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Book Review

A glimpse into the life of Hanan Ashrawi, the 'Palestinian spokeswoman'

Khalil Osman

Victor, Barbara, A VOICE OF REASON: HANAN ASHRAWI AND PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, (New York; San Diego; and London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), pp. 310. Hbk: US$24.95. Harcourt Brace & Company, 15 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010, or 525 B Street, San Diego, CA 92101, USA.

Ever since that day in April 1988 when she took part in an Israeli-Palestinian debate on ABC's Nightline show, life has never been the same for Hanan Ashrawi. That experience marked the beginning of the meteoric rise to international prominence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) activist who was until then a relatively obscure professor of English literature and dean of the Faculty of Arts at Bir Zeit University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Barbara Victor's A Voice of Reason provides glimpses into the public and private life of this member and spokeswoman of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East "peace" talks.

Hanan Ashrawi was born in Nablus on October 8, 1946, into a wealthy Christian family. The paucity and meagerness of details relating to her childhood provided by the biographer paint a nebulous portrait of the early years of her life. These scanty details preclude a full understanding of how events hidden in the mists of the early, private experiences of Hanan the child might have shaped the psychological make-up, personality, and public decisions of Hanan the adult.

At the time of her birth, Hanan's father, Daoud Mikhael, a graduate of the medical school at the American University of Beirut (AUB) whose family roots were in Ramallah, was a physician in the British army in Mandate Palestine. Due to the father's job, Hanan spent the first few years of her life "moving every two years to a different city on the West Bank" (p. 39). In the wake of the establishment of the Zionist State of Israel and the annexation of the West Bank by Jordan, the Mikhaels returned to their native town of Ramallah.

Apparently, the father left his impressive marks on the mental framework of the youngest of his five daughters, Hanan. Like her father, she is a staunch believer in Palestinian nationalism as the fulcrum of the collective identity of the Palestinian people. Victor quotes her as saying: "I've always felt Palestinian because it was something my father conveyed to us and insisted on - that while we should believe in Arab nationalism, we were Palestinians despite the fact that the West Bank was part of Jordan" (p. 45).

During the 1950s, Daoud, who subscribed to a leftist political outlook, joined the National Socialist party in the West Bank. In October 1956, he was among the most notable winners in democratic elections held by King Hussein to placate the restive population of the West Bank. Disturbed by the successes scored by his political opponents at the ballot box, the Jordanian monarch nullified the elections. Moreover, "the National Socialist party was officially outlawed, and Daoud Mikhael was arrested and charged with agitating for a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Convicted, he was sentenced to six years in prison" (p. 46) However, influential family connections succeeded in gaining Daoud's release two years prior to the end of his term. A few years later, "[w]hen the Palestinian National Council (PNC) met in May 1964 . . . Daoud Mikhael was one of those chosen from Ramallah as a representative" (p. 49).

Shortly afterwards, Hanan graduated from high school and left for Lebanon to major in physics at the AUB. While in Beirut, she joined the General Union of Palestinian Students and participated in PLO activities aimed at ameliorating the life conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Having been familiarized with socialist ideals by her father, it is not surprising that "her early affiliations with the PLO were with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a pro-Soviet, pro-Socialist faction with Marxist-Leninist ideology" (p. 57). After graduating from the AUB in 1969, Hanan went to the United States to seek her graduate studies at the University of Virginia. There, she was introduced into the techniques of American radical student activism and imbibed a left-wing political lexicon that dominated "an academic atmosphere in which most professors were anti-establishment, [and] students were almost always engaged in violent protests" (p. 27).

In 1973, Hanan completed her doctorate degree in medieval English and literary criticism and returned to the West Bank. As a faculty member of Bir Zeit University she attempted to copy the techniques of protest and resistance used by American radical dissident groups onto the West Bank setting. "Unfortunately her efforts were less than brilliant. . . . From the beginning her biggest error lay in her inability to differentiate between the nuances of political repression in the United States as opposed to military oppression in the Occupied Territories" (p. 29).

