Feryal Ali Gauhar still remembers the shock of discovering that the man she was to marry had been killed, two weeks before their wedding.
His name was Mohammad Darwish, a Palestinian pilot. His aircraft had been caught in a sandstorm and crashed in the Libyan Desert on the night of April 8, 1992. It was no ordinary flight — on board was the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, along with other passengers. While everyone else survived the crash — including Arafat — Darwish, his co-pilot and an engineer died.
Now more than two decades since the incident, the famous Pakistani author, film director and actor has broken her silence. Gauhar reveals to Weekend Review the tragic story of how the man she was engaged to, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), sacrificed his own life to save the Palestinian leadership. “For security reasons I was never told that he was actually Yasser Arafat’s pilot,” she says.
They first met in Pakistan back in the Seventies when Gauhar was only 16. He was 23 and training to be a pilot. “My mother was a radical who always encouraged a lot of international students coming into our house,” she says. “A lot of South African students, because she was South African, and Palestinians. A lot of Middle Eastern students used to come to our house.” Hers was a progressive home which was politically conscious. “That is what drew me to him in the first place,” she says. “He would tell me stories about his childhood, how they were forced to leave his home town of Jericho and how they actually walked across the Allenby Bridge over the river Jordan to flee from the Israeli army.”
Their families had expected them to get married when Gauhar completed university. However, during her final year at McGill University, Darwish ended their relationship after they had known each other for six years. He told her he was unable to provide her the necessary security. “I never understood why because I never really knew what he did,” Gauhar says.
Her contact with Darwish ended after they broke up and she then married Jamal Shah, the painter and Pakistani TV actor. The marriage, however, ended in a divorce nine years later. Darwish had friends who knew Gauhar, as, at one point, there were a lot of Palestinian students in Pakistan. One of these friends who was in the Gulf came across a Pakistani television magazine in a doctor’s office in which there was a reference to her divorce; Gauhar had become a public figure by that time. That friend conveyed the news of the divorce to Darwish, who then got back in touch. Soon, they were formally engaged and decided to get married on April 21, 1992.
The wedding was scheduled to take place in Amman, Jordan, where Darwish’s father and brothers were. There were two weeks to go for the wedding, and Gauhar remembers she was in Pakistan at the time working on a documentary in an industrial area outside Lahore and travelling long hours. “I remember at that point there wasn’t really any satellite television. We had something called a dish satellite which would catch some channels. There was a channel which was perhaps the precursor of CNN. It was really the American Armed Forces channel that I think used to beam out to the 7th Fleet or some of their army bases in the Gulf and we used to sometimes get the transmission on a clear day.”
She came home one day and an employee of her family was crying. He was a Kashmiri, who her mother had given shelter to, and like an elder brother to her. “He is the one who broke the news. He said something terrible has happened. The aircraft that was carrying Arafat had disappeared and nobody knows where it is.” It was the breaking news on TV at that time, Arafat being a very significant political personality. “There were all sorts of conspiracy theories, all kinds of speculations — that the aircraft had been shot at. This aircraft had just completely disappeared and had gone off the radar for many hours and nobody could locate it. I had no idea then that Mohammad [Darwish] was actually flying that particular aircraft,” she says.
However, the next morning, a friend of hers called. This person knew about Darwish and asked what his age was. Gauhar knew he was 38 by then and she was 32.
“When I said 38, this friend said, well then it’s not him. I said what are you talking about? He said don’t you know? I said I really have no idea what you are talking about. And he said, well it is all over the press, the aircraft Arafat was travelling in has crashed in the Libyan Desert and they have given the name of the pilot as Mohammad Darwish, but the age is 48, so obviously it’s not him.”
Gauhar did not want to believe it was him either. However, it was too much of a coincidence. There could not have been two pilots with the same name because she knew there were only a handful of Palestinians who had been trained as pilots. She knew at least three of them who had trained along with Darwish and they were all very good friends. Until she saw it in print, she wasn’t going to believe it. So Gauhar rushed to this friend’s place, who brought her the newspaper, and that is when she saw it. “It was obviously very distressing to see his name as being one of the three who had actually died in that crash. The others, the passengers, including Mr Arafat, had survived. But I had to hear this from the family themselves.”
