A Voice for Palestine : 'Nightline' Role Has Propelled Ashrawi Into Front Lines of a P.R. War

Times Staff Writer

It was, at first glance, simply a ladies luncheon, 35 women in summer pastel silks and floral prints, sitting around an elegant Los Feliz living room, listening to the guest of honor speak as she relaxed with an after-lunch cigarette and demitasse.

Except that the lunch had consisted of Middle Eastern dishes; the coffee was a thick, bitter brew laced with cardamom; most of the conversation was in Arabic; and the talk was of the intifada, the 7 1/2-month-old uprising of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza against 21 years of Israeli occupation.

The guest of honor was a Palestinian from the West Bank--Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi, a panelist on the now-famous town meeting from Jerusalem that Ted Koppel staged in April on ABC's "Nightline," and a woman who since then has been applauded privately and publicly for the positive image she brings to the Palestinian cause and people.

Such was the attitude at the gathering in Los Feliz, which was not simply a luncheon at all. The women, who were either Palestinians or otherwise connected to the Arab-American community of Southern California, have been gathering once a month since March in a direct response to the intifada, one of the guests, Wafa Kharuz, had explained earlier.

They pay a minimum of $20, and each month the funds go to an organization to support Palestinians in the occupied territories. This gathering, held last week, would raise more than $1,600 for the Palestine Aid Society.

The guests sat on the edge of their chairs listening to Ashrawi, whom most had "met" for the first time on "Night-line." They seemed proud of her, and their interest was so intense that they interrupted her constantly with questions. Occasionally, someone would softly mutter "inshallah" (God willing).

Finally, one woman, Lina Aryan, a Palestinian who has lived in this country for 22 years, raised her arm high, made a fist and said, laughing but only half-joking, in English, "Hanan Ashrawi for president of Palestine. I'd like to see a woman as president of Palestine."

'I'm Not a Politician'

The startled speaker did not wait for the amusement to subside before she cut through to put the room straight: "I'm not a politician. You have many women leaders" among the Palestinians.

Later, she laughed and said of the presidential nomination, "It's very embarrassing. I'm not here as an individual for self-aggrandizement. I'm not a spokesperson. People have been so receptive (since "Nightline"). I've had so many invitations, so many letters. I feel I can be effective, but not on behalf of Hanan. We (Palestinians) need to present ourselves directly to the people for a change."

That, she said, is the whole purpose of her busy monthlong speaking tour of the United States, sponsored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"I'm here to present the Palestinians directly as we are. For too long we have been misrepresented. We're perceived through diction and perceptions provided by the occupier," she said, mentioning the terrorist, rabble-rousing stereotypes that prevail.

The diction and perceptions provided by Ashrawi on "Nightline" were those of an articulate, self-possessed woman (the only one among three Palestinians and four Israelis) who kept her cool under fire. Listening patiently, answering without hesitation, speaking forcefully with confidence and conviction, she did not fly off the handle, even when accusing Ben Elissar, an Israeli Knesset member, of racism for his charge that Palestinian men were cowards who push the women and children to the front of confrontations.

It was in response to "so many calls and comments saying she was the best" that the ADC decided to sponsor Ashrawi's tour, which ends this week, organizer Ghada Mansur said from ADC's Washington headquarters recently. Two-thirds of the speaking requests had to be turned down for lack of time, she added.

Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi was born in Ramallah, and often says she has 500 years of family heritage there and 2,000 years of Christian heritage. She is married and the mother of two daughters, who will turn 11 and 7 this week. She will miss their birthdays, but has found time to shop for almost everything on their lists, she said--miniskirts, cribs for their Cabbage Patch dolls, cotton underwear, fashionable socks--everything but the doll clothes.

At 41, she is a poised woman with a calm, dispassionate speaking manner. She is an academician and poet who has written on Palestinian cultural and intellectual life. She holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Virginia and has been connected with Birzeit University since 1973, currently as dean of the faculty of arts. (Birzeit was closed indefinitely by the Israelis earlier this year, but the administrative offices are still functioning, she said.)

Although her subject during this tour is the political situation of the Palestinians, her style remains professorial. She calls her speeches "papers," and she delivers her carefully crafted, well-structured sentences in her dry, slightly strained voice. At the end, she reads a trilogy of poems she has written on the intifada, her voice often shaking.

