General Giap told me
Shihab is buried in a Hanoi cemetery for Vietnamese fighters who fell during the wars against French and US colonialism.
He was the only non-Vietnamese person in the cemetery. Shihab was given the honour of lying beside Vietnam's fighters after Israel prevented his return to Palestine in death, just as it had prevented it in life.
I uncovered his story as part of my documentary, Shadow of Absence, which looked at the graves the Palestinian diaspora across the world.
On my trip to Vietnam, I brought with me the Arabic translation of General Vo Nguyen Giap's book How We Won the War.
After his popular army helped defeat the invading Japanese army, and then French and US military might, 30 years of war led to the independence and unification of Vietnam.
The general is a national hero for the Vietnamese people and so I didn't want to leave Hanoi without meeting this great man - whose ideas about "the people's war" inspired many Palestinians fighting oppression.
Despite the general's health condition - he was 95 years old at the time - we managed to meet. His assistant welcomed us, primarily, I think, because I was Palestinian - but asked us to limit the meeting to 15 minutes.
We waited for General Giap in the formal living room of his house, which he did not own but was given to him by the ruling Communist Party.
Minutes later, the general walked in with his full military attire and a rack of medals, holding his grandchild's hand.
I spoke to him in English expressing my happiness. I told him how fortunate I was to meet a leader such as himself. He smiled bashfully and modestly and told me that he does not mind speaking in English even though he prefers French.
|I remember General Giap today as I observe the fate of the Arab revolutions, including the Palestinian one.|
General Giap was strikingly short and his hands were small like a child's. His frame, hands and radiant eyes, despite his old age, reminded me of Yasser Arafat.
He asked me about the Palestinian situation then went on to talk about the inevitability of the people's victory against colonialism.
I asked him if he had learned of Arafat's death. "Yes," he said "and we were saddened by the death of this national leader."
General Giap had met him several times, the first time in the mountains with Ho Chi Minh, who introduced the pair.
During that meeting, Arafat first asked him about the experience of the Vietnamese people who, with limited means, defeated a mighty French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
I remember General Giap today, who died two years ago, as I observe the fate of the Arab revolutions, including the Palestinian one.
For an hour and 15 minutes (we went well over the allotted time due to his wishes to continue the conversation) he talked to us about all the major battles and confrontations with the French and US colonial forces, and the sacrifices and hardships they experienced over 30 years.
General Giap discussed the details of these battles. He was the direct commander and main strategist but not once did we hear him use the word "I".
The entire time, he never said "I did" or "I planned", instead he would say "the comrades" or "the fighters acted, struggled and fought under the direction of Comrade Ho Chi Minh".
The Vietnamese people's army began with a unit consisting of 34 men and women that General Giap formed in 1944 in one of Vietnam's jungles to fight the Japanese.
Their arsenal consisted of two pistols, a light machine gun and 17 rifles. Eventually, they recruited the entire Vietnamese nation, and therein lies General Giap's spirit.
The importance of his military model led to his ability to recruit from all sections of Vietnamese society.
The general signed the book that I had brought with me from Beirut. I remember, amid this vast torrent of desperation now surrounding us, the experiences of the general. Vietnamese refer to this period as the "volcano under snow".
His last words about the inevitability of victory continue to percolate in my head, often receding before appearing anew.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.