How Hanan Ashrawi plans to build a nation

The woman who spoke for Yasser Arafat before the historic Middle East peace agreement now prefers to fight for human rights rather than political power. Suzanne Glass met her
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"I pretend I'm not me when I'm threatened," says Hanan Ashrawi, Yasser Arafat's former spokeswoman. "I even stayed calm when I felt the cold metal of a gun on my face once. I have to or I would be paralysed."

The head of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights may not be paralysed, but she seems trapped. Hers is really the only female Palestinian face widely recognised in the Western world. And as such she has become public property. At conferences, cameras click and flash in her face. "My home is like Grand Central Station,'' she says.

She spoke for Arafat before the famous handshake on the White House lawn between the Palestinian leader and Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in September 1993. She cajoled and convinced to ensure the signing of the agreement between the two Middle Eastern powers did not fall through at the last minute.

Then the well-dressed, well-spoken grande dame of Palestinian politics shocked her people by turning round and saying no to Arafat. No, she would not accept a place on his National Council. She would prefer to set up her own independent commission: to create legislation to allow the investigation of atrocities, not only by Israelis against Palestinians, but also by Palestinians against each other. And she wanted to write her autobiography, This Side of Peace, which is published next week.

"We want to build a nation," she says, "where our people will be free." Her nation-building takes place in an East Jerusalem hotel suite that serves as an office. The air is heavy with smoke. Dr Ashrawi, sharp and snappy in a language which is not her own, is groomed to the nth degree. Navy suit, skirt just dusting the knee, a paisley scarf draping her shoulder, a discreet diamond here and there.

''Our decree for the commission was signed by Arafat, you know.'' There is a certain irony in this. Some say Ashrawi was put out at not having a front-line role in the signing of the Oslo agreement and that her commission has been set up as an act of defiance, to monitor the activities of Arafat's National Council.

She denies this and says she founded the organisation and become its commissioner-general because this is where she belongs. ''I have never been interested in superficial power. Human rights have always been my interest. This job is all hard work and no glory,'' she says.

Whether she would have talked of superficial power two years ago as PLO spokeswoman is a subject for speculation, but shaping the future of the Palestinian people is undoubtedly her calling. She is depressed by the state of Middle East politics and calls the peace process the Grand Deception.

''No, my dreams have not been fulfilled," she says. "I had a vision of peace in the Middle East, but there is none. It is all very painful." She thinks the Israelis have "given" her people far too little and that her people have conceded far too much. The quality of life in Gaza, where the Palestinian state has its headquarters, is reputed to be dreadful. There is constant tension among the Palestinians, and as much friction between Palestinians and Israelis as ever.

"It's not good enough to have just any old state, a replica of a Third World state, an instrument of Israeli domination.''

She begins to list the injustices: Palestinians subject to stringent Israeli security regulations, Palestinians being searched. She stops, looks up, laughs cynically and says: "Then of course, there are the settlements." In her view, the evacuation of the right-wing extremist Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip is the sine qua non of any lasting peace in the Middle East. ''Wild tulips, violets, anemones, lilies and shepherd's staff ... Just as deportations damaged our roots, so did the bulldozers that plowed through our hills to establish Israeli settlements destroy the roots of our wildflowers,'' she writes in her autobigraphy.

She is angry that the Israelis have not kept their promise to stop building in the settlements and that Rabin has allowed the right-wingers to break that promise. She gets straight to the point. She doesn't think much of Rabin. ''The mother of a pilot tells him to fly high and fast. To fly low and slow is a sure way to crash. Well, I say, Rabin is flying low and slow and he will crash.''

Dr Ashrawi may be eloquent, but she is no diplomat. She is more of a hardliner than Arafat, and relations between the two are said to be strained, though there is no evidence of that during our meeting.

"Yasser, yes, Yasser, he is on the phone. Will you excuse me while I talk to him?" And she goes to the phone and talks loudly, confident in the knowledge that her interviewer can understand nothing.

There has been speculation that she would like to take Arafat's place. In her book, she compares leaving politics to running away from home as a child to avoid music tuition: "Thus I was spared the torture of piano lessons and went cycling off into the sunset while my sister became a great pianist ... Now I always feel the stirring of an urge like a static impulse that runs through my fingers, but produces no music." But even if she feels that static impulse about politics, she claims she has no intention of re-entering the forum.