Gauhar didn’t have the direct international dialling facility at home — very few people did at the time — so she rushed to the public call office at the airport that was close to her house. “I would often call Mohammad from there. Actually I would barely ever know where Mohammad was, so usually I would call his family,” she recalls.
His family barely spoke English and she could hardly speak Arabic. “I would always ask in Arabic. I would say, ‘Where is Mohammad?’ And they would give me the city or the country if they knew. It would sort of be a brief conversation between two people who didn’t speak each other’s language, but who knew what the other person was talking about. And this time I asked the same question, and it was his sister-in-law, his brother’s wife — his brother was actually quite a senior official in the PLO — also living in Amman. I had met all of them.”
The sister-in-law spoke even less English. “Where is Mohammad?” Gauhar asked in Arabic her usual question. “She just said ‘Khalas!’ — just finished. And she started crying ‘Mohammad khalas, Mohammad khalas!’ Obviously I understood what she was saying.” Gauhar was standing outside the booth and suddenly stopped hearing things, despite being in the middle of a very busy airport. “As you know when a lot of people come to the airport to see people off, or even just to see the aircraft take off, and the announcements were loud. And then suddenly I could just not hear anything. I literally saw the entire world spin around me. I didn’t feel I had any ground beneath my feet.”
She must have been in that state of shock until late that evening. She felt she needed to walk in an open space and went with her friend to Lahore’s race course park. “I remember it was a full moon,” she says. “And I kept looking at the moon, and I kept thinking is that where he is? Where is he now? The thing I always used to look forward to was eventually hearing from him, and of course I knew his voice, I would know exactly what he was going to say if we were going to speak on the phone after many months of having no contact.”
She felt totally devastated when she realised that she would never hear his voice again. “I kept repeating the kind of conversation he would have with me, it was almost like I would speak his words to myself just to reassure myself that he is still there somehow. That evening when I came home, I was living alone, I built like a little shrine with all the things that he had given me and the things that I associated with him. Particularly the two beverages he loved, one was the Arabic coffee and the other was the tea with maramiyeh, which is this herb that is particularly Palestinian and has a lovely fragrance. So I just brewed the coffee and the tea, and I had his photograph and I just kept that in front of me the whole night. Just smelling the fragrance of what he always enjoyed, and that was my way of remembering him.”
Some weeks after Darwish’s death the Palestinian representative in Pakistan asked Gauhar to come to their office. “I went and there was this letter, the last photograph of Mohammad, taken with Arafat and the co-pilot, just before they boarded the flight,” she says. “The gist of what Arafat had to say basically was — because I can read Arabic but I don’t understand it completely — Mohammad saved our revolution, because he saved the life of the leadership. Arafat said that Mohammad had explained to him that the only way that he could attempt to the life of his leader was if he let the aircraft nosedive, and he didn’t know what the distance is between them and the ground was.”
They had realised they couldn’t really get out as there wasn’t a computerised navigation system — it was a very old aircraft. “He packed Arafat into the toilet and padded him up with blankets and pillows to ensure that he did not get hurt. And then he let the aircraft nosedive, knowing he is over a desert because he could see the sandstorm, hoping the impact on the nose would actually absorb the shock, the tail might just break off and Arafat would be safe. And that is exactly what happened. Only the crew in the cockpit died.”
So Darwish saved Yasser Arafat’s life? “That is what he meant, and that is what I was also saying. Saving the revolution means he saved the leadership.”
Gauhar has spoken to airline pilots and engineers about the chances of making it out of a sandstorm. “Given the kind of aircraft they were flying there was a zero chance of any survivors. Either it was a miracle or it was a very intelligent move on his part. So he sacrificed his own life and he was completely conscious of it. I mean he knew the most likely outcome was that nobody would survive in the cockpit, but there were chances people at the back of the aircraft would survive,” Gauhar says.
Had Darwish spoken to Arafat about their engagement? “Yes, of course, he had because he was given permission by Arafat to marry me. The reason that we had not gotten married initially, the reason I married somebody else instead, was because he had not been given the permission. But, of course, I didn’t know that. I just thought that he had decided on his own that he would not be able to provide me any security or stability — that those were his words.”
