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Writer Kasra Naji on Ahmadinejad's 'Secret History'

Iran's president was relatively unknown on the international stage before he was elected, but he's a standard-bearer for a new generation of hardliners. In a new biography, journalist Kasra Naji explores Ahmadinejad's rise to power, his complex character and his motivations.


Other segments from the episode on May 13, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 13, 2008: Interview with Kasra Naji; Interview with Deborah Kanafani.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Kasra Naji talks about his new book "Ahmadinejad: The
Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader," a biography of
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

He's declared that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries. He's called
for Israel to be wiped off the map of the Middle East. And he's privately
said that he and President Bush are engaged in a game of chicken, but Iran
won't be the one to back down. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the
subject of a new biography by my guest Kasra Naji. It's called "Ahmadinejad:
The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader."

Kasra Naji grew up in Iran and received his college education in England,
where he now lives. He's reported from Iran for CNN, the BBC, the Los Angeles
Times and other publications. He currently works for the BBC's Persian

Kasra Naji, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the ways in which you see
Ahmadinejad as a break from the past? Why is he considered extreme even by
Iranian standards?

Mr. KASRA NAJI: He comes from the extreme right wing in the political
spectrum. In fact, the fringe right political spectrum. His reaching power
basically represents to me a sea change in the politics of Iran, a change of
regime, if you like, in the sense that he represents a loose alliance of
important sections of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, also young hard-line
clergymen in Iran and also the younger generation, younger members of Islamic
right wingers in Iran. I call them Iran's new conservatives. And he's got
important backing from a major census of power in Iran, including Iran's
supreme leader.

What these people did in effect by coming to power the way they did was
basically wresting control from the old guard of the revolution. And old
guard basically wanted to put the revolution behind them. They wanted to look
forward. They wanted to improve the economy, to turn this experiment in Iran
as a model of success of an Islamic state. But the new people, Ahmadinejad
and his supporters, who were in power today, they don't want that. They want
to go back to the revolution. They want to re-ignite the revolution. And
their ideology--they are idealists, right wing idealists who think Islam and
the Shiites brand of Islam should spread its word across the world. They want
to conquer the world. They want to spread their word of the revolution...

GROSS: Is that a break from the past?

Mr. NAJI: all four corners of the world.

GROSS: Is that a break from the past? Because you write that, you know,
Ahmadinejad believes Iran has to be militarily powerful and that the survival
of the revolution at home depends on spreading it abroad. So is that
something new for Iran?

Mr. NAJI: It's not new in a sense that Ayatollah Khomeini, at the height of
the Iranian revolution, had the same sort of ideas. But he didn't push them
as hard as Ahmadinejad has. And basically that idea fell to the wayside, if
you like. And Iran was entangled in a very costly and bloody war with Iraq,
and all those things got forgotten, basically. And after the war the
priority, if you like, was to rebuild the country and rebuild the economy. So
those ideas were put aside in favor of rebuilding the country. Ahmadinejad is
saying the same things but pursuing it now at the time that Iran has done its
rebuilding and was looking forward to reduced tension with its neighbors, to
the outside world under President Khatami and before him under President
Rafsanjani. And now with Ahmadinejad there's a complete break with that. Now
these people, the ones in power, they want to make sure that Iran militarily
is very strong, and that they believe also that in order to survive internally
this ideology has to be spread across the world, particularly in the Islamic
world and in the region, to be able to survive.

GROSS: So where does nuclear weapons fit into Ahmadinejad's vision for Iran
and its ability to not only protect itself but spread its vision?

Mr. NAJI: Ahmadinejad, of course, like other Iranian leaders, they
repeatedly say that they have no intentions of going for nuclear arms in Iran.
But Ahmadinejad, at the same time, in many of his speeches has been saying
that Iran has joined the nuclear club of nations. My own impression--and
there are many people in Tehran who believe this, they believe that Iran is
basically striving to arrive at that point whereby it can, if it wants to,
produce nuclear weapons when and if it's needed. And by that they hoping the
balance of power will change and Americans and the Israelis will stop
threatening Iran.

GROSS: Let me read the last sentence in your book about Ahmadinejad. You
say, "Ahmadinejad is on a mission to change the world and not just Iran, and
he's ready for a battle if need be." You say he isn't afraid of using force.
Do you think he's pushing for a battle? Do you think he wants a battle?

