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Hanan Ashrawi: A Passion for Peace.

Hanan Ashrawi is a woman who has been called many things, from the Marie Antoinette of the Occupied Territories to the Golda Meir of the Palestinian people. Since her rise to prominence as the official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks that began in Madrid in 1991, she has also emerged as Israel's worst public relations nightmare.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the PLO could be chastised and disparaged with ease. Its reign of terror against civilian targets across Israel and Europe made it reviled and its name synonymous with bloodshed. Then, out of nowhere, an elegantly dressed woman emerged, fluent in English and able to present the Palestinians and their cause in a whole new light.

In April 1988, Ashrawi was invited to appear on ABC's highly regarded Night-line news programme, presented by Ted Koppel. Her insistence that a physical barricade be erected between the Israeli and Palestinian speakers was a potent symbol which brought home to the audience watching in the United States the divisions between the two peoples.

What immediately caught the eye was Hanan's looks, which contrasted sharply with the Western stereotypes of gun-toting Palestinian terrorists - a combination of Western chic and exotic eastern charm, according to Barbara Victor, the autgor of this book.

But more noticeable than that was her devastating use of the English language to advance her cause. For many years, the former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, was able to articulate the Jewish people's cause to Western audiences with an irresistible eloquence. Many presidents and prime ministers were won over by his speeches and carefully crafted arguments. Now the Palestinians had someone who could do the same. For instance, there were her comments about her father, who refused to give up the goal of a Palestinian state replacing Israel in it entirety - "he never gave up the dream until he realised he was perpetuating a nightmare" - or her reference to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians as "fatal proximity".

According to the book, the original idea that the Palestinians should have a political image maker came from the US secretary of state, James Baker. Anxious to sell the idea of Palestinian involvement in the proposed peace conference to a sceptical American public, Ashrawi was chosen by the Palestinians and her skills and techniques were honed and packaged to be unveiled before an unsuspecting audience. Her face has hardly been off the screens of CNN and other news oriented broadcasting stations since.

Hanan Ashrawi is not a typical Palestinian. Not only is she a woman competing in a society that is almost exclusively dominated by men, but she is a Christian from a privileged background. She has never lived in a refugee camp, nor served a lengthy prison sentence. It is these paradoxes which help explain, in part, why Ashrawi has many enemies within her own community. Barbara Victor has not only sought some of these people out and recorded their criticisms of Ashrawi, but has also investigated the validity of their comments. Some, it is shown, are fatuous and probably borne out of envy. Others are more valid and are thus examined in greater depth with Ashrawi being given the opportunity to respond to many of them and third opinions being sought when two opposing interpretations are given of past events.

Victor's book is more than just a turgid recounting of Ashrawi's past, as so many other biographies often are. It is neither fawning nor obsequious, but rather a refreshingly thorough and honest look at a woman from whom so much is heard but about whom relatively little is known. It is a warts and all profile which answers many questions, but still leaves some important issues unresolved.

In a revealing piece on Ashrawi in the Sunday Times a few years ago, the writer, Barbara Amiel, noted that Ashrawi had a habit of indulging in historical untruths such that her propensity for misrepresentations had become legion. Barbara Victor found her subject guilty of this tendency as well.

This is confusing. Ashrawi is an intelligent woman who knows the distinction between historical fact and fiction. She can hardly believe her own distortions.

So why does she succumb to such folly? This is one question which the book failed adequately to answer but which lies at the root of Ashrawi's seemingly complex personality, a personality which is not fully revealed. What beliefs really lie behind the veil of rhetoric and soundbites? This is a question which Victor does not answer.

Ashrawi, of course, has now distanced herself from Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority in Gaza and Jericho. She has relegated herself to a less pivotal role as head of the Palestinian Interim Commission on Human Rights. But as the Palestinians grapple with the responsibilities of self-government and the task of running their own affairs, Ashrawi's campaign for democracy will severely test this most remarkable woman.
COPYRIGHT 1995 IC Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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