Hanan Ashrawi and the human dimension of peace

By Helen Warren

In advance of the Middle East Summit that will convene next Monday afternoon, I sought to know more about Hanan Ashrawi, the woman who will engage in the summit on behalf of Palestinians. So I read This Side of Peace (1995), Ashrawi’s personal account of her long career as a representative of Palestinian interests and a participant in a variety of efforts, often unfruitful, to make peace in the Middle East.I share what I learned about Ashrawi so that others attending the summit might glimpse something in this woman beyond her considerable skills as a negotiator and advocate for the Palestinians.

By her own declaration, Hanan Ashrawi is not a diplomat; she does not dance en pointe. This fact is evident in her account of talks convened by James Baker, the former U.S. Secretary of State under the first President Bush. Impatient with the “sterile tone of diplomacy,” Ashrawi sought to “change the nature of the discourse” (89).

Not afraid to offend, she questions the motives of the professional peacemakers across the table: “To you,” she begins, “this may be an exercise in political virtuosity or intellectual abstractions. To us, it is the very substance of our lives.”

Ashrawi continues: “We are discussing the lives and future of our children-of a whole people. We are presenting before you the raw and painful substance of our humanity-of human suffering experienced and expressed concretely and directly by us, by those who are negotiating here with you as though their lives are just as normal and just as safe as yours. It is time for you to hear and witness what the occupation is really like.”

What followed was a litany of everyday occurrences in the Occupied Territories, the consequences of closed schools, demolished homes, interrogations and detainments.

Ashrawi succeeded in altering the discourse momentarily, but not the outcome of those particular talks. American pragmatics prevailed over what Ashrawi describes as “the assertion of authenticity, to make known the Palestinian narrative from within, and to gain it the legitimacy of human identification and recognition” (94).

Ashrawi isn’t about making deals; she is about speaking as a human on behalf of other humans who may learn to share more than distrust and deep animosity.

There is much about Hanan Ashrawi’s life with which we can identify. Despite the toll of war and occupation, Ashrawi excelled at the American University of Beirut and was awarded a scholarship to complete her doctoral degree in literature at the University of Virginia.

Like many students at Macalester, she combined her academic career with activism. At the University of Virginia, Ashrawi was the founder and only member of the Organization of Arab Students and the only nonblack in regular attendance at meetings of the Black Student Alliance.

In Virginia, Ashrawi also found that labor organizers unionizing coal miners “knew more about Palestine and had a stronger global awareness in general than the professors, hidden away in their ivory towers” (29).

After completing her degree at UVA, Ashrawi returned to Ramallah and secured a teaching position at Birzeit University. In short order, she became the first woman to serve as the university’s dean.

When the Israeli military descended upon the campus, Ashrawi negotiated the release of students they detained. After the Israeli army closed the campus, Ashrawi organized course offerings in homes, abandoned buildings, churches and mosques so that students could continue their studies.

It was in 1974 that Ashrawi participated for the first time in underground meetings with Israelis intent on peace. She describes years of discussions with Israeli counterparts, including Yossi Beilin (220), as rehearsals for the formal negotiations in which she eventually took part.

“We pursued peace only as those who had lived in its absence could,” Ashrawi writes. “We shaped it in words, carried it in our briefcases in seminar papers, political proposals, public exhortations-tools of persuasion to employ with our leadership, our people, our friends and our enemies (52).”

The effort to persuade enemies may appear futile. However, Ashrawi reminds us that antipathy between Israelis and Palestinians grows in extremely close quarters. Even in the confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators, Ashrawi notes that faces are recognizable and that “should anyone from either side not show up, he or she would be missed by the other (44).”

Such proximity always offers the possibility that one will recognize recognize and respond to the humanity of one’s enemies, which is one reason Ashrawi has persisted in her face-to-face efforts to make peace.

Ashrawi describes This Side of Peace as her effort to “narrate that side of peace which the standard textbooks of history and political science tend to ignore – a personal account of one player and the human dimension of an impersonal process.” I shall be eager to see this human dimension in the summit Monday night.

Helen Warren is Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Macalester