Like most Palestinians, he grew up with a seething rage, resentment, boiling up in him. And that rage was directed squarely at Israel. This prompted him to join the jingoistic nationalist Palestinian movement Fatah, where he was trained as a sniper. He went on to kill many Jews. But when he moves to the United States, he repented and converted to Christianity and went on to establish a humanitarian organisation called Hope for Ishmael, designed to help Palestinians and Jews to reconcile, and live in peace. That is what the book ‘Once an Arafat Man’ is about.
In the first passages of the book, Tass take us through his life in Saudi Arabia, where his parents moved from the Gaza Strip. As an accomplished auto-mechanic, life becomes too smooth for his father when they land in Saudi after a treacherous journey from the Red Sea, Euphrates River to Saudi Arabia. It would not take his father long to land a job, fixing the vehicles of the Saudi Royal family. Opportunity was opened for his father there and then to live in a ‘decent house’, compared to the appalling conditions they lived in the Gaza Strip. For the first time in his life, Tass becomes exposed to living ‘the high life’. He plunges into this richness, enjoys driving luxury cars.
But there are things that he notices that set the Gaza Strip apart from Saudi Arabia: its strict version of practicing Islam. He recounts in the book that there was a day his father was working on Friday at his garage – despite Friday being a Muslim holiday in Saudi Arabia – and his father decided to go to work on that day to ‘reduce the workload on him for the next day’. And then he was totally blown off course of what happened. Religious police, who are tasked to enforce religious edits, called ‘Mutawwa,’ showed up in the garage, calling out ‘you refugees show no respect’, heavily whacking his father with a cane up to the Mosque to pray. A completely dumfounded young Tass remembers at the time: “I could not believe what was happening. Though only seven years old, I tried to intervene. ‘Don’t beat him! Stop it’, but it did no good.
He continued: “I still remember how exhausted he [his father] looked staggering home after mosque prayers concluded”. This incenses young Tass and sears in him drib resentment that etched in his soul, and writhed it later. After pondering for a while over this farrago, he concludes that it can be attributed to the fact that they are not living in their ancestral land, Palestine. One of the greatest indignities in Arab culture, he said, is being landless. And his father fits in this category.
But the steady life that the Saada family was building in Saudi Arabia was disrupted when they moved to Qatar. It all happened unexpectedly. When the Qatar prince came for pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, he decided to use the desolate desert with his car. He got an accident in en route, but survives. When he arrived in Saudi Arabia, he explains his story to his host King Saud. The king assures him that he had one of the best auto-mechanics, who will work on the car. That was Tass father. When Tass father was sent to work on the car in the desert, his handiwork was deeply admired by the Qatari Prince, who said: “If it was not for the small mark infront of the seat, I won’t recognise the car”.
Impressed, the Qatari prince insists that he will take him to Qatar. The Saudi King accepted, a clear sign that the peripatetic Saada family are not in control of their lives. The Qatari Prince, named Abdoul Rahman, was to be a good prince to the Saada family. He protects young Tass. In Qatar, the prince pampers Tass. He was given sporty cars to drive, and he also basks in his father’s wealth. There was a day that he crashes three cars in a day and emerges unscathed! When he caused trouble, Prince Rahman would leverage his influence and power to help him out. For instances, he swims in an ‘only-for-British’ beach area, deliberately, to see the reaction of the British nationals around. Qatar has been a protectorate of the Britain since 1971. When he was sent to the police station, the prince will appear to set him free.
Life took a worst turn for Prince Rahman later after an internecine feud erupted in the Royal family of Qatar – infighting always happens in royal families – he shot dead a royal member with his pistol. Arrested, and taken to prison, he was shot by a British police, who, we are told by his young friend Tass, was acting at the behest of the victim side of the family. The Briton bolts out immediately after doing this, boarding the first plane out of Qatar. Stitch-up? Or conspiracy?
Encounter with Osama,
Arafat and life in Fatah
This ignominious escapade doesn’t change the life circumstances of Tass Saada. There is also a flash of western influence that he points out in the book, which was revealing. He notes that he met Osama bil-Laden and his father Muhammad bil-Laden. The encounter, he says, was in Saudi Arabia. Osama’s father visited his father’s garage to fix his car one day and came with his son, Osama. Tass said in the book that whiles their fathers were doing business, he was sitting next to Osama, who “was shy and he keeping to himself”.
He went on to explain how Osama’s father was able to rise from a duck worker to the zenith of his power, as owner of the biggest construction company in the Arab world. According to Tass, Muhammad bil Laden made his money after building a strong mansion for the Saudi King. Hearted, in spite of British engineers discouraging him, the King ordered one of his retinues to fill the truck of Muhammad bil Laden with silver. Get it reader? That is how the bil Laden family got rich.
