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Culture

Arafat, the Next Pop Icon?

Revered by the people he led and reviled by those who opposed him, Yasser Arafat cultivated a myth around himself. He was -- in his younger days -- the ultimate rock 'n' roll revolutionary.

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Arafat showed the world he was a man of style at the UN in 1974

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was regarded by many of his people as a hero -- a freedom fighter who struggled his whole life to bring about the collective dream of a Palestinian state. For 40 years, Arafat wielded power and steered the Palestinian course as he saw fit.

Now, after his death, perhaps Arafat will become even more than what he was in life. Like Che Guevara or the German terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF), whose crimes were forgotten as they became more marketable, could the Palestinian leader be immortalized as a legend, as a symbol of the struggle of freedom?

A man with style

Thirty years ago, on Nov. 13, 1974, Arafat gave his famous speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Bildgalerie Arafat UN Sicherheitsrat 1974 mit Pistole

Arafat left his pistol outside, as he addressed the UN General Assembly.

Dressed in his revolutionary green fatigues, with a holster attached to his hip -- although he left his gun outside -- his trademark black-and-white Arab headdress, or keffiyeh, on his head, and dark shades, there was no doubt that Arafat had a trademark sense of style.

From the headscarf to the sunglasses to peace salutes and military dress, from surviving assassination attempts and continuing to resist Israeli policy, Arafat was -- in his younger days -- the rock n' roll revolutionary. He had the whole package requisite for icon status.

Che cult marked a different point in history

Since his death, Arafat items have been filling the pages at Internet auctioneer eBay: Arafat trading cards, a baseball signed by Arafat and scores of photos. Could he become the first pop icon of the 21st century?

Che Guevara T-Shirt

Che Guevara T-shirts say a lot about their owners' political stance.

So is Arafat the next Che Guevara, his face to be adorning t-shirts and posters worldwide? "I am fairly certain that that will not happen," trend researcher Eike Wenzel told DW-WORLD.

Wenzel, from the Frankfurt-based trend think-tank Zukunftsinstitut, said the Che Guevara trend stemmed from a completely different time. "In the 1970s and 1980s, it was connected to the citizen's movements at the time," he said. "By hanging a poster of Che Guevara on your wall, you were making a political statement."

A fascination for the RAF also developed in the 1980s. The group, which terrorized Germany with arson attacks, assaults and murder 30 years ago, became pop stars. Pink silkscreens à la Andy Warhol of a shot terrorist, T-shirts and even underwear with the famed RAF symbol, a red star and a Kalaschnikow rifle, became bestsellers.

But those were different times. "Today, it is much harder to have such icons, because our culture is so divided," said Wenzel.

Arafat was a controversial figure

So what about the poster selling Arafat shaving cream on eBay, for example? "This is more an ironic game with Arafat's figure, considering that he usually sported stubble," said Wenzel.

If anything, Arafat would be taken out of his political and historical context, he said.

Arafat T-Shirt in Gaza

Palestinian children, all wearing T-shirts bearing a picture of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

"Arafat is not a hero and not a martyr," Wenzel said. In Germany, he represents a very torn figure, who was not accepted by everyone, despite the country's support of peace in the Middle East.

In focusing on his legendary status, many forget that the Nobel Peace Prize winner was one of the co-founders of the Fatah movement, which later became part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). During the 1970s and 1980s, the PLO and other affiliated groups attracted international attention with a series of terrorist acts and violent hijackings.

Arafat's death marks a turning point

For young Germans, Arafat's cult status is uninteresting.

"Today, 20-year-olds are thinking more about their careers," said Wenzel. "Arafat has no significance to them."

Porträt von Yasser Arafat mit Kerzen

Shortly after Arafat's death, British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute to him as "a huge icon for the Palestinian people." In the same breath, though, he made clear that he regarded his passing as an opportunity for peace in the Middle East."I think there's somehow relief, too, that he's gone," Wenzel said. The end of the Arafat era could be a turning point.

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