Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2003
Issue No. 631
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Annie Higgins:

She is finding friends, not looking for victims

Bread and conscience

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah

photo: Randa Shaath


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Higgins, alias Tahani, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, protesting the war against Iraq
Ahwak, 'I am passionate about you', by Abdel- Halim Hafez, is Annie Higgin's favourite Arabic song. The lyrics of the song might well refer to her love affair with Palestine. Higgins, an American- born peace activist and an independent international who has been living among Palestinians in the Jenin Refugee Camp for the past six months first went to Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to stay with Palestinians in the Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus.

She fell in love with Palestine and knew she would return.

"My main goals were twofold: one, to use my presence to help people in ways they felt would be beneficial and to acquaint people outside Palestine with Palestinians at home, in more normal settings... to get to know them as friends rather than as victims," Higgins explained.

Many of her friends in the ISM were subsequently detained by the Israeli authorities and summarily deported says Higgins, whose acquaintance with Egypt long predated her encounter with Palestine.

She first came to Egypt in 1986 to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo (AUC). She returned again in 1992 to study at Al-Azhar on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship.

"I originally took up the study of Arabic because I felt that I was hearing only one side of the story. I decided to learn the language and hear Arabs speaking for themselves in their own language."

Higgins says that her commitment to Palestine was sparked by Edward Said during a lecture he gave at the University of Chicago during the Gulf War: "Both the spirit and the words of his talk made me see that the injustices done to the Palestinians are injustices to all and redressing these wrongs pertains to all who cherish some degree of autonomy in their lives."

In spite of her slender frame everything about the strawberry blonde with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile is robust. She is a bundle of energy, hopping from one anti-war demonstration to another, from one refugee camp to another.

"Palestine's liberation is America's liberation," Higgins told a crowd of anti-war protestors in Cairo, speaking in impeccable Arabic.

"Are you Tahani?" one boy asked. Word was out. She had become a minor celebrity among anti-war protestors in Cairo after the widespread circulation of a photograph in which she holds her "American (female) Against the War" banner written in black, green and red letters against a white background -- the colours of the Palestinian -- and many other Arab countries' -- flags.

"You cannot impose democracy on Iraq by dropping bombs," Tahani -- as the crowds prefer to call her -- tells her listeners. She said that US policies are harming other people, innocent victims, lamenting her compatriots' seeming complacency. "It is almost as if my fellow Americans don't want to find out the truth."

But it would be a mistake to assume that there is any sentimentality in her work.

"At one of the moments of exuberance over an American woman opposing the aggression against Iraq a man offered to carry me on his shoulders," Higgins scowls, beating her chest in mock outrage. "I balked, so a woman carried me on her shoulders while the crowd cheered," she tells me, describing her experiences at the downtown Cairo demonstration that took place on 20 March.

Visiting Egypt has allowed Higgins an opportunity to familiarise Cairene anti-war protestors about the latest developments in Jenin.

"They need no reminders over here," her face lights up. Still, the crowds are fascinated by her thought-provoking, upbeat and promising tales of the lives of the Palestinians of Jenin Refugee Camp. It was they who christened her Tahani, which means "felicity" in Arabic. But "Tahani is just a longer version of Annie, really," she tells me in jest.

Higgins believes that Palestine has provided her with a priceless educational experience. "Palestinians are a generous people. They share what little they have. I am always awed by their generosity to each other and to foreigners."

Her mission entails correcting the "false picture" of Palestine in Western eyes. She says the truth must be told, and told loud and clear.

"Silence contributes to the oppression of the Palestinians," Higgins warns. "Before I went to Palestine I knew something of the Palestinians' predicament. But now I know that silence, keeping quiet about the Palestinian problem, is the crux of the Middle East crisis."

Higgins was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. She favourably compares the Jenin Refugee Camp to her native city: "Can you imagine if a Palestinian went to my home city, Chicago, and asked to spend the night at the house of a total stranger?"

More to the point: "There are thousands of homeless people in Chicago. There are no homeless people in Jenin Camp -- even after the April 2002 massacres and the systematic demolition of houses."