Mr. NAJI: No. But people who have been close to him and who have heard him
speak in inner circles of the government in Iran have heard him say in their
meetings that in his belief Iran and the United States are going to come to
blows sooner or later and Iran has to prepare itself for it. So that's the
mentality. And if you think that is going to happen sooner or later, I will
have thought, you would be sort of working on preparing yourself for that.

Having said all this, he also on the record as having said that he would like
to be the person who can unlock the relations between the United States and
Iran. But that is part of the ambitions of this man in a sense that he
knows--or he thinks--that it's not possible to do this, but if it was possible
it would, he would like to be the person who does this.

So in a sense, yeah, all these preparations in Iran today are basically
preparing for the day that this might happen. And this new group of people in
power today are called militarists; they want to militarize the country. And
the threats from the United States and from Israel gives them a good excuse to
carry on with that work.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Kasra Naji. And he
is a journalist with the BBC world service in the Persian service and he is
the author of the new book "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical

Ahmadinejad has said some pretty extreme and very hateful things about Israel.
What are some of the most extreme things he's said?

Mr. NAJI: Well, wiping Israel off the map is pretty extreme. Also,
generally his government holding a conference of Holocaust deniers in Tehran
was pretty extreme and off the charts. And he's said many things. His
letter, for example, to Chancellor Merkel of Germany is incredibly staggering
in its naivete and it's lack of judgment.

GROSS: What did it say?

Mr. NAJI: The letter basically--he wrote a personal letter to Chancellor
Merkel saying that Germany has been wronged in the second world war and it's
time for Iran and Germany to forge an alliance against all those countries who
were the victors of the second world war.

GROSS: And he also proposed that Germany and Austria give up some of their
provinces to create a new Zionist state so that Israel could be dismantled and

Mr. NAJI: Oh, he's said many things on that front, including a sentence I
think he said during a press conference at an Islamic conference. He said
that Jews have to be sent to Alaska, something to that effect, which is pretty
outrageous. Even in Iran, many people were angered by these statements, and
many people said openly in Iran that this is not the way a president should
speak, and there's no reason why he should involve himself with the issue of
Holocaust and all those statements that he's made are generally to the
undermining Iran's position in the world. But he, undaunted, he carried on
and said more of the same things, and occasionally he still repeats those

GROSS: What has he done to threaten Israel beyond rhetoric, such as
increasing money for Hezbollah?

Mr. NAJI: Hezbollah is very close to Iran, Iran very close to Hezbollah. Of
course, their relationship is pretty strong. There are allegations that Iran
sends arms and missiles to Hezbollah, but those remain to be proved. The
relationship with Hamas is pretty close. I remember I went to a conference in
Tehran of all the hard-line Islamic and Palestinian groups who gathered in
Tehran. And during that conference Iran promised to give Hamas some $50

GROSS: You know, Hezbollah is expanding its power in Beirut. Hezbollah
seized control of Western Beirut on Friday. Do you think that Ahmadinejad has
anything to do with that?

Mr. NAJI: Iran supports Hezbollah and supports Hezbollah's policy within
Lebanon. And these days with the recent fighting in Lebanon I note that
Iranian media that are supporting the hard-liners in Iran are pretty sort of
happy with the way Hezbollah has behaved in Beirut, and they see that as an
action by the people of Lebanon. I remember one headline which read in one of
the newspapers, `people of Beirut are in control of Beirut,' something like
that. And projecting Hezbollah as representative of the people of the whole
of the capital.

GROSS: There's a poster that you mention that Ahmadinejad put up while he was
mayor of Tehran, before he became the president of Iran. And I think this
poster probably gives some insights into Ahmadinejad's values. Would you
describe the poster? It's the suicide bomber poster.

Mr. NAJI: That's right. It's a poster of one of the suicide bombers in
Israel. It's a Palestinian lady who apparently blew herself up in one of the
attacks in Jerusalem, I think it was. This picture of this lady is put up at
a very busy intersection in Tehran, a huge poster. You're talking about some
12 meters times, you know, six meters, that kind of a thing. And this poster
shows this lady holding her baby in one hand and a Kalashnikov in another
hand. And the baby is holding a grenade basically in his hand. And the idea
is that Ahmadinejad, when he was the mayor of Tehran, wanted this to be the
model for Iranian women.

