General

Hanan Ashrawi: the West's preferred voice of Palestine

One of the most powerful Arabs, Ashrawi is the Middle East's version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown

MICK TSIKAS/CP Images

According to Arabian Business, Hanan Ashrawi is No. 353 on its list of the world’s 500 most powerful Arabs. This is a drop from last year when she was No. 100 but don’t count the lady out. Ashrawi is imperishable, the Middle East’s version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She is a professional Palestinian, the Western’s media’s go-to person for the weekly update on Israeli-American perfidy. Actually, I’m not being fair. She has spoken warmly about an American diplomat once, ambassador Christopher Stevens, but he had to be assassinated first. De mortuis nil nisi bonum etc.

Rockets over Beersheba sounds cinematic and in that film Ashrawi would play the part of the cunning female spy beguiling Israeli intelligence. She doesn’t beguile anyone with actual knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but she’s catnip for American TV. This week CNN’s Piers Morgan found himself rear-ended by Ashrawi’s collision with truth. “What’s an Israeli supposed to do when showered with rockets?” he asked a few times. Hanan’s eternal answer: “The real issue is the brutal occupation.” One might have thought Israel occupied Gaza, not Hamas.

Hanan Ashrawi burst into view on ABC-TV in 1988 when Ted Koppel went to Jerusalem to cover the first intifada. Ashrawi was a minor player on his show but stole it with her perfectly nuanced English and her sorrowful, powerful, just plain wonderful sense of outrage at the al-Nakbah (Arabic for “the disaster,” now referencing the day Israel was created as a Jewish state) plus her smart suits and inspiring reasonability. She modestly describes herself as “essentially a human being with a multi-dimensional mission,” which, I suppose, is reassuring because I have often wondered if she was actually a figment of my nightmares.

As daughter of the one of the PLO’s founding members, Daoud Mikhail, Ashrawi has an impressive pedigree only slightly flawed because she is Christian (lapsed), a negative which subsequently has gone positive as proof of the inclusivity of the Palestinian National Council to which she was elected. She is a handsome woman and telegenically a welcome replacement for the stubble of Yasser Arafat. I spent time with her in 1993 in the city of Ramallah where she lives with her daughters and husband Emile, who appeared to be a perfect house-husband. Their home was her father’s house and has, as she pointed out, a good view of occupied Palestine—which appeared to be all of Israel, but I may be mistaken. It might only be three-quarters of Israel. She understands the need of some Jews to interview her: “The American ones often have a sort of guilt they need to tell me about.”

I had no feelings of guilt, but while she was unable to seduce me the way she did ABC’s Peter Jennings back in her adventurous university days in Beirut (in fairness, I don’t think I was her type ever), I still wanted to get along with her. In that sense, I am a bit of a pushover because the notion of everyone getting along in the Middle East just strikes me as so sensible and Ashrawi is clever with a sense of humour, the sort of woman you’d like to hang out with after having schlepped around the Bay and Holts looking for the perfect shade of lipstick that always turns out to be wrong when you get it home. I read her 1978 essay “The Contemporary Palestinian Poetry of Occupation” and there’s no doubt she can do the academic tea dance—as in, “Rather, through a study of the objective conditions one can come to a better understanding of—and not an apology for—the literary works of the people . . . ”—blah blah blah, but she also has a genuinely sensitive ear for poetry. Shared though this love of poetry is, I don’t think we will be sitting reading verses to each other in this world. She really really doesn’t like Jews. Well, possibly Daniel Barenboim, brilliant conductor, splendid with integrated Palestinian and Israeli musicians, but clueless about the consequences of his dream bicultural state of Israel—namely an Israel with Jews as second-class citizens were they allowed to remain. Or perhaps he does know and doesn’t give a bizir bateekh.

One often wondered why Israel couldn’t come up with an attractive spokesperson to counter Ashrawi, a sexy but informed Israeli Defense Forces female in form-fitting uniform with a Ph.D in archeology, perhaps. Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovich, head spokesperson for the IDF international press unit, fits the role—blond, slim, gun-slinging and the Jewess of every pre-med’s dreams—but you don’t see her much on television. I suppose it adds up. When the world saw Israel as the plucky little nation democratically created at the UN in 1948, media outlets wanted to reinforce that view. Hence lots of airtime for the late Cambridge-educated Abba Eban, who wasn’t often accused of murdering and oppressing Palestinians. These days even Eban would not be allowed to appear in a heroic light. The media attitude determines the credibility of the spokesperson, not the spokesperson’s “spoking.” Ever since the early ’70s, it’s been pointless to groom anyone to present a positive image of Israel because today’s received wisdom simply won’t allow it.

Right now Ashrawi is on a jag against Canada, and CBC’s As It Happens gave her a platform to expound earlier this year. “We couldn’t understand why Canada would do such a thing and would lose so much standing and respect throughout the world,” she told the interviewer, in reference to Canada’s disinclination to vote for every UN resolution condemning Israel. It’s not AIH’s style to confront guests, but they might have replied that Canada really didn’t mind exclusion from the company of such seekers of truth as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Still, what’s a guy to do when faced with Hanan Ashrawi? Close your eyes, lie down and enjoy the intellectual plunder. The rest of the world does.