In Palestine, Raed Arafat’s family is a notable and wealthy family. In the town of Nablus, the family members still own remarkable real estate, including a former soap factory, now run by Naseer Arafat, his cousin, as a museum and a cultural center.
Ever since I was a small external affairs journalist in the 90’s, I remember the handshake between the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. It was on 13 September 1993 and the Palestinian autonomy was being born. Both main characters are dead now, but I saw the Palestinian autonomy in real life, an autonomy for which Rabin paid with his life, murdered by a compatriot. And I met another Arafat, none other than Raed’s cousin, founder of SMURD and State Secretary for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The road to Nablus, the town of Arafat cousins, begins in the town of the Savior’s birth. The Bethlehem of Jesus is in Cisjordan or West Bank, the name of this Palestinian territory. Today’s Bethlehem is a town confined by Israeli security walls, separating the Palestinians from the Jewish colonists under constant expansion.
On my way to Nablus, after passing a few checkpoints, I remembered that I was in Palestine exactly a year after Euronews had published an interview with Noam Chomsky, a famous American Jew and critic of Israel. Chomsky says that Israel became a dreaded and disagreeable country due to its preference for extension rather than security. The expansion will lead to deterioration, anger, opposition, isolation and eventually destruction, adds Chomsky. He is referring to the Palestinians’ anger, of course. It is true that he says that from America while his Jewish fellows are there, where assaults and shootings are still not an exception.
Nablus is a town in north Cisjordan, a former trading crossroads during the Ottoman years. Naseer Arafat is an architect attached to his town, where Raed from SMURD also spent his childhood years. The two of them are cousins from their fathers’ side. The Arafats are not related to the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, but they are a notable and very wealthy family, in Nablus. They owned more than a quarter of the real estate in town. Cousin Naseer refers to his family as “educated traders”. Some of them graduated from Harvard or Cambridge, and initially business was focused on trading traditional clothes/outfits and manufacturing olive oil soap.
They owned 4 soap factories out of the 34 still operational in Nablus during the British years of Palestine. ”We lost the factories because in 1936 my uncle was fighting against the British occupation and he was hunted by the army,” Naseer Arafat says. He talks about the British bombing the family house, the first one completely destroyed by the British army in Palestine. From that moment on, about 50 members of the Arafats became homeless. They started selling parts of the 100 commercial properties owned in Nablus (out of the 1350 in town) to make a living. ”Now we are only partly owners and we rent the properties”. Practically the family owns only a third stake of the large real estate business, if we were to talk in stock market terms.
As for the soap factories, the last one of them ended its manufacturing activity over seven decades ago. It is exactly the one I am in and the one that Naseer Arafat restored as a museum and cultural center. As for the preparation technology, Naseer Arafat explains that the secret of Nablus soap is the water of the four springs in town. ”Nowadays it is not worth manufacturing due to the cheap market. There are only 2 factories left in Nablus, but we are the only ones manufacturing small craftsman amounts”. I am washing with Nablus soap that does not make any foam. This is what a real olive oil soap should do.
”Romania took him away from us”
Raed Arafat left all this business behind when he decided to become a doctor. His father, Daud Arafat, would have preferred that Raed took over the family business and he was not happy with his son’s choice. The irony is that Daud started working as an ambulance driver in Nablus, cousin Nasil says. ”He was smart, he made his own business. He became one of the richest people in town. When radio appeared in the area, he brought speakers from Japan or Korea and he assembled them here, in cases. He set up a small factory and then sold it. Before dying, he had thought of a Swiss watches import business, but he did not have enough time,” Naseer Arafat says.
Raed Arafat’s mother is alive and is over 80 years old. We are going to her house registered in the declaration of assets of the State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The villa is in a residential neighborhood, in the high areas of Nablus. Mrs. Arafat has not seen her son in a while as he is preoccupied with the medical field and his position in Romania. For such a busy person, it is complicated to go around borders or Israeli security areas. That is why he met his relatives in the neighboring Jordan, as many Palestinians do, to save time and energy. ”I often tell him that Romania took him away from us. We talk to each other only on family occasions and to say holiday greetings,” cousin Naseer says about Raed. He remembers what medicine means to the SMURD founder: ”During summer camps, Raed took rabbits that he drugged and then dissect to show us and explain internal organs”.
Cigarette packs architecture
From a young age, Naseer Arafat was also passionate about his current profession. When he finished school, he built the model of the Dome of the Rock, a mosque in Jerusalem, out of cigarette packs. In the office where we are having our conversation, above his head, there is the model of the town of Nablus, also from cigarette packs. It is torn in one corner from an Israeli search, during the first Intifada (the Palestinian uprising against occupation) when he made the model.
The mature architect is now planning a House of Science, on an aunt’s property who said that she would not build anything until he finished his Architecture School. The seven-storey building is inspired by the technological park of La Vilette in Paris and it will help Palestinian children understand Physics and Chemistry through simple games. For his ambitious project, Naseer Arafat was granted $500,000 from a foundation in Kuwait so that he can finish two floors. But he needs $7 million that he hopes to collect from renting the commercial areas built on the first floors.
The architect Naseer Arafat knows that his cousin in Romania started being called into question, but the reasons are not very clear. So, at the end of our talks, he asks me: ”Do you think that Raed is an honest man?”. It does not matter what I think, but when I announced the publishing of this article on Facebook, a few people, even from SMURD, told me that I wanted to attack Raed Arafat and that I was lying, I did not go to Nablus and I did not see his cousin Naseer. Well, none of this is true.