RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat had a knack for turning ordinary objects into symbols, including the black-and-white checkered headdress that came to represent the Palestinian quest for a homeland.
Six years after his death, the keepers of Arafat's memory are gathering thousands of objects — photographs, pistols, the trademark sunglasses and military-style suits he favored — for display in a museum under construction at his former West Bank headquarters, where Arafat spent the last three years of his life encircled by Israeli forces.
The Associated Press was given exclusive access to part of the collection, including the last kaffiyeh Arafat wore before being helicoptered out of his Ramallah compound two weeks before his death on Nov. 11, 2004. There was a transistor radio and a Muslim holy book, both said to have been left at a house where Arafat stayed during a secret foray into the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East war.
In his four decades as Palestinian leader, Arafat was a complex and often divisive figure — branded by some as an arch-terrorist and celebrated by others as the father of the Palestinian national movement. His nomadic lifestyle, penchant for late-night meetings and flair for dramatic gestures fanned a fascination that has outlived him.
The museum pieces, along with the recollections of bodyguard Emad Abu Zaki, affirm Arafat's image as frugal man who didn't spend much on himself, even though he controlled large sums of money, and he and his associates were accused of corruption.
The kaffiyeh Arafat wore during those final days is still streaked with yellow stains and has not been washed, said Tami Rafidi, a curator at the Yasser Arafat Foundation.
"We decided to keep it this way," said Rafidi. "It represents the last days before he left."
Abu Zaki, 47, was at Arafat's side from 1988 until his death in a military hospital in France. He said life was bare-bones under the siege Israel imposed in January 2002 after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings killed dozens of Israelis. Unable to leave his compound, Arafat would alternate between two sets of military fatigues, wearing one as the other was being washed by his guards — and sometimes mending his own frayed clothes, the bodyguard said.
The transistor radio and Quran were donated by 86-year-old Fayez Mohammed, who sheltered Arafat at his sister's home in the village of al-Auja during the 1967 Middle East war. The six days of fighting ended with the Israeli capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories the Palestinians want for their future state.
Mohammed said Arafat knocked on his door one night, along with two other Palestinian fighters, both in civilian dress. Arafat — who was still relatively unknown — introduced himself as "Abu Ammar," a nom de guerre, and Mohammed said he didn't immediately know his guest's true identity.
Arafat stayed for two days before withdrawing as Israeli forces closed in, leaving behind the radio and Quran. Mohammed said he kept the radio hidden for years — Arafat's name was scratched inside the battery box and he feared Israeli retribution for sheltering the guerrilla leader.
Foundation officials confirmed the Palestinian leader's name was scratched inside the battered black radio with cheap metal trim and a plastic strap.
In the 1970s, Arafat's name became a household word after Palestinians launched a series of hijackings and terrorist attacks to publicize their struggle.
Collecting and cataloguing Arafat's belongings has been a slow process, in part because they are scattered across the Arab world, including in the Palestine Liberation Organization leader's shifting bases of operations in the 1970s and 1980s — Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. Most have yet to be delivered to Ramallah, said Nasser al-Qidwa, an Arafat nephew overseeing the work.
The Gaza Strip, where Arafat set up his self-rule government after returning from exile in 1994, is a treasure trove of Arafat memorabilia. However, curators said they have had no success in getting the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized Gaza from Arafat's successor Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, to hand over the pieces, including the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize that Arafat shared with Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Hamas officials declined comment.
Construction of the $3.4 million museum started two months ago and it is to open within a year. The new building connects to a wing of the headquarters where Arafat was cooped up in his final years. The wing has been kept sealed, though photos of Arafat's spartan bedroom were posted last year on the foundation's website.
The museum isn't just about remembering Arafat, but telling the story of the Palestinians, foundation officials say. "It's about Yasser Arafat representing people, Yasser Arafat representing the nation, representing the struggle," Rafidi said.
In Israel, the Palestinian leader is decidedly less popular.
Arafat was initially seen by some as a national leader who could perhaps deliver on a peace deal, said Raanan Gissin, an aide to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arafat's longtime nemesis.
Even Sharon gave Arafat the benefit of the doubt but wrote him off and decided to confine him to his compound when he became convinced the former guerrilla leader was reverting to violence after the collapse of peace talks, Gissin said.
Many Palestinians remain convinced that Israel somehow poisoned their leader, a view shared by al-Qidwa, though he acknowledged he has no proof. "We are convinced that we will find (proof)," said al-Qidwa, a former PLO representative at the United Nations. "After all, this is the Middle East. No secrets remain secrets for that long."
Gissin dismissed such claims as baseless, saying Sharon's policy was to isolate Arafat, not kill him.
In the Palestinian territories, memories of Arafat seem to be fading, though a recent poll suggests many Palestinians miss their charismatic leader, who in 2005 was replaced by the low-key Abbas.
Thursday's anniversary of his death will be marked by rallies and speeches, though crowds have been getting smaller.
Mohammed Sobeh, a 30-year-old shopkeeper in Ramallah, said Palestinians are too busy worrying about survival to think much about the past.
"Arafat wasn't better than those in charge today because he brought us all those thieves of PLO," Sobeh said. "But despite all that, I love Arafat because he died while he was resisting" Israel and the United States.