Dr. Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi: An Embodiment of Her Embattled People

Article excerpt

During the Gulf war, with the occupied territories under an almost unremitting Israeli curfew, Dr. Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi was one of the few Palestinians visible to the outside world. Millions saw her on CNN and American network television as she told of the smothering effects of the curfew on Palestinian lives and society.

Since then, this West Bank educator has continued to speak to the world about the realities of Palestinian life under occupation. One of the participants in meetings of Palestinian leaders with US Secretary of State James Baker on his successive visits to Israel after the Gulf war, it was she who, on the one hand, wrote a series of memoranda detailing the Palestinian position and, on the other, talked to Baker about the "human reality" of the Israel occupation. Secretary Baker, she says, "reacted in a very compassionate way."

Indeed, it is this very insistence on human reality, coupled with an intellectual discipline honed in her chosen environment of academia, that makes Ashrawi such a formidable writer and spokesperson for her cause and her people.

The Luxury of "A Normal Life"

A poet and short story writer as well as a professor of literature at Bir Zeit University, Hanan Ashrawi says, "I would like nothing better than to have a normal life." Born in the predominantly Christian West Bank town of Ramallah, where she lives today with her husband and two children, Ashrawi attended the American University of Beirut, where she received her BA in English and earned a master's degree in textual criticism. This background is evident when she speaks of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's "peace proposal" as an "exercise in deconstruction," and when she describes earlier peace initiatives as "Israel calling for a dialogue with the United States in order to discuss whether there can be preliminary talks in Egypt between the Americans and the Egyptians about whether a dialogue can take place between the Palestinians and the Israelis under the Egyptian-American auspices."

Surprisingly for so contemporary a person, her Ph.D., from the University of Virginia, is in medieval and comparative literature. Ashrawi explains this as "a certain amount of self-indulgence," a refuge "when reality is too much a presence." Plus, she laughs, "I tend to have a pedantic streak," which academic research satisfies.

Prior to the closing of Palestinian universities by Israeli authorities at the outset of the intifada, Ashrawi was head of Bir Zeit's English department for eight years, followed by four years as dean of the faculty of arts, where she acquired a reputation as a skillful administrator. She then returned to teaching and, for the past four years, has greatly missed the academic life which has been so thoroughly disrupted by the Israeli occupation. She speaks feelingly of being deprived of her intellectual environment, the lectures and other cultural activities normal to a functioning university, and of the difficulties and dangers of teaching alternative classes, which have been outlawed by the Israeli occupation authorities.

Although the practice of her chosen profession has become a luxury for Ashrawi, the work she is prevented from carrying out, she believes, is critical to the future of Palestine. The seemingly rarified field of comparative literature offers Ashrawi the opportunity to "teach skills, train people to analyze and think critically, and to open up horizons" for her students. Clearly, the long-term ramifications of denying an education to Palestinian youth are damaging far beyond the levels of basic literacy.

Today, Hanan Ashrawi describes herself as "by necessity a political being, not a politician," because she has "no aspirations to a government post." Being a visible embodiment of her embattled people is a role she did not choose, but which "reality has imposed" on her, and to which she brings a "sense of service." Indeed, she is matter-of-fact about the demands on her time and energy, the frequent travels, lectures and media appearances: "People need to know. …