Hawiya -- identity -- is the one Arabic word all Israeli soldiers know. Higgins, perceptively, touches a raw nerve. "But the Israeli soldiers don't know what their identity is. They realise that the Palestinians have traditions and they envy the Palestinians their strong sense of identity."

She decries the veneration of foreigners and so- called foreign experts. "Many Palestinians living in the camps hope that someone will come from the outside and bring magic solutions."

Tragedy generates narrative. The hope that springs out of the ashes of despair can't help offering a story.

"Once you mention the word Palestine it immediately becomes a political subject," says Higgins. She doesn't consider herself a "political type". She feels that her mission is to honour the human voice. "Honouring the right to speak," is how she puts it. But she realises that her mission has political implications.

"Seeing my interest in exposing the oppression of the Palestinian people, the inhabitants of the Jenin Camp warmed to me. Any foreigner qualifies as a voice to the outside world. To the Palestinians every foreigner is a journalist who can potentially broadcast their plight to the outside world."

And for Annie Higgins the plight of the Palestinians catalyses human relationships and solidifies lines of communication. Her public persona is reinforced by distinctive Palestinian paraphernalia, a politically correct kufiyya, a tiny silver olive tree, the dangling photographs of two young martyrs of whom she was especially fond.

And Palestine and the Palestinian cause emerge as a consuming passion which infects most people who care to listen to the stories she tells about her life in Jenin Refugee Camp.

Ironically it was Egypt, and not Palestine, that was her first introduction to the Arab world. And, she loves Egypt with a passion, too, loves "the vibrancy, the colour and the generosity of spirit".

Different groups of demonstrators were pouring into Tahrir Square, the hub of Cairo. While I left early and made my way back to the office to work on this profile, Higgins, I was told later, stayed on inspiring and being inspired by the crowds. Higgins feels a special affinity with children and at the Cairo anti-war demonstrations she says that she had several interesting encounters with children.

"One, about eight years old, asked me why America wants to hurt Iraqi and Palestinian children. I said I didn't know, but told him I was glad that he cares about children in Iraq and Palestine. And I told [the children] that they reminded me of my young friends in Jenin." Indeed, her encounters with the children of Cairo who took part in the anti-war demonstrations that rocked the city were reminiscent of her experiences with the children she left behind in Palestine. "I felt as if I were back in Jenin Refugee Camp with cadres of children providing a friendly following."

"Many people gave me a thumbs-up or said 'thank you' as I passed them. Would a crowd of Americans treat an Arab with such respect these days?" she asks, flinging her hands wide open as if in despair.

After a two-hour chat over coffee and a photo session with Al-Ahram Weekly's photographer Randa Shaath, Higgins and I walked from the Nile Hilton, passing the Arab League headquarters, as we headed to the demonstration at 1.30pm. Police had cordoned off the American and British embassies.

"When I left about 9pm Tahrir Square was still full of demonstrators against America's aggression on Iraq. The [Egyptian] security forces returned my greetings as I headed for the Internet café," Higgins told me later. "Candles illuminated the proceedings and there was a festive air. I thought of the skies of Baghdad illuminated by rockets," she added.

Higgins moves on to the prickly topic of Palestinian collaborators. She notes that the Palestinians never use the term jasuss, or spy, but rather prefer to use ameel, or collaborator. She witnessed an incident in which one such alleged collaborator was hospitalised after a revenge attack.

"Not one of his family wanted to stay with him in hospital. But, an elder complained, 'what good will it do to kill him? These young people are being used.' That was a wise observation," Higgins said.

The Israelis often wonder how the Palestinians possess the stamina and patience to endure their brutal occupation.

"I love rooftops," Higgins said, explaining that like all Palestinians in Jenin she felt constantly watched by the Israelis.

She recalls a brush with the Israeli army. She saw Apache fighter helicopters coming straight at her as she was reading on the rooftop.

"I never ran so fast in my life. I was sure they were coming for me."

Higgins speaks of the predicament of those hunted by the Israelis: "Nobody wants to have a wanted man in their house. These wanted men are on the run. They are constantly moving from house to house."