And at the top it says--it's a quotation from the lady, who says that `I love
my children very much, but I love martyrdom better,' something to that effect.
And this has been held up as a model for Iranian women. And this is at a very
busy intersection in the capital of Tehran. And that gave an idea of where
Ahmadinejad's values lay, in effect, and where he wants to take the country.
This whole business of militarization and this belief in jihad, in martyrdom,
something that is alien to any culture, really. But this has been forced down
on the Iranians, or was forced down, and is still being forced down on Iran
and Iranians by leaders who are close to President Ahmadinejad today.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Kasra Naji. His new book is called
"Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kasra Naji, and he's a
journalist with the BBC Persian service, that's part of the BBC's world
service, and he's written a new book called "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History
of Iran's Radical Leader."

Hillary Clinton promised massive retaliation if Iran attacked Israel. And she
said, in the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider
launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.
Do you have any idea how that played in Iran, how much coverage that got in

Mr. NAJI: It did get coverage in Iran. And as far as I know the Iranian
authorities have taken this and complained to the UN Security Council,
complaining about this statement of Senator Clinton. I listened to it and I
thought it was way over the top. I thought this was a hypothetical question
regarding a very sort of unlikely scenario that Iran might attack Israel with
a nuclear weapon and what would the United States do, and she replies `we will
obliterate Iran,' which was pretty--I thought it was pretty sad. It was the
other side of the coin of President Ahmadinejad, if you like. Ahmadinejad
says `we will wipe out Israel--off the map--wipe Israel off the map.' And
Senator Clinton says much the same thing, in a way that she lumps together
some 70 million Iranians with Ahmadinejad as one entity and then threatens to
obliterate a whole nation, which is pretty sad.

GROSS: To understand Ahmadinejad you have to understand his religious
beliefs. And it sounds like his religious beliefs are on the extreme side of
Islam. Tell us about his spiritual adviser.

Mr. NAJI: His spiritual advisor is a senior clergyman, an ayatollah who sits
in Rome by the name of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. He's pretty right wing, on the
extreme right wing of the political spectrum in Iran and in the Islamic
spectrum. He has no time, if you like, for democracy, for the role of people
in a democracy, votes of the people, anything of that sort. There's no--and
this spiritual guide, if you like, comes from the same flock of people in Iran
who, after the revolution, listened to a philosopher in Tehran by the name of
Ahmad Fardid. He was a disciple himself, was a disciple of Martin Heidegger,
who was a philosophy professor in Germany, carrying a membership card of the
National Socialist Party in Germany. So altogether it's all very right wing
political philosophy, if you like. In this philosophy there's no time for
democracy, for human rights, for elections, for any of those things that we
believe in in a sense in a democratic society. And there..

GROSS: So he sees an Islamic society as not being about democracy, the people
don't get to elect their leaders. The spiritual leader believes what? That
who appoints the leader?

Mr. NAJI: There's debate as to what he actually means by it. He believes
that a strong leader is needed, and that strong leader could be an ayatollah,
a senior ayatollah who would be the representative of God on earth, and he
would be able to lead the country. And the people's role is basically to
support that person. And ballot boxes, all these things are alien to this

GROSS: But obviously Ahmadinejad has no problem running for mayor and serving
in that position, running for president and serving in that position even
though his spiritual leader doesn't even believe in the ballot box.

Mr. NAJI: That's right. Well, the system that has been put in place in Iran
by Ayatollah Khomeini at the beginning of the revolution in 1979 is still
there. And people like Ahmadinejad at least have to pay lip service to that
system until they destroy it. They haven't destroyed it for the moment. They
have to pay lip service to elections, to parliament. They have to go to
elections. And as president he has to get elected.

GROSS: So I think what you're saying is, as long as the Islamic extremists
are the ones elected they're OK with voting. But if they're not there would
be more attacks against the democratic system.

Mr. NAJI: That's right. I mean, so long as they can make the elections work
for them then they can go along because it's not going to bother them as much
because they're going to be in power. Don't forget that the idea this group
of people who are today in power, they were in opposition for many, many
years. They had a really bad time in opposition. Now that they've got
control of power they're not going to let it go no matter what. And then the
elections are becoming more and more irrelevant because there're so many
irregularities, cheatings, and also some legitimate and illegitimate means are
used to basically bring out of the hat the people they would like to see

GROSS: Kasra Naji is the author of the new book "Ahmadinejad: The Secret
History of Iran's Radical Leader." He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Kasra Naji, the author
of the new book "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader."
Naji grew up in Iran and has reported from their for the BBC, CNN, the LA
Times and other publications. He's now with the BBC's Persian service.