Because there were some very strong indications of peace being restored in the region that year, Gauhar presumes, Darwish must have been given a go-ahead because they did feel they were closer to the goal of achieving statehood, which would have given Darwish a more stable life. “When the letter came from Mr Arafat it clearly indicated that Mohammad had discussed this with him, discussed me with him,” she says.
Gauhar recalls visiting Darwish in Africa, where he had been stationed in Guinea-Bissau and was living in a jungle with colleagues. That was the first time she saw the aircraft which later crashed in the Libyan Desert. “He was flying the aircraft of the president of Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau had a Marxist government, and that is one of the reasons the Palestinians were given a base. It was hardly a base. There were maybe two or three pilots and a very old Russian Antonov 24 aircraft.”
They both shared a love for animals. Darwish had adopted a little black puppy when he was there in Guinea-Bissau. “I remember he would call me whether I was in Europe or whether I was in Pakistan and he would describe in detail how the puppy needed to be potty-trained and I would explain to him how to do it. I remember the one time I said he needed to put newspaper all over the little house he built for him. Mohammad had a wonderful sense of humour: ‘But Feryalee he doesn’t know how to read, he is only so small,’ he replied.”
She remembers how Darwish always marvelled that she had remained devoted to their relationship despite not knowing his whereabouts for months or whether she would see him again. He would say to her: “Are you sure you will wait for me?”
Since his death Gauhar has kept up a sustained support for the Palestinian cause. Her relationship with Darwish was known to significant members of Fatah and she was even conferred with the Honorary Citizenship of Palestine. In 2010 when Pakistan was hit with the most devastating floods in history, Gauhar offered to be the escort for a Palestinian medical mission to Dera Ismail Khan, where there was an outbreak of diseases as a consequence of people living near the water.
Gauhar hopes to visit Palestine one day. “Maybe in April, to meet with the President Mahmoud Abbas,” she says. She would also like to visit Jericho, where Darwish was from. “He always talked about Jericho. In fact when I visited his family in Jordan, at the time that we got engaged, he had taken me to the Dead Sea and shown me the lights of Jericho. You could see it right across the lake. And he said that was where he wanted to die, where he wanted to spend his last days. But, of course, he didn’t know, nobody knows where you will actually meet your death.”
To this day, she hasn’t visited his grave. “I promised myself that I would go to his grave,” she says. “I didn’t even know where he is buried, I never asked. I could just never find the words to ask his family. I never had the courage really because I imagined that this was an air crash, and if he had actually put the flight into a nosedive, there might not have been much left because obviously the cockpit must have taken the brunt of the impact.”
Those images in her head were totally dispelled when years later Gauhar met a Pakistani gentleman who had located her through a mutual friend. Gauhar wasn’t particularly interest in meeting him as she is not very gregarious. Eventually, however, her friend persuaded her to meet him over dinner. It emerged he had been the hospital administrative head who was actually working in Tripoli when the aircraft went missing and was feared to have crashed. He was tasked by Colonel Gaddafi to go out on a search mission and so they went into the desert. “I believe it was very late at night and he said they had no idea where to look because it was the Sahara, the largest desert on Earth. Because there had been no contact with the air traffic control they had no idea where to start. And he said they found the aircraft because they could hear the hyenas, the jackals. They could hear them barking because they had smelt blood.”
The team followed the sound of the animals to discover they had surrounded the aircraft. The animals left when they saw the convoy approaching. Inside, the passengers had mercifully survived. Arafat had some lacerations. Gauhar had thought that Darwish, along with the flight engineer and the co-pilot, had died on impact. But it turned out Darwish was still alive when they reached the crash site. “The Pakistani gentleman had looked for me for many years,” she says. “He had tried to keep Mohammad awake, because he didn’t want Mohammad to slip into a coma — he had kept talking to him. And Mohammad — I think he could connect the accent with Pakistan — had asked him if he was Pakistani? And he had said he was. Then Mohammad had asked him if he could tell Feryal to wait for me.”
Those were Darwish’s last words. By the time they got to the hospital he had died.
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.