Diplomatic Pouch / May 21, 2008
By Larry Luxner
It was a sendoff to remember. On May 14, more than 250 people showed up at the Washington Club on Dupont Circle to bid farewell to Afif Safieh — one of the most visible Arab diplomats ever to work the corridors of power in this nation's capital.
The event, complete with Middle Eastern delicacies catered by Skewers Restaurant, attracted journalists, diplomats, peace activists and at least one lawmaker, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). All were charmed by the hilarious Maysoon Zayid, a stand-up comic who bills herself as "the Palestinian Muslim virgin from New Jersey with cerebral palsy."
"I love Afif because I rage against the machine, and because he found a way to truly represent Palestinians in the most authentic and dignified way possible: by not wearing too much hair gel," Maysoon said of the 58-year-old diplomat.
"The only thing I don't like about Afif is that he's Christian. It's got nothing to do with religion. It's because as a Christian, he can only have one wife."
Maysoon lamented Safieh's imminent departure, telling her audience, "It's my fault that Afif is leaving D.C., because after being in America for all these years, he did not find me a husband, and now we have to move him to other countries to keep looking."
Indeed, the Jerusalem-born diplomat and his wife Christ'l are being transferred to Moscow after two years as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington. During his time here, he was commonly addressed as "ambassador" despite the lack of full diplomatic relations between the United States and the PLO, which oversees the Palestinian Authority.
"We are departing by our own free, voluntary volition," Afif assured the crowd. "We are going to Moscow, not Siberia."
By coincidence or perhaps by design, Safieh's sendoff took place the very same day Jews around the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding in 1948 — an accident of timing that didn't go unnoticed by those in attendance.
"This week, Palestinians and their friends have begun to commemorate the Nakba [an Arabic word meaning catastrophe]," said Delinda Hanley, news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which sponsored the event. "We'll be hearing a lot about Israel's birthday in the coming weeks, but we can't forget that Israel's founding was an act of ethnic cleansing and [that] the Nakba is not finished."
Hanley, noting that "there are more than 4.5 million Palestinian refugees living in exile," called for a moment of silence "to commemorate more than 500 Palestinian villages that were destroyed and more than 800,000 Palestinian people who were made refugees 60 years ago."
She also read aloud emails from those who couldn't be at the party in person, including this one from Mustapha Karkouti, former president of the Foreign Press Association in London, who wrote that "we have paid [Afif and Christ'l] farewell before when they left London for Washington in 2005, and we know exactly how it feels to part with this beautiful couple."
Dr. Jamal Shami, who introduced Safieh, called his Palestinian friend "a person who is selfless and pure," and concluded his remarks by intoning the ancient Jewish prayer of longing — "Next Year in Jerusalem" — in a subtle touch of irony that would have raised eyebrows from Tel Aviv to Tiberias.
Yet no Israeli diplomats objected to Shami's words, since none were invited to the event. There were, however, were a number of officials from Arab countries including Jordan and Syria, as well as Andrew Killgore, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar.
"The American people are OK, but the American government under this administration has been an immense disappointment to all Palestinians," said Killgore, publisher of The Washington Report. The retired diplomat then presented a plaque to Safieh and his wife "in recognition of their dedication and tireless efforts to educate Americans about the Nakba and share the Palestinian narrative."
Safieh himself, normally a witty, articulate man who enjoys being interviewed in print and on the air, barely spoke at his own farewell party — mainly because he was exhausted getting ready for the move to Russia (he and his wife left for the airport barely 12 hours later).
As participants gathered around a huge banquet table dominated by a Palestinian flag and laden with shish kebobs, humus, baklava and other Arab treats, others browsed through a colorful assortment of souvenirs being sold to raise money for Palestinian refugees.
Among the "Made in Palestine" items on display: extra-virgin olive oil from Jenin, ceramic pottery from Hebron, greeting cards from Bethlehem and jasmine-scented "peace candles" from Beit Jalla. Also on sale were copies of a richly illustrated children's book, "The Boy and the Wall," about an Arab child who picks flowers, raises turtles, dreams of Jerusalem and is consoled by his mother as Israeli soldiers gaze at him from across an ugly concrete barrier. The book was made by inhabitants of Bethlehem's Aida Refugee Camp.
In another touch of irony, many of the pro-Palestinian knick-knacks on display carried stickers with Tel Aviv addresses. "All the borders are controlled by Israel, and a lot of this stuff doesn't get out of Palestine without the help of sympathetic Israelis," explained Matt Horton, director of the Washington Report's book club. "It's the same with humanitarian aid."
Organizers used the Safieh sendoff to push for the release of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a Florida university professor of Palestinian origin who was arrested by U.S. authorities in 2003 on charges of helping Palestinian Islamic Jihad plan attacks inside the United States.
Despite a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to provide services to the terrorist group, the Kuwaiti-born Al-Arian has been caught in a legal tangle and after five years remains incarcerated in a federal prison in North Carolina.
Al-Arian's son, Abdullah, made an impassioned plea for his father's freedom.
"We are asking that he be deported immediately and not be made to serve more time," the younger Al-Arian told his audience. "This period is very critical for all of us to act. We must contact our elected officials, especially those on the Judiciary Committee. The Department of Justice needs to be held accountable for these abuses, especially with regard to my father's case, though his suffering is only a fraction of what the Palestinian people have suffered for many years."