Getting back to Ahmadinejad's religious views, he believes in the return of
the Mahdi. Describe what that means. Is that like a second coming?

Mr. NAJI: That's right. In Shiite Islam the 12th imam has gone missing. He
went missing some 800 years ago as a child with the promise to come back one
day to establish peace and justice on earth. Many people in Iran, many
Muslims, many Shiites around the world take that as an abstract idea that
eventually justice will prevail in this world. So there's no literal belief
in that somebody is going to come tomorrow and, you know, things are going to

But for Ahmadinejad and people like him and close to him, they belong to a
sect within Shiaism that believes and reveres, particularly reveres the
missing imam, the Mahdi. He believes that Mahdi is going to come sooner than
many people think and that we have to prepare for that and we don't have time
too much to think about this or that subject or this or that policy. We have
to do things. We have to carry out things and prepare ourselves.

And Ahmadinejad has been on the record, actually, saying to various people
that he believes that by the end of his term in office the Mahdi will return
and he has to hand over power to the Mahdi. And only a few days ago he said
in a speech in northeast Iran that, in his belief, the Mahdi is managing the
affairs of the state and he is only doing the legwork, if you like. He is
representing the Mahdi, but Mahdi's in charge and Mahdi is managing the
affairs. And this raised to complaints and statements from others, including
some senior religious leaders in Iran who said that `this shouldn't be the
case. We shouldn't bring the name of Mahdi into the political world here
because peoples will see that if anything goes wrong here, and many things are
going wrong in Iran, and they blame the Mahdi for it. And this cannot be
done. This shouldn't be done. The president shouldn't go around talking
about Mahdi being in charge and all this.'

GROSS: Yeah, so Ahmadinejad basically thinks he's got God's ear is...

Mr. NAJI: He thinks he's the chosen one. He thinks he's on a mission, and
he has no time. He has to push and he has to change things, and that has
colored his ideas about the domestic politics, about the economy, all that.
And also with his foreign policy in a sense that this belief has given him
this idea that the status quo is not acceptable and things have to change.
And, yeah, so I can understand why some people abroad feel particularly
concerned to see a person like him who might have his finger on the nuclear
trigger soon speaking like, you know, the end of time is close.

GROSS: Well, in this belief that the lost Mahdi is going to be returning to
earth, is that an end times theology where when he returns the world ends?

Mr. NAJI: Well, he's supposed to come back with Jesus, in fact, as a
disciple and they are going to basically establish peace and justice
throughout the world, change the world in a sense that, you know, there will
be peace and justice everywhere. So that's the idea. And it's not just
particular to Shiite Muslims. You know, you have Christians who believe Jesus
is going to come soon and is going to establish peace and justice throughout
the world. So Shiites, and particularly people like Ahmadinejad particularly,
believe literally in his return and his return pretty soon.

GROSS: Members of the Bush administration have accused Iran of waging a proxy
war in Iraq against the United States. And the United States, the Bush
administration has accused Iran of training Iraqi militias and helping to arm
them. What do you have that you could tell us about Ahmadinejad's association
with Iraqi militias?

Mr. NAJI: I don't know much, actually. I remember in Tehran, when I was in
Tehran, I met the Iraqi foreign minister who had come to Tehran to urge Iran
to stop supporting various Shiite groups in Iraq and support the government
instead. So there is that evidence, too, from the Iraqi government, in a
sense. But at the same time, don't forget Iran wants a calm and united Iraq
next door. A breakup of Iraq is not in the interest of Iran. Iran doesn't
want a separate Kurdish entity in the north or a Sunni entity in the middle or
even a Shiite entity in the south. And all of this is going to help worsen
the situation, push Iraq into a civil war. And if there is a civil war in
Iraq, then there is a possibility that Iran will be sucked in in support of
the Shiites while all the other Arab countries will support the Sunnis in
Iraq. Iran doesn't want to see all this.

