Murdered for being Palestinian; Wael Zuaiter remembered 40 years on

Janet Venn-Brown

Jennifer Killen The Electronic Intifada

On 16 October 1972, Wael Zuaiter, the Fatah spokesman in Rome, was shot dead on his doorstep by a team of Mossad assassins. He was one of a string of Palestinians murdered by the Israeli secret service Mossad, reportedly in revenge for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Janet Venn-Brown, an Australian artist who was until recently based in Rome, was Zuaiter’s partner for eight years and one of the last people to see him before his assassination. In 1979 she published Per un Palestinese, an edited volume of tributes to Zuaiter, with contributions from Maxime Rodinson, Jean Genet, Alberto Moravia, Fadwa Touqan and Edward Said. For a Palestinian, the English translation, was published in 1984; Venn-Brown is currently working on a re-issue of the book.

She spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Irving.

Sarah Irving: How did you first come to meet Wael?

Janet Venn-Brown: I think I met him when he used to sit in the Arab Bar [in Rome] and read A Thousand And One Nights to the Arab students. The art school was just around the corner and they all used to come to this bar on Via Del Vantaggio, so it got the name the Arab Bar. Then I had some paintings in the annual fair for artists in Rome, on Via Margutta. When it was time to go home Wael offered to bring home my paintings — we carried them together. I lived in the center of Rome and as we were walking down the principal street he started singing “There Was a Lover and His Lass: and I was surprised that he even knew English poetry. That’s one of my first memories of him.

SI: When you first met, it seems that Wael was leading a very artistic, literary life. What kind of work was he engaged in?

JVB: He was translating A Thousand And One Nights with a friend of his. He was very enthusiastic about that. It was only when he started doing political work that he had to give it up and he was very sorry about it. He wanted to convey his culture to the Europeans — there had been a translation which he didn’t consider very good, and so he used to spend a lot of time trying to get what he thought was a perfect translation. Of course, it was never finished.

Wael did go to the university for foreigners when he first came to Italy and he took lessons in singing. His music teacher said that she’d never known anyone else with such a perfect ear for sound. Then he enrolled in the university in Rome but that was probably to get him a [residency permit]. When he finished with the university and ran out of money he took odd jobs, including being a stand-in for a film, but he forgot his words. They told him, “it’s all right, it’s just stage fright,” and he forgot them again. And he forgot them again, and that was the end of his film career. That was told to me by Elio Petri, the great film producer.

Wael had great sympathy for the problems of others. He knew everybody in the streets around the Arab Bar — even the old people and prostitutes. The barman was in tears when I went to see him after Wael was killed. In those days he wasn’t working and so he began to get into debt. He had to get a job so he worked as a translator at the Libyan Embassy until he’d paid off all his debts, then he had no work again until he knew he had to get a permit and went to the embassy … but also as soon as he had some money again he spent it all on discs and a gramophone.

SI: Wael Zuaiter was from an eminent family in Nablus; his father was Adel Zuaiter, the Palestinian scholar, lawyer and politician who translated writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu into Arabic. What did you know of his life before he came to Rome?

JVB: His father had been a bit of a revolutionary. The tragedy of Palestine, as Wael saw it as a child, included the English hanging three Palestinian partisans. His mother cried when she saw the Jews arriving from Europe. King Abdullah [of Jordan, later assassinated in Jerusalem for negotiating with Israel] wanted to see and talk to his father, but his father said that “if he comes in the front door I shall go out the back.”

As a child Wael wanted to be a musician, but his father said “you can always study music; you have to do something more practical.” So he went to Kuwait and he enrolled in engineering, but he soon realized that he wasn’t going to be an engineer. He spent two years working in the desert as a surveyor and he made a lot of money, but he met a group of German musicians in Kuwait and he followed them. He was fascinated by music, he was passionate about it all his life. He decided he didn’t like Germany so he came down to Italy.

SI: How did he come to start working actively on the Palestinian cause?

JVB: I don’t know when Wael got involved in political activities, although he did have friends amongst journalists who were involved politically. For instance, he was a particular friend of the great Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, who he met when they had seats next to each other in the Rome Opera House. But when the Six Days War came [in 1967] Wael was very disturbed and sad. All his friends in Rome were on holiday and everyone seemed to support the Israelis, so much so that Wael couldn’t bear to go out into the street or sit in a bar, which was something he loved to do, and hear them all talking in praise of the Israelis. The Algerians in Rome were recruiting when the war began and I thought I’d never see him again, but [at 33] he was too old and they wouldn’t take him.

I suggested he ring and talk to his friend Sinan in Paris, which he did, and a few days later Sinan arrived in his car and they immediately set off for Amman. Sinan said he was very tired, but Wael wouldn’t let him stop and they continued to drive there in Sinan’s Volkswagen. But by the time they arrived the war was over, and Wael came back on the advice of, I think, his uncle, who like his father had been involved in politics, or at least in the fact that their country had been chopped up by the English.

