INTERVIEW / Soothing voice of the PLO: Hanan Ashrawi: Hanan Ashrawi is Christian, articulate and tough. Sarah Helm says her style works better in the West than the Gaza Strip
Sunday 07 February 1993
On one side of the room the shelves are lined with evidence of Ashrawi the literary scholar, the Christian: Style and Symbolism in Piers Plowman; Monastic Life in Medieval England; the Holy Bible. On the other side are videos showing Ashrawi a few years on: CNN Roundtable; BBC selections; Palestinian highlights. When she emerges, neat pleated skirt, wafting a haze of cigarette smoke, the phone calls are piling up. She makes them wait.
There will be time to answer them, after she has graciously attended to those around her. Some mistake this calm control for arrogance. Rather, it is the confidence of a woman who knows she has the answers and sparkles at the prospect of articulating them. 'It is the predictable outcome of a persecution policy which has constantly plagued the people,' she says into the mobile phone, enjoying the alliteration. Putting down the receiver, she says: 'I hate to know about the questions in advance. It is stimulating to answer spontaneously.'
The strengths of Hanan Ashrawi, the 46-year-old spokeswoman for the Palestinian peace delegation, who first rose to fame at the 1991 Madrid peace conference, are once again being transmitted to the world. The crisis caused by the Israeli government's decision to banish more than 400 Palestinians on 17 December, followed by the Supreme Court upholding the deportations, and the announcement on Monday by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, that a compromise was possible with the return of 100 deportees, have injected further political and diplomatic complexity into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Ashrawi has absorbed and digested it all.
The Supreme Court's 32-page decision was a piece of cake for an intellect exercised on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. With advice from lawyers, she had dissected the text in five minutes, rolling back a retort with a deft, almost casual, swipe: 'We feel the Israeli legal system has never served the interests of justice but the interest of occupation.' Ashrawi dealt even more concisely with Rabin's ponderous explanation of his compromise deal. 'Deportation by instalment,' she declared.
The latest bout of Ashrawi media bravura infuriates the Israelis. The government tries to ignore it, pretending she is irrelevant. Others can't. 'Even Goebbels was a good spokesman - so what,' scoffed Elyakim Haetzni, from his West Bank Jewish settlement. 'She believes Jesus Christ was a Palestinian. If he was, ask her who crucified him - were they Palestinians too?' Some Israeli commentators despise the adulation she gets in the West, where they say, nave adorers revel in the fact that Palestinians have at last produced someone they can invite for dinner. 'She is just used by the PLO. The message is the same,' wrote one critic.
Her stardom abroad also stirs questions among Palestinians. Nobody doubts her charm or her brilliance: she is a published poet with an MA in Medieval Literature from the American Univeristy of Beirut, and a doctorate from the University of Virginia. And nobody doubts her absolute commitment to the cause. She has been a tireless campaigner for Palestinian rights: for what she calls the 'human dimension' of the problem and for 'mutuality and reciprocity'. She presents such a clear case because she believes it with a gut certainty.
But her constituency, it is said, is in the West; in the living rooms of Notting Hill or Chevy Chase. She has won sympathy abroad which Yasser Arafat's intimidating kaffiyeh and stubble could never do. She even brought tears to the eyes of the ice-cool former US Secretary of State, James Baker, who devised the peace process. 'I thought this was a cold, calculating man. He had cold eyes. But I told him about our real problems, about what it is like for us living under occupation and he softened,' she says.
Her Western ways mean little in the the nationalist strongholds of Jenin and Hebron, still less among the Muslim militants in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. She is a Christian while, as the current crisis has emphasised, young Palestinians are flocking to the mosques, not to Anglican churches and Sunday schools. It is in the mosques that Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, (the deportee challenging Ashrawi for CNN prime-time) has his captive audience, while Ashrawi is hardly heard.
'The measurement of heroism set by the intifada was how many times you had been in prison; how many times you had suffered,' says Radwan Abu Ayyash, a prominent Palestinian journalist. 'Anybody who would appear like Ashrawi on the political level would not have grassroots support. The people in the refugee camps cannot see their leadership in such a person.'