GROSS: So do you think that the United States could actually work with
Ahmadinejad, or do you think Ahmadinejad--you know, in terms of creating a
more peaceful Iraq--or do you think that Ahmadinejad is impossible to work
with because he's so extreme and odd?

Mr. NAJI: It's difficult to say, actually. He's also, as you say,
difficult, odd and extreme in many ways. But he's also unpredictable. When
you push the rhetoric to the point of no return, of course, you know there is
a cost associated to this. But at the same time--we've seen it in
history--this kind of rhetoric can be turned around. And I wouldn't put it
past Mr. Ahmadinejad to sit at a table for direct negotiations and direct
talks with the United States.

GROSS: And this is just speculation, but do you think like if the United
States launched an attack against Iran's nuclear facility, or facilities, do
you think that that would be playing into Ahmadinejad's hand because he wants
to militarize Iran? Or do you think that would weaken him?

Mr. NAJI: I think already it's playing into the hands of Ahmadinejad and his
supporters in terms of militarizing the country. The threats, every time
there's a talk of military action against Iran, this plays into the hands to
militarize Iran further and have excuses to limit freedoms within the country,
and push for a more authoritarian regime in Iran, which they are doing. And
in the eventuality, if there is going to be an attack, in my view, Iran being
a very nationalistic country, people sort of, you know, are proud of their
historical independence, and even if they don't have time for Ahmadinejad or
the hard-liners, I think a threat from outside the country is going to be seen
as an aggression against the country and it would mobilize the people of Iran
against the aggressor.

GROSS: Is there an example that you can think of that we haven't yet
discussed of an Ahmadinejad policy that strikes you as being particularly odd
and also revealing of who the man is?

Mr. NAJI: He wrote a letter to President Bush. One of the things he said,
which was odd to me, was that he argued that Western liberalism has come to an
end and the world is ready for Islam and all this. And it struck me as odd in
a sense that this man has got a PhD in traffic, transport. For him to speak
about Western liberalism as a school of thought, as a philosophy coming to an
end and for somebody who hasn't traveled abroad, who hasn't seen the West,
hasn't lived in Western countries to say this was indicative how naive he is,
how full of himself he is in a sense, and how wrong he is about the world

GROSS: Well, Kasra Naji, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. NAJI: My pleasure.

GROSS: Kasra Naji is the author of "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of
Iran's Radical Leader."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Deborah Kanafani talks about her new book "Unveiled:
How an American Woman Found Her Way Through Politics, Love and
Obedience in the Middle East" about her marriage, divorce and
child custody battle

Deborah Jacobs entered a different world when she married the Palestinian
diplomat who became Yassir Arafat's senior adviser and spokesman, Marwan
Kanafani. When they met she was a Lebanese-American college student from Long
Island, he was working at the UN. Deborah Kanafani's marriage, divorce and
child custody battle are the subject of her memoir "Unveiled: How an American
Woman Found Her Way Through Politics, Love and Obedience in the Middle East."
The book is also about her friendships with women who were married to Arab
leaders, including Suha Arafat and Queen Dina of Jordan. Deborah Kanafani has
been the director of international productions for the Palestinian
Broadcasting Corporation, and now serves on the boards of several
Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations, and is involved in conflict
resolution programs. She lives in New York and LA.

Deborah Kanafani, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start with what is probably an
obvious perception, which is that your ex-husband was at the forefront of what
he would certainly describe as a liberation struggle, and yet he was very
restrictive on what freedoms he would allow you as his wife. What are some of
the things that he did not want you to do while you were married?

Ms. DEBORAH KANAFANI: Well, I think basically he wanted me to disconnect
from my old life and all the things that I enjoyed in my old life, including
my friends and my interests. I grew up in New York City. I grew up in a home
with a father that loved life. He loved being out at restaurants every night.
We were always in the theater. I was in museums constantly. And this love of
culture was something that my husband did not share, and certainly in terms of
Western culture.

And I realized later that it was something that is not uncommon among people
in the Middle East, where they feel like they've been occupied by European or
British countries, and they don't have this appreciation of art that comes.
They see them more as the oppressor. And he didn't share that love with me
for those things. And I think he felt they were a threat to him, that it
meant that I wanted to live more in my old life. I think he saw this very
clear distinction that I had one life before I met him and then after I met
him I was supposed to have this other life which revolved around him. And all
the things I was supposed to leave behind, such as friendships and interests,
couldn't trickle over into the new life. So even seeing a friend became very
difficult. And he was very aggressive when old friends of mine would call on
the phone or they would come to visit. He'd be insulting and it would be very
uncomfortable. And essentially he would win because I wouldn't want to invite
those people back or continue those relationships.

