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

July 28, 1988|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | 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.)

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