magical calm after the travails of the day. The house might be bullet-pocked; an Israeli rocket fired from the sea had passed clean through one wall without exploding. But there were lazy dogs and flowers in the garden, and a log fire burning in the hearth and lamb cutlets on the table. Salah’s wife, Dina, is a Hashemite princess who was once married to King Hussein of Jordan. She was educated at a British private school and read English at Girton College, Cambridge.

With literacy and tact and a lot of humour, Dina and Salah educate me in the Palestinian cause. Charlie is seated close beside me. The last time there was a pitched battle in Sidon, Salah tells me proudly, Dina, a slight woman of renowned beauty and force of character, drove their ancient Jaguar into town, picked up a stack of pizzas from the baker, drove to the front line and insisted on delivering them personally to the fighters.

It is a November evening. Chairman Arafat and his entourage have descended on Sidon to celebrate the seventeenth anniversary of the Palestinian Revolution. The sky is blue-black, rain threatens. All but one of my bodyguards have vanished as we cram ourselves by the hundred into the narrow street where the procession will take place - all, that is, but the inscrutable Mahmoud, a member of my bodyguard, who carries no gun, shoots no cats from Salah’s window, speaks the best English and wears an air of mysterious apartness. For the last three nights Mahmoud has disappeared completely, not returning to Salah’s house till dawn. Now, in this palpitating, densely crowded street hung with banners and balloons, he stands possessively at my side, a diminutive, tubby eighteen-year-old boy in glasses.

The parade begins. First the pipers and flag-bearers; after them a loudspeaker van bellowing slogans. Burly military men in uniform, official dignitaries in dark suits, assemble on a makeshift podium. Arafat’s white keffiyeh is spotted among them. The street explodes in celebration, green smoke belches over our heads and turns to red. A firework display, assisted by live ammunition, gets under way despite the falling rain, as our leader stands motionless at front of stage, acting his own effigy in the flickering light of the fireworks, fingers raised in a victory sign. Now it’s hospital nurses with green crescent badges, now it’s war-crippled kids in wheelchairs, now it’s girl guides and boy scouts of the Ashbal, swinging their arms and marching out of step, now a Jeep towing a float with fighters wrapped in the Palestinian flag, pointing their Kalashnikovs at the rain-black heavens. And Mahmoud, close beside me, waves wildly at them, and to my surprise they turn as one and wave back at him. The boys on the float are the rest of my bodyguard.

‘Mahmoud,’ I shout at him through cupped hands. ‘Why are you not with our friends, pointing your gun at the sky?’

‘I have no gun, Mr David!’

‘Why not, Mahmoud?’

‘I do night work!’

‘But what do you do at night, Mahmoud? Are you a spy?’ - lowering my voice as best I can amid the din.

‘Mr David, I am not spy.’

Even in the clamour Mahmoud remains undecided whether to impart his great secret.

‘You have seen on the breasts of the uniform of the Ashbal the photograph of Abu Amar, our Chairman Arafat?’

I have, Mahmoud.

‘I personally, all night, in a secret place, with a hot iron, have impressed upon the breasts of the Ashbal the photograph of Abu Amar, Chairman Arafat.’

And Charlie will love you best of all of them, I think.

Arafat has invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with him at a school for the orphans of Palestine’s martyrs. He will send a Jeep to pick me up from my hotel. The hotel was still the Commodore, and the Jeep was part of a convoy that drove bumper to bumper up a winding mountain road at breakneck speed through Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian checkpoints in the same pouring rain that always seemed to bedevil my encounters with Arafat.

The road was single-track, unmade and falling apart in the deluge. Loose stones kept flying at us from the Jeep in front. Valleys opened up inches from the kerbside, revealing small carpets of light thousands of feet below. Our lead vehicle was an armoured red Land Rover. Word was, it contained our Chairman. But when we drew up at the school the guards told us they had fooled us. The Land Rover was a decoy. Arafat was safe downstairs in the concert hall, greeting his New Year’s guests.