GROSS: Do you see his restrictive attitude toward you as just being a sign of
his personal possessiveness, or do you think it's a larger cultural issue?

Ms. KANAFANI: I think it's both. I think that it's his own personal
possessiveness, but I think he comes from a culture that allows that to happen
without it seeming abnormal. And he does worry a lot in general, and he's
like that with my children as well. So I know it is part of his personality.
He always wants to know where everybody is, and that everybody's safe. And I
sort of realized why he's like that. When I was writing this book, I learned
things about him while writing the book. And I was able to understand that he
had lost so many people in his life, close friends, his brother, his niece.

GROSS: His brother was assassinated.

Ms. KANAFANI: His brother was assassinated. His niece was also
assassinated. She was in the car that was blown up with him. And looking
back more at his history I started to realize why he was driven by fear and
had this control of wanting to know where everybody was and that everybody was

GROSS: Your husband, Marwan Kanafani, was with the Arab League when you met.
But he became one of Arafat's closest advisers.


GROSS: Once he became a close adviser to Arafat, how did that change the
security situation in your home?

Ms. KANAFANI: It really didn't. There was no fear. We never had any fear.
Sometimes we'd get visits from the FBI, who would want information about
people. And we really didn't know what they were asking us. So that changed
quite a bit.

GROSS: You briefly lived in Ramallah.


GROSS: This was before the second intifada.


GROSS: You left just as, like moments before that started.


GROSS: I guess I'm interested in hearing what your impressions of Ramallah
were like then when things were much more hopeful compared to what they're
like there now.

Ms. KANAFANI: Mm. You know, somebody recently asked me if I'd want to go
back there now, and I said I would really be afraid to. I think it would be
devastating. When I first went to Ramallah, I was so moved by the
hopefulness, by the building that was going on. Everywhere you looked there
was something new opening up. People were looking for a new life, a new way
of being.

GROSS: And this was shortly after the Palestinian Authority was created and
Palestinians were taking control of the territory?

Ms. KANAFANI: Exactly. It was exactly then, at that time. And foreign
money was being poured into the area. I shouldn't say being poured in, but
was going into the area. Expatriots were coming back. People were building
houses. There were even wine stores opening up. Little restaurants that were
modeled after little European restaurants. There was just a fantastic mood
and a very hopeful mood at the time. And now, with the wall being up and
things just being destroyed and people living under curfews, it's just a whole
different place now. And I think it would be very upsetting to see.

GROSS: My guest is Deborah Kanafani, the author of the memoir "Unveiled."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest, Deborah Kanafani, is the author of a memoir about marrying
and divorcing Yassir Arafat's chief political adviser and spokesperson, Marwan
Kanafani. Her memoir is called "Unveiled: How An American Woman Found Her
Way Through Politics, Love and Obedience in the Middle East." Kanafani is an
American of Lebanese descent.

So you divorced in America. You were married under America law and divorced
under American law.

Ms. KANAFANI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But then your husband moved back to the Middle East...


GROSS: ...took the children with him.

Ms. KANAFANI: Well, they--no, he didn't take them with him right away. I
had the children with me all the time in the United States, until they went to
visit him one summer.

GROSS: But then you came up against custody laws.

Ms. KANAFANI: Yes. And that was quite a shock to me. And I really, really
didn't know that I would not be permitted to have my children back. I
probably should have been more familiar with those laws, but I wasn't. I
figured I'm an American. He is an American citizen. I was divorced. I had
these rights. And I went there assuming that I would be able to keep those

GROSS: Why couldn't you?

Ms. KANAFANI: Well, because there were no reciprocal agreements, and really
I was subject to the Islamic laws that ruled the West Bank.

GROSS: And what were those laws pertaining to custody?

Ms. KANAFANI: Yes, and under those laws, once children are a certain age--I
believe it's seven years old for a girl and nine years old for a boy, and that
does vary from country to country--the father has the right to the child. And
part of that is because they feel if the mother re-marries, the worst thing
would be to have a little girl living in a home with a strange man. And so
that is one of the reasons that men get custody.

