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Profile : Lights, Camera and Legitimacy: The Sudden Rise of a Palestinian : * Last year at this time, Hanan Ashrawi was virtually unknown to the outside world. Now, after her success at the Mideast peace talks, she's probably the world's second-most widely known Palestinian.

December 10, 1991|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, Israeli Occupied West Bank — The American television crew took over Hanan Ashrawi's living room and set up their lights, camera and microphones in what amounted to the ultimate recognition of the Palestinian spokeswoman's rise to the status of media superstar: They videotaped her being interviewed by other reporters.

"News about making news," commented Ashrawi with characteristic sharp wit. "Perhaps another crew will come in to take pictures of this crew taking pictures of you reporters. It could go on forever."

Hanan Ashrawi, virtually unknown to the outside world no more than nine months ago, not too familiar even to the Palestinian community at large, is a meteoric phenomenon. Next to Yasser Arafat, she is perhaps the world's best known Palestinian. But where Arafat earned his notoriety in the world of terrorism and wild rhetoric as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Ashrawi has won hers with a subdued eloquence and moderation uncommon in the long and turbulent night of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For the moment, at least, the image of the mild speaking academic has replaced the stubble-chinned Arafat.

As official spokesperson of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Middle East peace talks, set to resume today in Washington, she has received raves even from her competition, the Israelis, who have mounted their own elaborate media campaign. At home, even television viewers in remote villages appreciated her way with words, a much admired skill in Palestinian culture.

Shatra is the most common Arabic street description of her. "Smart."

Ashrawi's prominence speaks loads about the coronation powers of global television. And it has caused a stir in Palestinian political circles where many have long thought that only spectacular acts of violence attract the world's attention. Also, Ashrawi, a dean at a West Bank university and comparative literature professor, lacks the usual qualifications that local Palestinians associate with leadership--deep connections with the PLO, intense activism (preferably coupled with a jail term or two), a long family history in the "struggle." It also helps to be a man.

And in the envy-filled world of Palestinian politics, the question is whispered: Who is Hanan Ashrawi to take on such a central role?

"Hanan is entirely a creature of television, and this is entirely new for us," said Palestinian political theorist Mahdi Abdul-Hadi.

Ashrawi flicks her ever handy cigarette at questions about her revolutionary credentials. "No one will put Hanan Ashrawi on the defensive," she said in her customary measured tones. "I don't think I have to put my credentials on the table. Those who know, know I have deep rooted ties to the Palestinian national struggle. If my participation is perceived or not, that's another thing."

She traces her political awakening to her '60s student days at the American University of Beirut, a traditional greenhouse of Arab nationalism, but she also spent three years preparing a Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Virginia, not a hotbed of Arab politics.

At the beginning of the Arab uprising four years ago, Ashrawi organized underground classes for students at Birzeit University, which the Israeli army closed down. Yet she never was a leading organizer of the revolt. Her appointment naming her to the Palestinian negotiating team thus created enough controversy that another woman--the head of a PLO-affiliated women's group--was added to douse protest.

In any case, Ashrawi indicates that she has the blessing of the PLO, which is generally crucial to acceptance within the fragmented Palestinian political landscape. "I have legitimacy stemming from the leadership outside," she said using a common euphemism for the outlawed PLO. "At certain phases, certain people with particular talents are needed."

But she sidesteps any detailed discussion of her affiliations--if any--to the PLO. (Palestinians say she doesn't belong to the organization.) "I don't tell the press things I would not tell police investigators," she said in one of her few canned statements.

Ashrawi rarely lapses into party-line cliches, and as the main author of the opening Palestinian speech at the first round of talks in Madrid in October, she offered a fresh framework to the Palestinian campaign for statehood by putting the Palestinian case in a passionate historical context.

"It is time for us to narrate our own story, to stand witness as advocates of a truth which has long lain buried in the consciousness and conscience of the world," she wrote in the speech delivered by negotiator Haidar Abdel-Shafi (who saw the text only half an hour before delivery). "We have scaled the walls of fear and reticence, and we wish to speak out with the courage and integrity that our narrative and history deserve."

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