The burying of Yasir Arafat today in Ramallah was a sight to behold. Here is an early description from the Associated Press:
Police fired wildly into the air to keep back the surging crowd at the West Bank compound known as the Muqata, where Arafat spent his last years as a virtual prisoner. … Officials tried for 25 minutes to open the helicopter door to remove the coffin onto a jeep that had plowed through the crowd to clear a path. As the coffin was carried toward the gravesite, police jumped on top of it, waved their arms and flashed the victory sign. People chanted, "With our blood and our soul we will redeem you Yasser Arafat!" Stretchers carried away two people who were trampled in the melee.
Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the PLO, and Omar Suleiman, Egypt's director of intelligence, tried to emerge from the helicopter, but were kept back by the huge, chaotic crowd. … The red, white, green and black flag was ripped off the casket as it was carried through the crowd. The failure of police to control the pandemonium augured poorly for Palestinian hopes to maintain calm and order in the wake of Arafat's death.
But by the standards of the modern Middle East, this was small beer. The funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini was much larger and more chaotic. Here is a description I wrote soon after its occurrence in June 1989:
The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini on June 4 was mourned by millions of his followers with an extravagance that surprised even the Iranian authorities. Time and again, funeral plans were disrupted by gigantic mobs unwilling to give way either to schedules or politicians. The scene in Tehran was one of unrelieved chaos. In the traditional Shi'i manner, men pounded their chests and flagellated themselves with chains. Some sacrificed sheep and some shouted, "We wish we were dead, so not to see our beloved imam dead." Others ran 25 miles to the cemetery. The grave dug for Khomeini's body was occupied by mourners who refused to leave. The authorities appealed to citizens to stay away from Khomeini's house and from the cemetery, but to no avail.
Fire trucks sprayed water on mourners in an effort to keep them from fainting in the intensity of the June heat and the press of humanity. According to official sources, 10,879 people were injured and received on-the-spot medical attention, 438 were taken to hospitals, and eight died in the crush to view Khomeini's body. In the cemetery, mourners climbed on buses the better to catch a glimpse of the body, and in one case the roof of a bus collapsed, injuring those sitting inside. 'Ali Khamene'i, the president of the republic, could not even reach the special stand set up for dignitaries. The special stand for state officials and foreign dignitaries almost collapsed under pressure of the crowd.
The height of frenzy occurred at the gravesite itself. Bringing the body by land vehicle was out of the question, so it arrived by helicopter. The first time the helicopter landed, the crowd swarmed in and grabbed pieces of the shroud, causing the corpse actually to fall to the ground. After fifteen frantic minutes, the coffin was put back on the helicopter, which then bore the body away. In an attempt to thin out the crowd, it was announced that the funeral had been postponed by a day. The trick worked, as many went home. Then, six hours after the first attempt, a second effort at a helicopter landing was made. This time more guards were around and the body was placed in a metal casket. Still, it was not easy. As the Iranian news agency described it: "The grave was only ten meters away but the pushing and shoving of thousands made it seem like kilometers. It took ten terrible minutes to be able to put the casket down near the grave." Once the body had finally been buried, concrete blocks were placed on top of it.
Gamal Abdel Nasser's funeral on October 1, 1970 was not frenzied but memorable in a different way. Saïd K. Aburish in Nasser: The Last Arab, A Biography (New York: St. Martin's, 2004) introduces it with a quote from Sheriff Hatata, Nasser's political prisoner for four years: "Nasser's greatest achievement was his funeral. The world will never again see five million people crying together." Aburish goes on:
If people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, then Sheriff Hatata's statement … holds true, as does the subsidiary fact that the world is unlikely to see anything like it again. … Five million mourners followed his cortege, and, like participants in an Irish wake, they told his life story in improvised, memorable chants. … Covering the story for CBS from Cairo, the greatest American broadcaster of the time, Walter Cronkite, was infected by the sense of the occasion, and for a moment he faltered. King Hussein of Jordan sobbed like a baby. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya fainted twice. Arafat shed silent tears while his trembling lips prayed.
Comment: The Middle East, I have said many a time, is a sick place politically. Nothing so exactly encapsulates its diseased qualities than these massive outpourings of grief for extremist murderers who grabbed power. (November 12, 2004)
Dec. 31, 2006 update: And now a fourth – different in substance but not in politics. Saddam Hussein was hanged yesterday morning and, with the exception of Iraq's Shi'is and Kurds, the mood in the Muslim Middle East is foul. Arab critics wave away the horrors of his monstrous regime and snipe from the sidelines, preferring to focus on technicalities of the trial, the timing of the execution (during the major holiday of Eid al-Adha), or the ongoing violence in Iraq. Here is a typical report, from Reuters, "Arab haj pilgrims outraged at Saddam execution":
Arab pilgrims in Mecca expressed outrage on Saturday that Iraqi authorities had chosen to execute former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on a major religious holiday, saying it was an insult to Muslims. Sunni Arabs at the haj were shocked at Saddam's hanging which followed his conviction for crimes against humanity against Iraqi Shi'ites. "His execution on the day of Eid ... is an insult to all Muslims," said Jordanian pilgrim Nidal Mohammad Salah. "What happened is not good because as a head of state, he should not be executed." …
"This timing was chosen to turn our joy during Eid to sadness. I don't say this for grief over Saddam ... but we must ready ourselves for a new enemy from the East," a user on an Islamist Web site said, referring to Shi'ites in Iran. … "I don't want to believe it. Saddam cannot die. Is this the good news we get on our Eid?" said Saudi Nawaf al-Harbi. …
"This is unbelievable. Things will not improve in Iraq now that Saddam is dead," said a Syrian pilgrim, Abu Mostafa. "There will be more violence and more Arab anger toward the West." … many Arabs said if anyone should be put on trial it was the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government that backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which overthrew Saddam. "They are American collaborators, those in Iraq. They should be executed, not Saddam Hussein." said Mohammad Mousa, on haj from Lebanon. "Saddam Hussein is the most honorable of all of them. He is the most honorable Arab. They will go to hell, he will go to heaven."