Another reason, I believe, is just because it's an easy way to control women.
Because the woman cannot ask for a divorce in that country. So the woman is
always told `either do what I say or I'll divorce you.' And she knows that if
she's divorced by this husband that she will also lose her children. And
that's a huge threat to hold over a woman and it's used all the time.

GROSS: How did you end up regaining custody of your children?

Ms. KANAFANI: Well, while I lived there the situation was status quo where
he did have custody of them and I could visit them. But then at the end what
happened was there was an uprising, the intifada of 2000 happened. And my
children were eventually evacuated into Jordan. And while they were there, my
ex-husband had to go back into the Gaza Strip and see Arafat. So my children
were left in Jordan with his new wife who was also an American. And I begged
her and begged her to send the children back to me because he refused to. She
said to me, `I would consider sending them but I don't even have an American
passport. He brought them here with Palestinian passports.' So they had no
parent, no passport. They were in a foreign country.

And at that point I called the State Department. My cousin Donna Shalala was
in Clinton's Cabinet. And there was one plane that was leaving the next day,
and that would be the last plane out of Jordan back to the United States. And
everyone worked overnight to get my children passports. And I got a call back
finally in the morning that the passports had been issued and my children
would be put on that plane, and my ex-husband did not know that this was
taking place. So there was also that fear that he might appear back into
Jordan and prevent this. So it was just nerve-wrenching until they finally
got on that plane and they landed in the United States.

GROSS: And what about your husband? What was his reaction when he found out
that you had arranged for the children to fly to the United States and stay
with you?

Ms. KANAFANI: Well, his reaction was really denial that there was a problem
that was going to be long lasting. So he immediately told us all that, `OK,
this is OK, but just for a few days. I'm going to be bringing them back to
the Middle East. I'm not going to help you financially so that they can be
there with you.' We were staying with my mother. It sort of kept us in a
state of not knowing what the future would be at a time when I think my
children really needed a sense of security. So that made things more
difficult. And he kept calling and saying the political situation was going
to blow over and everything would be fine. But yet we were watching the news
every night and seeing tanks rolling in and more missiles being shot, and
there was nothing to indicate that this situation was going to get any better.

Finally, he admitted that perhaps the area was too dangerous to bring the
children back to, and finally agreed that they could stay in the States with
me and he would help us.

GROSS: You're involved in conflict resolution groups working for conflict
resolution between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. You're on
the board of several organizations...


GROSS: ...that are conflict resolution organizations. How did you get
involved in conflict resolution?

Ms. KANAFANI: Well, I, you know, I've always interested in what happens
between people. I studied psychology. I am always amazed when people that
can't get along finally find a common ground and things can change between
them. And when I saw this in action--and it really began when I met Dr.
Arafat, who was Yassir Arafat's brother, Fathi Arafat. And we became friendly
and he was holding these salons on occasion at the Palestinian Red Crescent,
which is a hospital in Ramallah. And I started going to those and I started
seeing Palestinians and Israelis meeting every Sunday evening. And I saw how
eager they were to learn from each other and to try and find that common
ground. And then I started working with him more and more, and we started
reaching out and doing these sessions on a more consistent basis. And people
from all walks of life would come.

And just to see the magic, there's really a magic that takes place when you
see people connecting that have been told by their governments or belief
systems that they're supposed to be enemies. And so I developed a great
belief in the possibility of what can happen when people come together and
start trying to co-exist.

GROSS: Where does your husband live now? Your ex-husband.

Ms. KANAFANI: My ex-husband lives in Cairo now. And I don't--as you may
know, he was a soccer star in Cairo. For 10 years he was the goalie for the
national team of Egypt. And being a goalie in that part of the world is, you
know, a quick road to stardom. So he's really worshipped by the people, and I
think he loves being there because of that. And so after this last election,
when he lost and Hamas took over, he went to Cairo. And I think he lives with
a lot of disappointment about what happened to the political dreams they had.
But he has spent this time writing a book about his 20 years with Arafat
called "Years of Hope," which just came out in Arabic. And so we both have
books that have come out at the same time.

GROSS: Deborah Kanafani. Her memoir is called "Unveiled."

You can download podcasts of your show on our Web site,
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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