When Arnold Met Arafat
by David Friend
For ten years now I have enjoyed my role as the unofficial purveyor of the Ultimate Arnold Newman Anecdote. As a public service to the readers of The Digital Journalist, I'd like to share that simple story--as succinct and sensible, in its way, as an old Yiddish folk tale--so that others might appreciate the essential invincibility of Arnold Newman, now age 85.
A little bit of background is in order. I met Arnold a decade ago at a typically interminable New York awards banquet. For me, the highlight of the evening came when photographer Gregory Heisler took the podium and described his days as a photo assistant, honing his trade in the massive shadow of the Master. That night Greg painted a revealing picture of Arnold as Worrywart, explaining how the Father of the Environmental Portrait would often exude waves of nervous energy, obsessively fretting and fussing over the details of a photo assignment before, during and even after a shoot. As Greg made clear, this proclivity to worry and to shoulder his outsize anxiety like some Jewish Atlas, would sometimes drive Arnold's coworkers to distraction. (The Brief Yiddish-English Glossary defines such excessive "stressing out" as shpilkes: the tendency to exist in a perpetual state of "pins and needles.")
Something in this depiction had a perverse appeal to me. As a young Life reporter, I had routinely covered stories in tag-team fashion, paired with great photojournalists, many of whom had developed shpilkes to something of a science. As a result, I had acquired an abiding respect for the pins-and-needle-prone. And yet, certain elements in Greg's characterization seemed to place Arnold in a category all his own. Arnold Newman, it seemed, was a World-class Worrywart. Then and there, I was determined to work with him. (At the end of the night, I briefly introduced myself and took my leave.) I was intrigued that evening, and remained so for several weeks: I wanted to be in the vicinity of someone that intensely focused on making a perfect portrait.
Several months later, I got my chance.
In 1993 it was revealed that throughout the previous year representatives of the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization had been meeting secretly in a lodge in the Norwegian mountains, attempting to hammer out a comprehensive peace plan. That plan, eventually endorsed by Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and P.L.O. chairman Yassir Arafat, and sealed with an epic handshake on the White House 'n, would come to be known as the Oslo Accords.
As Life's director of photography--and as a journalist who had often covered the cyclical violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--I was intrigued with the notion of seeing the faces of the men who had been courageous enough to have forged this historic, if fragile, agreement. I imagined a photo essay that would juxtapose Rabin and Arafat on an opening spread, then reveal their chief negotiators on subsequent pages. I envisioned strong black-and-white portraits that would allow Life's readers to stare into the eyes of hardened warriors who had not blinked when confronted with the prospect of peace.
I called my P.L.O. contacts and floated the idea. (I had met Arafat twice before, while on assignment with photographer Don McCullin in Beirut, and then in Tunis, Arafat's interim headquarters in exile, while doing a story on dispersed Palestinians with Magnum's Rene Burri.) Arafat's minions seemed game. I next called Rabin's office and received an initial green light. And then I called Arnold Newman.
Arnold had photographed every Israeli leader since the founding of the state in 1948. He had maintained a long, close affiliation with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, was good friends with Teddy Kollek (for years the mayor of Jerusalem), and often traveled to Israel. Moreover, Arnold would bring a fresh, revealing eye to his photo sessions with the Palestinian leadership. He was a natural choice for such an assignment. And I felt privileged to know that I would be in Arnold's company--especially for his encounter with Yassir Arafat.
I laid out the proposal and explained that we would need to depart for Tunisia by the end of the month.
"What, are you crazy?" he said, his voice ascending an octave with each syllable. "A Jew in Tunisia? To meet Ar-a-fat? What are you, crazy?"
After some persuading, he agreed to take the assignment. But for the next several weeks I would field worried phone calls from Arnold or his office manager. If it was Arnold on the line, his questions would often be accompanied by a drawn-out, punctured-tire sigh that would issue from somewhere deep in his kishkees (Yiddish for solar plexus). Who would be meeting us in Tunis? What would the food be like? Would he be safe shopping in the souk if he wanted to buy a present for his wife, Gus? (In the years since, I have occasionally met Arnold for a New York deli lunch, always going through the charade of trying to dissuade him from ordering the pastrami or corned beef, deemed verboten by Gus and his doctor.)
One by one, I addressed Arnold's concerns--to which he would invariably respond with a firm, staccato, rejoinder: "Oy." Even so, he seemed reassured, and soon Arnold and I were bound for Tunis, accompanied by Life's Paris bureau chief, Tala Skari, and Arnold's assistant, Elizabeth Thomsen. We were also aided by Time-Life correspondent Tanya Matthews, a legendary journalist from trendy Sidi bou Said, near Tunis. I felt a real sense of mission and honor to be traveling with a photographer of Arnold's stature, a man of insight, perspective, and deep moral conviction.
No sooner had we arrived at the Tunis Hilton than a towering figure walked from his rental van toward the front-door: Gregory Heisler, puzzled and somewhat alarmed to see his old mentor, Arnold Newman, standing curbside to greet him. In North Africa, no less. (Heisler, in total secrecy, had flown in by corporate jet to shoot Time's super-secret Man of the Year cover--a story quite similar, it turned out, to the one we had planned.)
But all this is mere preamble. And beside the point, really. The actual tale is short and sweet. I call it, quite simply: When Arnold Met Arafat.
On our second night in Tunisia, Arnold and I were summoned to the P.L.O. compound. (Arafat, known for keeping odd hours, habitually welcomed journalists late in the evening.) The armed guards who met us brought us to a second set of guards, who, riveted with suspicion, pored over every battery, every tripod, every piece of camera equipment. Arnold pulled me aside. And then he gave me the look.
I didn't have to ask what he meant. The look--a popping of the eyes and a plaintive noggin-nod toward the guards--eloquently conveyed a tortured query: "Do these guys suspect that I'm Jewish?!" He would repeatedly pop his eyes over the course of the evening, as we made our way from guard to p.r. chief to setting up our equipment (under the watchful eye of a P.L.O. "minder") to meeting Mrs. Soha Arafat. It didn't matter how many times I tried to assure him with my own look, a glare, followed by a flummoxed shrug, that suggested, "Don't worry. Arafat just wants the publicity." There was just no way to put Arnold "at ease."
Finally, the moment arrived. Yassir Arafat, in green fatigues, strode in, approaching Arnold with a courteous, firm handshake. (He would later offer identical gifts to Arnold and me, a box of polished wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, that housed a miniature Nativity scene. It was a generous but truly bizarre trinket, given the nature of Arnold's shpilkes that evening.)
Arnold exchanged pleasantries and motioned Arafat to stand by a staircase railing where he had set up his lights, umbrellas, and a white backdrop. In a matter of seconds I looked over to see Arnold fixing Arafat's kaffiyeh, smoothing the folds of the head-covering so that it would "look nice" for the picture. In response, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, breaking into a wide smile, put his hands up to Arnold Newman's neck and began to straighten his tie, as if to say, "Two can play at this game." Both men laughed, then returned to the matter at hand.
Arnold stood ready. Arafat stood ready. Then Arnold leaned toward his camera and, as he did, his shoe became entangled in one of the cords underfoot.
Suddenly, one of Arnold's lights began to tip ever so slowly, clearly headed in Arafat's direction and seeming to gain in velocity as it tottered. Arnold let out a gasp. He darted toward the light pole, grabbed it safely in the crook of an arm, and issued a loud grunt: "Oy gevalt!..." Then he swirled around to face me, his back to Arafat, and raised his eyebrows, in relief, as he finished the sentence, loud enough for Arafat to hear, "...Whatever that means!"
© David Friend