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Sun July 28, 2013
Author Interviews

'Looking For Palestine': A Once-Split Identity Becomes Whole

Originally published on Sun August 4, 2013 6:46 am

Actress Najla Said is a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian, but growing up in New York City, her identity was anything but clearly defined.

The daughter of prominent literary critic Edward Said, she spent her childhood in one of the most influential intellectual households in America. Edward Said, who died in 2003, was a renowned professor at Columbia University and was critical to defining Palestinian independence.

As much as her father felt grounded, Najla Said felt disoriented. Balancing the worlds of her mother's Lebanese family, her father's Palestinian heritage and her American lifestyle led to large, unsettling questions of identity and self-worth. She describes this personal struggle in her new memoir, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family.

She discusses the rival narratives she encountered about the Middle East and how solidarity saved her with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.


Interview Highlights

On how a daughter of Edward Said could feel confused

"There was just so many mixed messages around me about the Middle East that I think I was so afraid to confront it. I just wanted it to go away and thought it might.

"So, even though I knew I was Palestinian, and I knew I was Lebanese, and I knew I went to Beirut, and I knew that the TV was saying that Beirut was this crazy place were people were killing each other, and Palestinians were terrorists, I thought that if I just avoided it, it would go away."

On the Sept. 11 attacks as a personal turning point

"I was petrified in the way that everyone was petrified — I was scared of being killed. But I was also scared of Americans wanting to kill me. And then, you know, I remember saying to my mom, 'But now everyone is going to hate me.' And she was like, 'They're not going to hate you.' And people would say, 'You don't even look Arab; you're not even Muslim.'

"So then you kinda wanna identify with your race in a different way because you're like, 'Why am I special? Why do I look different or seem different? And why do I get to pass?' And so all of those things compounded at once, and I think that there was also no choice, 'cause from then on, I was constantly referred to as an 'Arab-American,' which I hadn't been before."

On her father's reaction to her play, Palestine, the inspiration for her memoir

"He was really proud ... tearing up laughing and just very, very moved and excited. And I think excited in a sense of like — this is very strange — but almost like, 'OK, now I can go.' And I think one of the last things he said to me, a few days before he died, I had seen these Arab-American comedians, and I told him about it, and he kept like sort of shaking his fist and going, 'That's it, that's it. That's the future. You guys, you got it.' And sort of this idea that art was somehow going to be the way out."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Najla Said grew up in one of the most influential intellectual households in America. Her father was Edward Said, a renowned professor of literature at Columbia University in New York. Born in Jerusalem in 1935 before partition and the creation of the state of Israel, Said, who died in 2003, was critical to defining Palestinian independence and became a member of the PLO's National Council. So it's with some irony that his daughter, Najla, felt just as lost as Said felt grounded.

Najla Said has published an affecting new memoir, "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family." Najla Said joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NAJLA SAID: Thank you.

LYDEN: You know, what is extraordinary to me is that you have such an array of thinkers around you...

SAID: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: ...in all possible strains of intellectual life and, certainly, in terms of forming the Palestinian identity both there and in diaspora. How was it possible that the daughter of Edward Said felt confused? I'm sure you're getting that question a lot.

SAID: Everybody - yes. And it's completely understandable. And it's sort of funny to me. I'm so used to being asked this question now that I'm sort of like, I don't know. How was it possible that the daughter of Edward Said didn't understand where she was from? I think that there were just so many mixed messages around me about the Middle East that I think I was so afraid to confront it. I just wanted it to go away and thought it might.

So even though I knew I was Palestinian, and I knew I was Lebanese, and I knew I went to Beirut, and I knew that, you know, the TV was saying that Beirut was this crazy place where people were killing each other and Palestinians were terrorists, I thought maybe if I just avoided it, it would kind of go away.

LYDEN: I'd like to take you back to your beginning school in New York City.

SAID: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: At this point, your father has already written what I think has to be regarded as his classic tome. "Orientalism" comes out in 1978, but you're not aware of that.

SAID: No.

LYDEN: Tell me about that. You're just 5 years old, and you're going to Chapin School.

SAID: It was very clear to me, just because I was constantly looking at myself and then looking at the people around me, that I was different. And I think that at that time, the girls were mostly, you know, as I say in the book, waspy, and they had lived on the Upper East Side. And they had blonde hair or dirty blonde hair, and I had black hair, and I lived on the west side. And the way that New York was in those days was very different.

I mean, I think people - if they live in New York now, they may get confused because it seems like the Upper West Side is just as fancy as the Upper East Side. But there was always a difference. And in those days, it was a very big difference. Many of my friends were not allowed to come to the west side.

LYDEN: You say, Najla Said, that ultimately, as people were speaking around you, that you found yourself nodding in, quote, "sad agreement," unquote, to the things people were saying about your culture. What was being said?

SAID: For anyone who is alive in the 1980s, you'll remember that the word Beirut, it was always the word for, like, the most horrible place you could ever be and where the people are always fighting and blowing things up and violent and killing each other and, of course, adding in Palestinians, which are often still conflated with, quote, unquote, "terrorists."

These were the things I was hearing. And then the other things I was hearing were exactly what my dad wrote about which was the exotification of like, you know, I write in the book about "I Dream of Genie." And I was like, oh, she's from Baghdad. But then I realized she was blonde and really pretty and had a TV show. And I was not, and I didn't have magic powers. So...

LYDEN: Which you were trying to have?

SAID: I was trying desperately. There was a - yes, we had a little lamp on our piano, and I would pick it up and rub it and rub it and rub it and rub it. And I really thought the genie would come out it.

LYDEN: You say that 9/11 was a real turning point for you. How?

SAID: I was petrified in the way that everyone is - was petrified. I was scared of being killed, but I was also scared of Americans wanting to kill me. And then, you know, I remember saying to my mom: But now everyone's going to hate me. And she was like: They're not going to hate you. And people would say: You don't even look Arab. You're not even Muslim.

And so then you kind of want to identify with your race in a different way because you're like, why am I special? Why do I look different or seem different? And why do I get to pass? And so all of those things just compounded just at once. And I think that there was also no choice because from then on, I was constantly referred to as an Arab-American, which I hadn't been before.

LYDEN: You know, in some ways, that very liberating for you.

SAID: Yes.

LYDEN: You are an actor by this time. You've been through Princeton. You meet other actors who identify as Arab-Americans, and begin to put the seeds of this one-woman show together.

SAID: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Called?

SAID: "Palestine." Much of the play is incorporated into the book. My dad - when I was a very young child, I used to hear him use this word solidarity all the time, and I didn't know what it was. And then as I grew older, and I started to understand what it meant, that's really what has saved me.

LYDEN: Your father lived to see the beginnings of your Lebanese-Palestinian-American identity. He came to this play. You write very movingly about his death, which came after almost a decade-long illness. What was his reaction to your performance?

SAID: He was really proud. He was very, very proud. He was laughing. I remember him laughing and laughing and laughing, like tearing up laughing, and just very, very moved and excited. And I think excited in the sense of like - this is very strange, but almost like, okay now, I can go.

And I think one of the last things he said to me - a few days before he died, I had seen these Arab-American comedians, and I told him about it. And he was like - he kept, like, sort of shaking his fist and going: That's it. That's it. That's the future. You guys - you've got it. And sort of this idea that art was somehow going to be the way out, but also that he was, you know, handing it off to us, in a way. And I think he was very proud.

LYDEN: That's Najla Said, the author of "Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family." Najla Said has performed extracts from the book as a play all across the United States. Najla, thank you so much.

SAID: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.