On August 8, 1975, Hanan got married to Emil Ashrawi, a Christian Jerusalemite who "was five years younger [than her], from a less prestigious family, and far less educated" (p. 68). Emil strikes the reader with his eccentric personality and contorted logic. One would have expected to encounter a character with such eccentricity, paralogistic views and somehow indifferent attitude in novels whose events revolve around a weird and outlandish protagonist, such as Fyodor Dostoyevski's The Idiot or Albert Camus's The Stranger, rather than in a serious political biography. For instance, Emil, "a believer in Ghandi and flower power, a fan of John Lennon," disagrees with the view of the 1967 Arab defeat as an unmitigated catastrophe prevalent among Arabs and Muslims. Oddly enough, he latches to the view that from the very beginning "there was a social and intellectual aspect of Israeli occupation that I sensed would be positive. For some reason I had the feeling that those expressions I had always dreamed about that had to do with music, social relationships, even architecture, would finally change for the better" (pp. 72-73). Relating the tragic event of the death of his elderly and mentally-impaired father-in-law who perished in frigid weather conditions in the fields on the outskirts of Ramallah, Emil concludes his account with the following reaction to the sight of the old man's body lying under an olive tree: "But can you imagine how beautiful that was, seeing him lying there so peacefully, all covered with that fine layer of white snow? It was a very sad moment but at the same time it was very beautiful" (pp.98-99).

Furthermore, Victor provides a detailed account of Hanan's transformation from an academic into an American media celebrity as well as her concomitant ascent up the PLO's greasy hierarchy. This account reveals that Hanan, who never had a taste of the usual physical abuse experienced by anti-Zionist activists, lacks leadership qualities and popularity among her compatriots. She is "part of an elite minority within the context of West Bank academia" (p. 120). The Hanan Ashrawi phenomenon is a creation of the American public relations industry. Shortly after the eruption of the Intifada, the PLO hired "an American whose area of expertise was political image making. . . . [He taught] Hanan how to speak, smile, and move in front of an audience and a camera. . . . [T]he original idea to hire a political image maker came from Secretary of State James Baker and several of his team . . ." (p. 135).

It is not a mere coincidence, then, that Hanan's rise to international media prominence was followed by her assumption of a key role in the Middle East "peace" talks. She was not only a ubiquitous figure in the series of high-visibility public talks held in Madrid and Washington, but was also instrumental in arranging a number of secret, behind-the-scenes talks between the PLO and Israel most prominent of which were the series of meetings that led to the drafting of the Oslo Accord. However, the conclusion of the Oslo Accord set in motion a wave of internal dissension within the PLO. Hanan shared some of the dissenters' criticisms of the Oslo process, especially those relating to the status of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as well as Arafat's one-upmanship and unilateral style of decision making in conducting the secret negotiations with the Israelis. However, unlike others for whom such glaring gaps in the Oslo process constituted sufficient grounds for resigning from the PLO, she decided to stay in the PLO and not to part company with Arafat.

Barbara Victor's biographical study of Hanan Ashrawi does not cover the post-Oslo period, which saw the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority's (PNA) rule over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Ghazzah Strip, Hanan's election into Arafat's rubber-stamp parliament, her appointment as a minister in the PNA's pliant cabinet, and her further transformation into a human rights activist.

In constructing her biographical study, Victor does not content herself with mere sketching of the public and private life of Hanan. Rather, Victor sets Hanan's life and career into the monumentally dense and extended historical context of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In so doing, however, the she shows signs of subtle bias and egergious ignorance of Middle Eastern history, geography, cultures, and languages. Notwithstanding her pronouncement of striving "to write an evenhanded account of the Intifada and the peace process that evolved subsequently" (p. xxiii), the biographer's bias is evident in reserving the "terrorism" stigma to Palestinian resistance activities. Her accounts of incidents of violence on both sides betray a painstaking effort to solicit sympathy for Israeli victims of Palestinian violence who mostly appear as innocent human beings leading normal lives. In contrast, despite her recognition of the cruelty of their methods, the Israelis almost always appear as directing their brute force at Palestinians who have already been involved in acts of violence.

Furthermore, Victor's treatment of the broader historical context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is fraught with factual errors. Surprisingly, she errs even in such simple tasks as pointing the dates of well-documented historical occurrences. For instance, the date of the eruption of the Lebanese civil is given as 1978 (actual date: 1975), and 1924 is identified as the year of the issuance of the 1917 Balfour Declaration (see pp. 152 and 273). Jordan, which did not fire a single bullet during the 1973 October War, is said to have taken part in military operations alongside Syria "on the northern and eastern fronts" (p. 29). Indeed, the list of such monstrous errors, which can be extended ad nauseam, could well be the subject of a separate review. In the light of the author's identification on the book's jacket as "a journalist who has covered the Middle East for most of her professional life," one is prone to point out that Victor's case provides yet another indication of the lack of creative research skills, bias and shallowness that permeate the community of western academic and media experts on the Middle East.

Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1997


Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 3

Dhu al-Qa'dah 23, 14171997-04-01


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