Her yearning for peace and justice in Palestine is movingly real. Her single-minded dedication to Palestine is all the more endearing because her mannerisms are underpinned by an engaging lovability, a vulnerability and fragility.

In Palestine, she lives in much the same manner as her hosts and in humility she learns a little about their ways. A touching bedtime scene poignantly captures the mutual love and affection that binds visitor to host: "As we are settling onto our floor-level mattresses for the night, Raghda kisses me on the four diamond-points of my face, 'That's how you kiss a shahid [martyr] on the bier'. She has expeience with a number of family members," Tahani muses.

The American media is hopelessly biased against the Palestinians, even to the extent of plastering over the death of a young American woman who was run over by an Israeli armoured .00bulldozer. If there were any doubts about that, Rachel Corrie's tragic death removed them. "I feel freedom of speech in Palestine," she assures me. "More so than in the United States. And Rachel Corrie offered her own life as a price for her convictions defending Palestinian children."

Higgins says that she has been silenced in the US. "Once you mention Jenin in the US you are considered no patriot because you are critical of Israel. I've been silenced just for mentioning the word Jenin," she says, though she insists that she does not want to "advertise" the tragedy of the Jenin massacre.

"I want to show the human side. I want to tell the world why it is we do not want Jenin destroyed. The beautiful culture of the Palestinian people is worth saving. I want the world, and especially America, to get to know the Palestinian people a little better."

Higgins wrote a scathing letter of criticism to the Christian Science Monitor recently because of what she felt was the paper's biased coverage in Israel's favour.

"Israel has nuclear weapons and has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and uses its conventional weapons for massive bloodletting and bulldozing, even of humans," Higgins wrote in protest against an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor.

At a lecture she gave at AUC Higgins was challenged to say something about democracy, or the lack of it, in the occupied territories under the Palestinian Authority. "There is no American democracy," she responded, and spoke instead about the brutal reality of America's blind backing of Israel. For Higgins this double standard remains confusing.

When, Higgins wonders will the crimes against humanity committed by Israel in the occupied territories become too glaring to be overlooked?

An accomplished academic, Higgins obtained a PhD in 2001 from the University of Chicago's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations. The subject of her doctoral thesis was The Qur'anic Exchange of the Self in the Poetry of Shurat (Khariji) Political Identity.

Higgins lectured at the University of Illinois before giving up teaching to serve as an international in Palestine. She describes herself as an "independent scholar" but she doesn't rule out a return to academia.

She has presented papers on topics as diverse as the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; Qur'anic Borrowings in Ummayyad Poetry; Tuareg Poetry and a paper entitled The Qur'an: God Speaks to the Seminar of Islam, Meadville- Lombard Theological Seminary, Chicago.

Higgins' father was a lawyer, and apolitical. Her mother, who went on anti-Vietnam War protest marches and scrupulously read Congressional Reports, was more of a political animal. The youngest of four sisters, Higgins says that she was brought up in an environment in which visitors were always welcome. "We've always had visitors in our house," she explained, saying that she was socialised early to accept cultures and traditions other than her own.

As an adult Higgins never made much money and was never particularly interested in making a fast buck. Her university job paid the bills and helped her save a little money.

"I saved half my salary, but I didn't have specific plans," she explains. "I never do. I just quit my job at the university and left for Palestine. Most of the Palestinians I got to know in Jenin couldn't understand why I gave up my job as a lecturer in America to come and live among them in a refugee camp."

She returns to the subject of Palestinian generosity: "I was accustomed to being poor but I never felt deprived. I don't spend much money. And it doesn't really cost much to live in Jenin Camp. I'm so privileged. The doors are open before I actually get to the doorstep. I don't have to ask people to let me in."

There was another impulse behind Higgins' decision to move to Palestine, and it had much to do with family values. Her upbringing was one dynamic, religion another.

"I think I understand the Bible more now. Jesus walked in this very place called Jenin."

She smiles broadly and shrugs her shoulders: "I feel like I am bringing one loaf of bread to Palestine."

"The Palestinians, like Jesus, are always trying to feed people. Jesus was talking and talking, telling people to look beyond the material, and then he suddenly turned round and asked his listeners if they were hungry. That is typically Palestinian."

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