So after the Six Days War, Wael gave up the life of art and literature, which he called the best years of his life. Within a month of going to Jordan he was back in Italy and soon after that a shipment of books arrived. At the same time a flat became empty in my building. He immediately took that and set up a library — his [aim] was to get the students in Rome to read. They were coming there from the camps, 17 or 18, very little culture, and could have got into any sort of danger. Anyway, he was very happy then, he used to spend a lot of time there and the students were beginning to come. But he wasn’t really a political person, it didn’t come to him easily, it was a great sacrifice. He wanted to be a musician.

SI: When did you realize that Wael believed that his life was under threat?

JVB: When [Palestinian writer and political activist Ghassan] Kanafani was killed. I was in Australia at the time but at some point in this period Mrs. Golda Meir [Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974] said “we’ll get the Palestinians wherever they are” and Wael decided that he had to dismantle the library. He said to me “I did the wrong thing, setting it up in a residential building.” So the concierge allowed him to stack them [his books] in the courtyard in our building until he found somewhere else for them to go, and actually the Arab League took them.

Somebody else did tell me later that Wael himself had been physically attacked but he never told me about it. I don’t think he would have wanted me to know. Wael himself had once made friends with an Israeli spy, which he only realized when this “false friend” began coming to my flat. It was confirmed later when he was seen entering the Israeli embassy. Certainly somebody had been putting it around the Wael wasn’t the “official representative” of the Palestinians, and it was after that that Wael showed me a letter from Fatah indicating that he was in fact their official representative in Italy.

I’m sure they [the Israelis] thought that Palestinian culture was a threat. Because the first one they killed was Kanafani, he was a poet. And Mahmoud Hamshari in Paris, he was also a literary person [Hamshari was killed by a Mossad bomb in December 1972].

SI: What do you remember of the night that Wael was killed?

JVB: I was woken up in the night. He had been at my place in the afternoon and I had gone out to get something to eat — in fact the two bread rolls that were found beside his body when he was killed. He spent a lot of time in my flat, he used to say it was very cozy. But also there was a terrace, and not long before that he was sitting out on the terrace and I was about the bring out something to eat and he said he didn’t want to sit out there any more. I was told later that the Israeli group, the hit team, were living in the hotel opposite and they were obviously looking down on the terrace. He knew that he was being watched.

I had been in Australia, and when I came back I couldn’t find Wael. His telephone had been cut off because he’d run out of money and so I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t there to meet me. When he finally turned up he said “I only came here to see you but I can’t stay, if I remain here the Israelis will kill me.”

I didn’t actually believe him. I thought he’s alone, he’s depressed, it’s been holiday time and none of his friends have been in Rome. Stupid, but that’s what I thought. And he saw that I didn’t believe him so he didn’t go on with it. But it was soon after that that he came in from the terrace and closed the doors behind him and said let’s not sit out there.

Wael hadn’t been feeling very well in that period anyway because he was distressed about Golda Meir, so he did go and consult a doctor and he had to go and pick up the X-rays, which he did on that last day. He was laughing at them, and he said “the doctor says I’ll live to be a hundred.” Afterwards I realized it was a cynical laugh because he knew his life was at risk. He was carrying the X-rays under his arm when they killed him.

I’d gone to bed, the night he was killed, and I was woken up at about midnight and they wanted me to go to the police station. They said there had been an accident and they talked a bit about Wael and his work and that there had been a shooting accident. At a certain point I said “has he been killed?” And they said “yes.” As you can imagine it was a terrible shock. Anyway, they questioned me for the rest of the night. The police interviewed me twice: they told me that when they first talked to me they thought it was the Israelis but then they began to hear that it was probably the Palestinians themselves, and I said to them, “that’s what the Israelis always do.” And they said, “well, you know more about these things than we do” and didn’t want to carry on the conversation.

After his friend from Paris came to Wael’s funeral, he said “I’m next on the list” and a month later he was killed. They went all round Europe killing all the Palestinians that they could. But after the Norwegians caught two of them, they opened up Wael’s case in Rome and had a trial and during the trial, in the summing-up, the judges said that there was no evidence that Wael Zuaiter was in any way involved in acts of terrorism. And they went on to say that in fact he was trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem.

When he was killed, I didn’t think that he knew anybody in our building. I lived on the top floor so he had to take the lift to come to me. When he was killed one of the women downstairs said to me, “how we miss your friend! Always there to open the door for us!” and I was surprised at that. I went away on the day that I learned that he’d been killed. My friends wouldn’t let me stay in the house because the telephone never stopped ringing. They were mostly calls from journalists.

On the last day he was in my flat, reading A Thousand And One Nights and I had to go out and buy some food. When I came back there he was laughing. I said, “Wael, you know that book by heart, how can you still be laughing?” He said, “but this is my culture, I’ll always be laughing at it.” And then he said, “in any case, I’ve finished reading it now, I know what I want to say, and I’m going to write this article to indicate that in the history of the Arabs and the Jews, there has never been any antipathy.” He never got home, so he never wrote it.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co- authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. She is currently working on a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and a biography of Leila Khaled.