Nor are these only the sentiments of the masses; here is a notice dated today from the Libyan Jamahiriya Broadcasting Corporation, "Libya declares three day mourning for Saddam Hussein execution."
The secretariat of the General Peoples Committee has decided that a state of mourning will be observed in the Libya for three days for the POW Saddam Hussein who was executed in Baghdad at dawn on Saturday. The green flag will be flown at half mast and all festivities will be cancelled throughout the country including Eid Al Adha.
And then, of course, there are the Palestinians. Michael Widlanski documents in "Palestinians Embrace Hanged Saddam, Condemn Execution" how, "In a bizarre and rare display of unity, Palestinians of all political stripes … saluted Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator, while strongly condemning those who carried out his execution." Widlanski then provides a series of quotes from the Palestinian media:
Fatah: "The Palestinian Liberation Movement – Fatah - condemns the execution of former president Saddam Hussein. It is against international law and international principles."
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades: "This is a betrayal of all that is Arab and Islamic."
Voice of Palestine radio, official mouthpiece of the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. "The execution of the former Iraqi president was widely condemned. This is a blow against all that is Arab and all that is Muslim."
Hamas: "This is a political assassination."
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: "This is state terrorism."
Lest it be thought only officialdom held these sentiments, crowds in Gaza held aloft pictures of Saddam and yelled salutes to him, "By blood and by spirit, we will redeem you, O Palestine," thereby disrupting previously scheduled anniversary celebrations by Fatah of its founding. And the Associated Press provides some colorful details on how "Palestinians Mourn Saddam's Execution."
"We heard of his martyrdom, and I swear to God we were deeply shaken from within," said Khadejeh Ahmad from the Qadora refugee camp in the West Bank. "Nobody was as supportive or stood with the Palestinians as he did." … Sabha Mohammed, 57, was stunned when her son told her that Saddam had been executed. Saddam had given her $25,000 to rebuild her house after a 2002 Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp. "I immediately cried, because I felt that we, as Arabs and Muslims, lost a strong leader like Saddam," she said. … In Bethlehem's "house of condolence," mourners sat beneath Iraqi flags and played Iraqi revolutionary songs, surrounded by pictures of Saddam. Outside, several cars parked outside had black strips of fabric tied to their antennae. …
In Gaza City, about 20 people sat in a garage that had been converted into a mourning area for Saddam. A poster on the wall displayed a picture of Saddam next to one of Arafat. "Saddam Hussein gave Palestinians what no other Arab leader ever gave," said Mahmoud Abu Hasira, whose family organized the mourning area. "He wanted the Palestinian people to have a state and a government and to be united," said Ghanem Mezel, 72, from the town of Saeer in the southern West Bank. "But God supports us, and we pray to God to punish those who did this."
Jan. 2, 2007 update: Palestinian Media Watch provides more detail at "PA TV Tribute to the ideal men - Saddam and Arafat."
Jan. 11, 2007 update: And Palestinian Media Watch provides another wrinkle on this story at "The first Saddam Hussein Soccer Tournament for youth in the Palestinian Authority."
Aug. 12, 2009 update: The daughters of two former Egyptian presidents have added a farcical element to this topic, according to Hazem Saghieh, senior commentator for Al-Hayat, in "The Arab future: conspiracy vs reality," drawing on a story published on July 28 in Al-Quds al-'Arabi. It concerns Hoda Abdel Nasser, the daughter of the Egypt's ruler in 1952-70, and Ruqaya as-Sadat the daughter of the ruler in 1970-81.
"The judgment-enforcement services visited Dr Hoda Abdel Nasser's apartment in the new Egyptian suburbs in order to seize her assets and furniture, in execution of a court judgment in favor of Ruqaya Sadat. … The south Cairo court had ordered to pay a 150,000 Egyptian-pound indemnity to Ruqaya, whom she had accused of tainting her father's image after she had accused [Sadat] of masterminding a plan to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser." Hoda Abdel Nasser, the paper continued, had in 2008 lost a court case after describing Ruqaya Sadat as "the killer of my father" because he is "an American agent, and American newspapers have said this."
In Saghieh's view, this sad episode exposes "the predicament of the Arab world."