A PHOTOGRAPH of Hanan the toddler, feet apart, chin out, posing with her four older sisters, hints at a budding determination. Her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse in Ramallah, the main town in the West Bank, which at the time had a large Christian community, mainly Greek Orthodox and Anglican. Dr Daud Halil Mikhail was Greek Orthodox, his wife an Anglican. The girls were educated at the Quaker School, where, according to her older sister, Nadia Mikhail Abboushi, 'the emphasis was on free thought and respect for people of all faiths. There was no learning by heart like in the government schools'.
Growing up under Jordanian rule, the girls were not immune to political influence. Their father, a leading Palestinian socialist, was jailed by the authorities. Hanan's political consciousness developed at the American University of Beirut, a bastion of Sixties liberalism for many Palestinian intellectuals. Nadia recalls how they heard news of the 1967 war, when Israel seized the West Bank. 'We feared the worst. We heard nothing from our parents. For days we thought they may be dead. This experience had a deep impact on Hanan.'
In fact, the family home - where Hanan now lives - had been bombed but not destroyed, and their parents were safe. But Hanan could not return for several years, staying on at AUB where political activism became an inevitable path.
She is said to have flirted with communist groups but was never 'organised' and spoke in favour of a two-state solution long before the PLO recognised Israel's right to exist: she never joined a faction - and she never has since, although her allegiance is to the mainstream Fatah line. This is also held against her in the occupied territories. 'It is true I am not typical,' she says. 'But I don't believe there is a typical Palestinian. I have never been interested by political factionalism.'
On her return to Ramallah, where she became a professor of English Literature at Birzeit University, her Palestinian nationalism adapted more naturally to intellectual battles; and to the brief avant-garde cultural rebirth that was underway in Ramallah in the pre- intifada days. Her husband, Salim, was part of the Ramallah theatrical set. Nowadays he is a quiet figure who hovers backstage in her life. The couple have two teenage daughters.
In 1986, in a key test of her strength of will, Ashrawi fought and won a major battle with the factions. During splits within the PLO, attempts were made by the Fatah mainstream grouping to take over institutions in the West Bank, in particular Birzeit, where Ashrawi was head of the English faculty. 'They wanted her out. They didn't like her. She was too colonial to them. Too pro-Western. But she fought them off and won,' said a former colleague.
Ashrawi was emerging as an influential figure on the Palestinian scene, but was not known beyond the West Bank. It was an American television programme, Nightline, that revealed a new side to Hanan Ashrawi, according to Albert Agazarian, a Birzeit colleague who selected her to sit on the programme's panel: 'She responded to the camera instantly and projected brilliantly.' Ashrawi was invited again and again to face the camera. By the time of the Madrid peace conference, which launched the current round of peace negotiations, she was an obvious choice for Palestinian spokeswoman, although not even the bosses at the PLO's Tunis headquarters realised her potential until they saw her - also on television - carry their day in Madrid.
That a successful woman in a Muslim, male-dominated world should find critics snapping at her skirts is hardly surprising. She is accused of having only style and symbolism; of 'wanting to be number one', of being 'a media creation'. And there is the usual sexism. 'The PLO chose her because she was a woman, and then discovered she had got balls.' To these she says: 'Some of this is insecurity among men. I am impatient with wilful ignorance, this is true. And there is the schoolteacher in me. I always want to correct people. I am always editing them, amending, trimming.' In the end, however, the criticism rings hollow, her commitment to the cause being so indisputable. Her bravery is also clear: a moderate, negotiating with the enemy in an environment of street-level militancy, she is in real physical danger.
It is said that she is becoming closer to Arafat - which suggests that he, for one, is weighing her true value. As for Ashrawi's political future, Nadia believes that Hanan will have returned to her first love - literature - well before the Palestinians are granted any chance to vote for their own leaders. Ashrawi herself has never revealed whether one day she might test her grassroots support in the ballot box.
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