Book review from AL JADID, VOL. 1, NO. 1 NOVEMBER 1995|
THE DAY THE BUREAUCRATS WON:
This Side of Peace: A Personal Account by Hanan Ashrawi. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995, 318 pp. $25.00 hardcover
by Sherna Berger Gluck
This beautifully written political memoir by the well-known Palestinian spokesperson, Hanan Mikhael-Ashrawi, is an intriguing,detailed account of the "peace process" that began even before the shuttle diplomacy initiated by then Secretary of State James Baker after the Gulf War. Ashrawi, along with other Palestinian intellectuals in the West Bank, began informal contacts with Israeli peace advocates as early as 1974 - contacts she claims paved for the way for the back channel meetings that resulted in the Oslo Accord. She charts some of this background as well as the development of democratic processes inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) that marked the creation of civil society during the intifada. These help to set the stage and, more critically, create the context for the clash between the "people's delegation" and the PLO bureaucrats.
While the detailing of the meetings with Baker, and later Christopher, and other representatives of the State Department are fascinating and provide an important historical record, for most Palestinian watchers what will be of greater interest is the unfolding of the internal political dynamics: the relationship between political forces inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and between the intellectuals and activists in the OPT and the PLO bureaucracy in Tunis - including their disagreements over both the Oslo and the later Cairo Accords.
But this book is not just an historical account of the negotiations in Washington and the international meetings and intrigues that led to the secretly negotiated Oslo agreement. It is, rather, a combination of autobiography and history, poetry and politics. What makes it particularly compelling reading is Ashrawi's wonderful use of language - the product of her "special reverence for words" - and the skillful way in which she interweaves her own story, the story of the Palestinians and an account of the political process. Her experiences are filtered through the lens of her many identities: mother, wife, Christian, academic, poet, humanist and feminist. And although she does not detail each of these in a linear fashion, we get enough glimpses to understand her and her perspective.
Known primarily as the spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation, Ashrawi chafes at the suggestion that this was her only, or even primary, function. Long before she was ever named as the spokesperson, Abu Ammar (the nom de guerre by which most Palestinians refer to Yasir Arafat), had called on her to play diplomatic roles and apparently involved her in policy-making decisions - or at least sought her advice. Her early trip to Washington to meet with the State Department to plea to upgrade and normalize the US-PLO dialogue was the real beginning "of a role that was to run my life during the next six years in a drama that ranged from high tragedy to soap opera." (59) Ironically, though she chafes at the suggestion that her role was mainly as the spokesperson of the delegation and insists that this was really an addenda to much larger responsibilities, it is this role that she relishes the most and which she feels is her most important contribution:
I was spokesperson, and I vowed to speak in my people's voice, to put on the mantle of their visibility, and to unfurl before the eyes of the world images of both their melancholy and joy. I would capture their spirit in language, and set it free before witnesses. (135)
Changes in language become a marker of political changes. What Edward Said described as the "new language" of the Palestinians - and what he apparently attributes to Ashrawi - gradually disappears as the "people's delegation" from the Occupied Territories - an ensemble of intellectuals and activists who represent the legacy of democracy forged by the intifada - is supplanted by PLO politicians and bureaucrats. Ashrawi clearly recognized this as she sat listening to Arafat's speech on the White House lawn, worrying that it was foreshadowing the "impending degradation of [their] language and vision. (273):
Rather than touching our hearts and minds as an act of grace and healing, it rebounded like impersonal sound waves etching a vague image of an unidentifiable object. We could not recognize ourselves in it. (273)
She knew that it was time to exit gracefully; that the days of the poets and prophets were over and that it was the "era of hard-core politicians, one in which slogans are weapons of a struggle for power."(273) Turning down all official posts which were offered to her, including leadership in the Palestinian Authority (where she would have joined the only other woman, Intisar Wazir, the widow of Abu Jihad), she threw herself, instead, into creating an Independent Commission for Human Rights. She remained loyal to Arafat - even going to Gaza to welcome him on his return, much to his surprise - all the while continuing to express her concerns and voice her criticisms.
Although Ashrawi may very well have exaggerate the significance of her own role - a common occurence in the autobiographical genre - her eloquence makes This Side of Peace more than an intriguing political memoir. It is a major contribution in the effort of the Palestinians to be the master of their own narrative, and part of the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian poets and prophets to hold onto their language, their vision.
Sherna Berger Gluck teaches history and women's studies at California State University, Long Beach and is the author of An American Feminist in Palestine: The Intifada Years (Temple, 1994).