Transforming Society

She has a serious, somewhat tired manner, but lights up frequently when she strays from the text or handles questions. She talks of suffering and hardship during the intifada, but she breaks into a smile whenever she mentions the uprising or starts to describe the popular committees that have sprung up, creating a grass-roots infrastructure for education, medical care, legal aid, gardening, security.

"It's exhilarating," she says. "There's a sense of authenticity, legitimacy, building something. We're transforming our society, learning how to make things we've never made before--yogurt, cheeses, raising goats and chickens, making clothes. At our house, we have a vegetable garden and are now totally self-sufficient. My daughter prefers to work in the community plot. Cooperatives are coming up for cottage industries--jams, preserves. The transformation is complete."

Later, speaking to 200 people at an event sponsored by the Coalition for Peace in the Middle East, an organization that includes Jewish and Arab groups, she singled out the transforming effect the intifada has had on women. The uprising had been preceded by years of organizing and demonstrating on the part of women, she said, but now "they are actually taking part in the decision-making process. In most cases the people in authority in the popular committees tend to be women."

Political Implications

At a World Affairs Council luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel earlier this month, she said of the popular committees, "The work is not overtly political, but their political implications are enormous." Noting that the committees have been declared illegal, she commented sarcastically, "I hope they tell my daughter that. She is 10 years old and part of a popular committee."

It is doubtful that her polite, unruffled manner could ever be mistaken for diplomacy. She is outspoken and her criticism of the Israeli regime and occupation can be severe and unyielding.

Rejecting frequent Israeli claims that the quality of life has improved for residents of the occupied territories since 1967, she says, "There is no quality of life under occupation except our resistance." For Palestinians, she says, Israeli democracy means "equality of oppression."

At the World Affairs Council, one man challenged her with the bottom-line question: Did she recognize the state of Israel?

"Do I personally recognize it?" At first it sounded like she might evade or equivocate. And then suddenly, she said, "Why not? Yes, I recognize Israel. I recognize the Jewish people, and I recognize the sufferings of the Jewish people."

Scorn for Euphemisms

Singling out the slurs like "grasshoppers" and "dogs" that some Israeli officials have publicly made about Palestinians, she warns often of what she calls the growing, systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians. But more odious to her are the coldly clinical euphemisms, phrases such as demographic problem, words such as transfer used to describe the sharply increasing numbers of Palestinians in Israel.

"Would you hide a Palestinian in your home? That is a question people will have to ask themselves if transfer comes."

She does not hesitate to label such a climate "fascist." Or to call Zionism "essentially racism."

"It's racism when you build any state exclusively on race. I will never accept (the idea of) a purely Muslim, Jewish or Christian state which has to be structured to exclude others, to make them with different classes."

Such talk can anger, offend and hurt. She knows it and does not apologize.

"We shouldn't always be put in the position of being forced to dispel people's ignorance and racism. It would be good to start at least from point zero and not minus. That's why I do not apologize for stereotypes, apologize for being human."

An Israeli's Pain

When she had finished addressing a largely sympathetic crowd at the Coalition, one woman rose, introduced herself as an Israeli and described her pain, which was all too apparent. She had not been able to applaud with the others, she told Ashrawi. She had painted the Israelis all the same color, but there were so many colors. She was pleading with Ashrawi.

"I agree with you," Ashrawi hastened to assure her, and said she was criticizing Israeli policy and government, that she does not generalize regarding the Israeli people, as is often done regarding the Palestinians.

However, she added, "On the West Bank it takes a lot of concentrated effort and will to see the humanity of the Israelis. . . . It is a fact, that the Palestinians as a people have not terrorized the Israelis as a people."

Before the night was over, she would wind up teasing one former Israeli soldier, Yossi Khen, who was imprisoned for refusing to serve on the West Bank in 1973, that the next time she read her poem on an Israeli soldier on the West Bank, she would dedicate it to him. When she left, they kissed each other.

She is clearly exhausted by this tour, and acknowledges it, saying it has been both heartening and difficult.

"If Americans would just once, as individuals, put themselves into our place, and think how it feels to lose your country, to lose your national name, your freedom, your basic rights and still be expected to give guarantees to your oppressors, they would understand how difficult it is to keep cool."

And did she lose her cool in the course of the trip?

"No!" she exclaimed, laughing a little. "And I don't at my office either. I do it at home. I come home and my husband hands me a pillow and tells me to throw it anywhere I want, and says, 'Here, you may drop as many dishes as you like.' "

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