For Tass, his mindset was changing. When the Arab-Israel war broke out in 1967, he was following it closely. He was hoping for an Arab victory. Initial reports coming in were pointing to an Arab triumph. An anxious Tass was counting the numbers of planes the Arab coalition of Egypt, Jordan, Syria were downing. He counted almost 204 planes. He told his father: ‘we must have finished them now, how many planes do they have?’ Of course, his father did know, but what became apparent was that Tass optimistic was pricked when Israel re-gained momentum. Within six days they defeated the Arab coalition, in what became known as the Six-Day War, or if you are a Jews Yupkuptur war.
The crushing defeat of the Arab coalition drew Tass to Fatah, the Palestinian movement, as he starts fuming and fussing in his life. Its founder Yasser Arafat, who studied civil engineering in Egypt, used to visit Tass father in Qatar. And he regards him as a hero. But Tass father disapproves of his son joining Fatah, even though he would donate money to its cause. The abbreviation of Fatah, when condescended down to an English acronym, will give you Hataf, which literally means in Arabic ‘sudden death’. But Yasser Arafat, as ever the wily tactician, changed the words backwards to Fatah, which means ‘opener’ in Arabic.
Tass boards a plane with two friends from Qatar to join Fatah in Jordan, where they were based. In Jordan, in a secluded area, they were trained by North Korean, North Vietnamese fighter’s guerrilla warfare – which is also revealing. Tass also tried his hand in using Simonov gun to kill Jews. He was, after training, deployed to Jericho the following year to kill a target in al-Karameh. What we will learn from Fatah in the book is how organised they were.
Yasser Arafat, described by Tass ‘as a good communicator who perched issues from fog to clarity’, picks Tass to be his chauffeur, driving him in the Arab worid in total secrecy. Tass says that the security details he receives from Arafat’s handlers – a sign that they are organised – was that ‘when driving, don’t stop for everyone or anything’, and on their destinations, ‘I am not informed until when he is in the car’.
This changed swiftly for Fatah and Tass when, out of sheer anger believing that the Prince of Jordan was alleged to be on the payroll of the US CIA, decided to ambush him. Without the knowledge of the top command of Fatah, Tass mobilises junior officer to carry the act. Not having a credible intelligence on which car the Prince is in among the fleets of vehicles passing, his guess works, ordering his officers to shoot the ‘car in the middle’. The prince was not there. Enraged and ire by this, the Jordanian government would order Fatah to leave its territory. In what became known as ‘black September’, they destroyed all the hide-outs of the group.
It was complete mess that Tass left for Qatar. His father, having tipped the airport officers to seize his passport to bar him from leaving the country again, decided to help him complete his studies. But Tass was immersed in Jihadism, and won’t learn. As a last option, he arranged for Tass to go to US, after he spurned the offer of Egypt or UK, because ‘relatives will keep taps on him’, something a rebellious Tass derided.
Life in US, building family and
converting to Christianity
He moves to the US, later got married to a US citizen, Karen. They have one daughter named Farah, which in Arabic means ‘joy. He also adopts Karen’s first son, Ben, whose father is an Iranian officer. Tass real, official name, he says in the book, was Taysir. But when the Americans were beginning to find it difficult to pronounce his name, he changed it to Tass.
He was working in a restaurant called La mediterrane, where he struck a relationship with an American called Charlie Sharps, who kept talking to Tass about ‘connection’. A befuddled Tass, pressed his friend Charlie to tell him what ‘connection’ he is talking about. In a bizarre twist of faith, when, he says, he was invited to Charlie’s house, a revelation happened, which ‘showed me the light, vision that’ Jesus is the path for him.
From this twist of events, it is difficult for the reader to comprehend how it all happened. But, anyway, Tass was later able to convert to be a Christian. His parents would disown him, some family members would even attempt to kill him. But he would later return back to the Gaza Strip, in the latter part of the book, to work on his humanitarian Hope for Ishmael foundation.
The book is well worth reading, especially in the light of the rise of Jihadist movements around the world and the way young people are drawn to them. If you want to know what attracts people to the cause of jihad, this is a book for you. All the symptoms that serves as pull factors, from neglect, rejection, resentment, and loss of identify are all illuminated in detail in the book. Suffice to tell you then reader: read this book quickly.
You can buy a copy at Timbooktoo bookshop in Bakau for D400. You can call them on: 4494345.
Amadou Camara is an associate editor of this newspaper