1 Arafat almost seemed childlike. “Don't be deceived,” my husband said, “he could order the death of someone in a minute.” ’
AMERICAN DEBORAH KANAFANI TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT MARRYING A PLO LEADER, DIVORCING HIM-AND HOW SHE GOT HER KIDS BACK
New Yorker Deborah Kanafani was 26 when she met Marwan Kanafani, 43, a Palestinian and former soccer star turned New York director of the Arab League. He became Yassir Arafat’s senior adviser and spokesman; she became unhappily married, as she recounts in Unveiled: A Woman’s Journey Through Politics, Love, and Obedience.
Q: Did you always see yourself as Arab-American? A: When I was 18 or 19, I remember going through customs in England and they asked me my nationality. I said, “Lebanese.” I’d never even been to Lebanon! This caused me to be detained for about six hours until they reached my father to confirm that I really was born in America. I was always told I was Lebanese, so that was what I identified with. I was proud of my heritage. But after 9 /111 do find myself sometimes throwing in that I’m Christian. Most Americans think, “Oh, Lebanon, that means Arab, Muslim.”
Q: Was there an expectation when you were growing up that you would marry an Arab?
A: Certainly not on my mother’s part. She didn’t like Arab men.
Q: Why not?
A: [laughs] Because she had been married to one. My father expected her to be subservient—not that she’s particularly liberated, her life is her home and her children—but there were a lot of demands to do whatever he
wanted whenever he wanted. If he came home at 2 a.m. and wanted breakfast, she was expected to get up and make it. Her second husband isn’t like that at all.
Q: Why were you attracted to Marwan Kanafani?
A: I don’t even really think I saw the man, the person. I was attracted to his charisma, and he was very handsome, very charming, very European in style, and very, very smart. He wasn’t religious, he was very political: occupation [of Palestine] was the enemy. He was able to command a room and had a presence, and that’s what I looked at, that shell.
Q: He had a pretty traditional view of marriage.
A: I’d go further: he had a pretty traditional view of women. He was very culturally influenced and believed that women’s main purpose was to serve their families and husbands. In the Arab world, the whole reputation of a family rests on the woman’s virtue. He didn’t like the idea of me having an independent life, or going to a restaurant at night with friends. I was naive. I thought, “Oh, this man is really in love with me, he wants me with him every minute.”
Q: You moved to Washi?igton together but after you had kids, he spent more and more time in the Middle East, eventually becoming Yasser Arafat’s top aide. Was that a good match?
A: Yes, I think so. Marwan was very, very pro-peace and pro-negotiating, and I think he was instrumental in getting Arafat to the table
[in 1993]. There were other factors, of course, but Marwan’s influence was significant.
Q: What was your impression of Arafat?
A: My own experience was that he was very kind, he loved children, he was very warm toward me, but I would watch him juggle a constant flow of people, of positions, of decisions—I couldn’t believe how much he had to balance, and he had this art of keeping people pleased. He almost seemed childlike. I mentioned that to my husband once and he said, “Don’t be deceived by this man, he could order the death of someone in a minute.”
Q: In 1995, you asked for a divorce. Why?
A: It was a buildup of feeling invalidated all the time, as though my existence wasn’t important and didn’t matter.
Q: When you sent your son and daughter to the West Bank to visit him one summer, they were 10 and 12. Was it your plan that he’d assume sole custody?
A: No, not at all. I asked Marwan if he could send money so the children could go to school in the U.S., and he said he couldn’t afford to, and I had no way to support them in the U.S. Eventually I decided maybe it would be best if I moved to the West Bank and got a house for me and the kids; it would be a lot less expensive to live and Marwan would be there to help us and the children could continue to see him. This was 1997, after the peace signing, businesses were going into the West Bank, people were moving back and building villas, it was prosperous and there was hope. I thought I was
setting off on a new life adventure.
Q: But when you got to Ramallah, he wouldn’t hand the kids over.
A: I thought this was something I could easily argue about and win, but I saw he was very serious about not letting them see me. He wanted to show me he had control over the children, control over my life, and I was powerless. I think he was trying to make it as difficult as possible so I’d leave.
Q: Why was he so punitive?
A: I wanted the divorce. I didn’t realize how humiliating that is for an Arab man.
Q: But he’d been divorced once before.
A Yes, and I think he was still angry about that! I didn’t realize until I lived in the West Bank that women aren’t even allowed to divorce their husbands, only the men are allowed to ask for a divorce. In some Middle Eastern countries there’s some reform, where if you show you were beaten you can go in front of a court, but you have to have incredible evidence, it’s almost never done.