From outside, the school looked like any modest two-storey house. Once inside, you realized you were on the top floor and the rest of the building went in steps down the hill. The usual armed men in keffiyehs and young women with ammunition belts across their chests watched over our descent. The concert hall was a huge, tightly packed amphitheatre with a raised wooden stage, and Arafat was standing in the front row beneath it, embracing his guests while the packed hall boomed to the rhythmic thunder of clapping hands. New Year’s streamers dangled from the ceiling. Slogans of the Revolution decked the walls. I was prodded towards him and he once more received me in a ritual embrace, while grizzle-haired men in khaki drills and gun-belts clasped my hand and bellowed New Year’s greetings over the handclapping. Some had names. Some, like Arafat’s deputy, Abu Jihad, had noms de guerre. Others had no names at all. The show began. First, the parentless girls of Palestine, dancing in a ring, singing. Then the parentless boys. Then all the children together dancing the dabke and trading wooden Kalashnikovs to the beat-beat of the crowd. To the right of me, Arafat was standing, holding out his arms. On a nod from the grim-faced warrior on his other side, I grabbed Arafat’s left elbow and between us we manhandled him bodily on to the stage and went scrambling after him.

Pirouetting among his beloved orphans, Arafat seems to lose himself in their scent. He has taken hold of the tail end of his keffiyeh and is whirling it like Alec Guinness playing Fagin in the movie of Oliver Twist. His expression is of a man transported. Is he laughing or weeping? Either way, the emotion in him is so evident that it barely matters. Now he is signalling to me to grab hold of his waist. Somebody grabs hold of mine. Now the whole lot of us - high command, camp followers, ecstatic children - and no doubt an entire convocation of the world’s spies, since probably nobody in history has been more thoroughly spied on than Arafat - have formed a crocodile with our leader at its head.

Down the concrete corridor, up a flight of steps, across a gallery, down another flight. The stamp-stamp of our feet replaces the handclapping. Behind or above us, thunderous voices strike up Palestine’s national anthem. Somehow we tramp and shuffle our way back to the stage. Arafat walks to the front, pauses. To the roars of the crowd, he does a swallow dive into the arms of his fighters.

And in my imagination my ecstatic Charlie is cheering him to the rooftops.

Eight months later, on 30 August 1982, following the Israeli invasion, Arafat and his high command were expelled from Lebanon. From the docks of Beirut, firing their guns defiantly into the air, Arafat and his fighters sailed to the docks of Tunis, where President Bourguiba and his cabinet were waiting to receive them. A luxury hotel outside the town had been hastily fitted out as Arafat’s new headquarters.

A few weeks later, I went to see him there.

A long drive led up to the elegant white house nestling among dunes. Two young fighters demanded to know my business. There were no dashing smiles, no customary gestures of Arab courtesy. Was I American? I showed them my British passport. With savage sarcasm, one asked me whether by any chance I had heard of the massacres of Sabra and Chatilla. I told him I had visited Chatilla only days before, and I was deeply grieved by all that I had seen and heard while I was there. I told him I had come to see Abu Amar, a term of familiarity, and offer him my condolences. I said we had met a few times in Beirut and again in Sidon, and I had spent New Year’s Eve with him at the school for the orphans of the martyrs. One of the boys picked up a telephone. I didn’t hear my name spoken, although he was holding my passport in his hand. He put down the phone, snapped ‘Come’, drew a pistol from his belt, jammed it into my temple and frogmarched me down a long passage to a green door. He unlocked it, gave me back my passport and shoved me through the doorway into the open air. In front of me lay an equestrian ring of beaten sand. Yasser Arafat, in white keffiyeh, was riding round it on a pretty Arab horse. I watched him complete a circuit, then another, then a third. But either he didn’t see me, or he didn’t want to.

Meanwhile, Salah Tamari, my host and the commander of Palestinian militias in South Lebanon, was receiving the treatment due to the highest-ranking Palestinian combatant ever to fall into Israeli hands. He was in solitary confinement in Israel’s notorious Ansar jail, subjected to what these days we are pleased to call enhanced interrogation. Intermittently, he was also forming a close friendship with a distinguished visiting Israeli journalist named Aharon Barnea, which led to the publication of Barnea’s Mine Enemy, and affirmed, among other points of mutual agreement, Salah’s Israeli-Palestinian commitment to coexistence, rather than the everlasting, and hopeless, military struggle.