MY DINNER WITH ARAFAT: The Monitor's Cameron Barr had a meal to remember Wednesday evening. He arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah for an interview with the Palestinian leader (page 1) at about 10 p.m. Palestinian officials escorted Cameron, two European colleagues, and their translator into Yasser Arafat's austere, fluorescent-lit dining room.
A large oval table, covered in white tablecloths and set for about 20, nearly filled the room. On one side sat several Palestinian ministers and presidential aides. On the other sat Mr. Arafat, flanked by empty seats. Cameron sat next to him. A bowl of soup arrived.
"It was hard to know what to do," says Cameron. "The atmosphere was very subdued, as if this were quiet time. I recognized three of the officials opposite me from previous interviews; they smiled, but no one spoke up."
"The food was unusual, too, mainly appetizers or breakfast food: Bread and cheese, dishes of fruit and hummus, plates with jam and honey. Lots of boiled eggs. I peeled one and unwrapped a piece of 'Laughing Cow' cheese. Arafat munched his way through some lettuce leaves and cucumber spears.
"There was a funny atmosphere in the room; you could tell Arafat's aides were curious about how we would manage sitting next to him. One of them said 'be at home' and another chimed in with 'chill out.' I thought, 'OK, smart guy, let's beam you over to Colin Powell's dinner table.'
"As we continued to eat, more or less in an odd silence, I grew curious about a plate of shiny black paste in front of Arafat - no one else had any.
"Finally, I said, 'Sir, may I ask you what that is?'
"He said, 'Finish what is on your plate and I will tell you.'
"Meanwhile, he plied me with boiled egg whites and eventually gave us each a bit of the paste on a piece of bread crust. As every interviewer does, I noticed his pale, delicate hands.
"The paste is made from honey and black seeds; the Arabic translates to 'blessing seeds.' The dictionary says they are black cumin. The texture of the paste was thick, like molasses, and the taste was sweet and spicy.
"Soon Arafat was served a plate of fruit, which he shared with his reporter guests, and dinner was over. He pronounced it 'healthy and nutritious.' "
A few minutes later, the reporters were escorted into Arafat's office for their interview.
- David Clark Scott