In her book she tells how, as a Christian woman in a Muslim, male-dominated world, she became a pivotal peace-maker in the most unlikely of negotiations between Jew and Arab. If, having read the book, you go back to the first sentence, where she writes: "On Friday, 14 October, 1994, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were nominated to receive the Nobel Peace prize", you cannot help but feel that the name Hanan Ashrawi should have been included on the list.

But even if Dr Ashrawi does not agree with all the policies of the PLO - she feels they should demand more of the Israelis -she continues to remain loyal to them. The alternative is the fundamentalist terrorist group Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, responsible for the suicide bombings in Israel.

However, both parties hate Ashrawi for her dealings with the "enemy". I ask if she is afraid of being on their hit-list. She wriggles out of the question. She can't criticise them to the outside world. Nor, as an advocate of human rights, can she condone their violence. She says no, she is not afraid. She says the Israelis create the explosive situations that lead to extremist violence.

As she talks I study her face. She has a semitic nose; deep, dark-brown eyes and short, shiny black hair. Adjectives like attractive or unattractive are irrelevant: it is the changing face of charm, defiance and burning intensity.

In one way she is extremely privileged. It is all but impossible for women in Palestinian society to reach a position such as hers. But her situation is a tricky one. She fights for women's rights, for example, but can't really be their representative, the Germaine Greer of the Palestinian world, because she comes from a liberal Christian Arab family which encouraged her career. Most Muslim women face a culture that denies them a public role. But still she sees herself as an ardent feminist.

''Ah, women, my favourite subject. Let's talk about that. Men want to take over. Women in politics are more honest and forthright. We are not in it for the ego gratification,'' she says.

To talk of women's role in society seems the only way into Dr Ashrawi's personal life. At the beginning of the interview, when she realised I might be interested in her and not just the work of her commission, she made a dismissive gesture with her hand and said: "I don't want a profile written about me, thank you." Nor does she really want to reveal herself in her autobiography. The book is more about Middle Eastern politics than the personal politics of her life.

Dr Ashrawi talks with a certain musicality. She was brought up on art and literature. Her father, a doctor, told his daughters: "Don't let anyone talk to you about a woman's role." She studied English and medieval literature at the American University of Beirut and then completed her PhD at Virginia University. She taught briefly, but the classroom was merely a platform for politics. In a parallel life, she would not have been a teacher but would have dedicated herself to writing.

The price she has paid for her vocation is high, both for herself and her photographer husband, Emile, and daughters, Amal, 17, and Zeina, 15. She is afraid to pass the inevitable fear in her life on to them.

"They never put pressure on me, but sometimes they say: 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could just go to the park or go and get an ice-cream without being recognised.' The ironic thing is, I wanted to study medicine and my mother told me not to. She said I would have no time for a private life."

Her friends, she says, are terribly important. She even has Israeli friends - only left-wing ones, of course, who fight for the rights of Palestinians. "I used to smuggle them in and out of my house, before Israelis and Palestinians began to meet openly. But I won't fall into the cliche of saying that some of my best friends are Israelis," she says and laughs.

One of her secretaries comes up to her. Her next appointment is waiting. Suddenly, she looks weary, as if she might like to sit and chat a little off the record. But she can't because she is trapped in a helter-skelter of appointments and commitments. She is trapped in her allegiance to the PLO, though she believes they have sold themselves short, and she is trapped in the impossibility of condemning Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to the outside world, though they condemn her.

She could have had it easy. She comes from a family with the financial strength and contacts to have allowed her to escape the intifada and flee abroad. Instead, she chose "the pain of self-inflicted wounds".

She strikes me as too tough and too aware of her own power to opt for the easy path. Perhaps she refused the kudos of Arafat's National Council because she was confident that her Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights would soon have its own equally high profile.

There is one person who gives her the strength to cope with the continued threat of the cold metal gun on her cheek. "My husband," she says, and smiles. "He is the one who helps me. We have a wonderful marriage. A true partnership."

'This Side of Peace' is published by Simon & Schuster on 6 June.

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