Q: Why couldn’t you get your kids back?
A: I had no power in the Middle East. First of all, no financial power.
Q: And your ex was Arafat’s right-hand man as well as a member of parliament.
A: Furthermore, Islamic law gives the man custody of the children after boys are seven and girls are nine. One of the reasons is that if his ex-wife were to remarry, there’s no way the law would ever let a girl live in the same house with a man who’s not related to her.
Q: Well, why didn’t you just give up and go home?
A: I still saw myself as the primary caregiver.
Q :And in fact Marwan was too busy to look after them on a day-to-day basis.
A: I was able to work my way into their lives because of that. I think there was a real conflict for him: he didn’t want me there, but he needed me there. In the very beginning, the house I rented was in another town in the West Bank, and it would take close to two hours each way to visit my kids; there were multiple checkpoints, and I had to do the trip on public transportation, these little minivans that were often dirty and overcrowded and hot, no air conditioning. None of them could go straight through for the whole journey, you had to change at every checkpoint. I did that almost every day. Fortunately, when I got a job at a TV station, I was able to move closer to the children.
Q: You’d been cut off financially, so you were broke, but you still had friendships with influential women you’d met through Marwan, like Arafat’s wife, Suha Arafat, and Queen Dina
of Jordan, King Hussein’s first wife. It must have felt surreal.
A: That’s a good way to describe the experience. The whole environment was theatrical, almost like being on stage sets in L.A.: there were army people with machine guns and these religious figures with their costumes and shepherds herding sheep—it’s really a completely different world, and it took a while for it to set in that this was real.
Q : It’s striking, reading your book, howmany high-ranking women have had a similar experience of being forcibly separated from their children.
A: Islamic courts are very strict, and there are no variables. If you even try to challenge the court, there is more risk, because they will defame you, perform a character assassination to prove you are a bad woman.
Q: Even the powerful women married to relatively enlightened men sound oppressed by Western standards.
A: They have a whole culture to battle against, not just one man. In Mrs. Arafat’s case, her husband didn’t really try to stop her from doing what she wanted to do, but the men around him were always fighting her. They viewed her as a threat: she had her own opinions, she was very animated, she never held back. They were also jealous. They were all competing for his attention, and they resented the fact that she had his ear.
Q: How did you get your kids back?
A: They were evacuated into Jordan in 2000 while the uprising was occurring, and I wanted them to be sent to the U.S. Marwan absolutely refused. I think it was a shock for him, he’d worked all these years, so hard, for peace, then in moments the whole thing was crumbling. He didn’t want to believe it was really happening. Then Arafat said, “You have to come back here, there’s a war going on, you’re a leader.” Marwan couldn’t get the children back into the West Bank, the border was effectively closed, so they had to stay in Jordan with his new [now ex-] wife. I kept calling and begging her to send them to the U.S., and at first she was worried about Marwan’s reaction, but what helped ultimately was that she was getting anxious to leave also: she had blond hair and blue eyes, and there was hostility toward foreigners and the U.S. Embassy had closed. She helped arrange passports for my children and they got out on the last plane to leave for the U.S. before the airport was closed. Marwan did not know.
Q: They were 15 and 13 when they came back to the U.S. Was your relationship with them damaged in some irreparable way?
A: I think the damage was minimal, and that’s where my power was, in not getting into a war with Marwan in front of my chil-
dren, so they would feel torn. I wanted them to feel we were unified, so I always kept up a front.
Q: How on earth did you do that?
A: What motivated me was my own parents’ divorce. Until we were 18, my brother and I spent our lives in court, between two parents fighting for custody, having this horrible war. Growing up like that helped me be strong when it came to my own children. I just wanted them to feel they had two parents who really loved them. Which they do. He’s provided for them, he’s very hands-on. When they came back to the U.S., he’d call from the Gaza Strip and spend an hour on the phone helping my daughter with her hist-
‘I kept calling his new wife, begging her to send the children. She helped and they got on the last plane.’
ory homework. I get upset when I see parents putting children in the middle, it just seems so elementary that you don’t do that.
Q: How do you think he’ll react to your book?
A: I’m a little nervous, mostly because I don’t want my children feeling I offended their father. They’re very close to him. Interestingly, Marwan just published his own book in Arabic, about his years with Arafat. My publisher is intrigued and asked if I’d mind if they did a translation. I said, “Of course not.” I don’t bear him a grudge. M
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