Najla Said: "My Arab-American story is not typical in any way"

Author Najla Said talks about her book, her struggle with anorexia and growing up Edward Said's daughter

Published July 28, 2013 1:01PM (EDT)

Najla Said    (Brigitte Lacombe)
Najla Said (Brigitte Lacombe)

In most respects, Najla Said’s childhood wasn’t that different from that of most upper middle-class native New Yorkers. She grew up in Morningside Heights during the 1970s, where she attended acting lessons and the Upper East Side’s tony Chapin School. She loved watching "I Dream of Jeannie" reruns and playing the "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" soundtrack on repeat, and she struggled with her feelings of not fitting in with her blonde, blue-eyed classmates by fantasizing about owning a canopy bed, or that infomercial star and fitness guru Jack LaLanne was her father.

Said’s actual father, however, was Edward Said, the late Palestinian intellectual and de facto architect of post-colonial studies. This is where Said’s narrative, and that of other Upper West Side-bred, Zabar’s-fed Gen Y-ers, diverge. As the daughter of a prominent Palestinian activist, Najla Said has been exposed to Arab identity politics, however reluctantly, since birth, an experience that she relates in her debut memoir "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family."

Now an actress and playwright, Said adapted her memoir in part from her one-woman show, "Palestine," which debuted off-Broadway in the summer of 2010. As a child of relative privilege and a self-described political “agnostic,” the thirty-nine year old Said is the first to concede that her story is not representative of the Arab-American or Palestinian experience. In this vein, both her stage show and her memoir seamlessly blend the personal and political, eschewing discussion of treaties and military policy and U.N. resolutions for anecdotes about dodging bombs while visiting Beirut during the 2006 Lebanon War (in a punchline characteristic of Said’s tone, she mentions dealing with the aftermath of the latter incident by discussing it with her Jewish therapist in New York). With "Looking for Palestine," Said doesn’t give us a dissertation or a history lesson; rather, she tells her story and encourages others to tell theirs, regardless of whether or not they, like hers, might diverge from the established narrative.

Said spoke to Salon about her book, her struggle with anorexia and misunderstandings about Arab-American culture.

I wanted to start by asking a little bit about the genesis of your memoir. Could you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind this extended memory project of yours? 

Well, really the play sort of evolved from what was literally a journal entry that was made into a theater piece that was 15 minutes that I did at a high school in New York in 2005. From that, I was encouraged to develop it into a play, and I worked on the play for many years and did lots of developmental readings and it kept growing and growing. I did the run of the play, and it was pretty successful, but such is the medium of theater that it doesn’t reach many people. So even though I’d been touring at schools and stuff, I think there were a lot of people who were interested in getting a more comprehensive written version of it, ‘cause I can’t travel the world all the time. And obviously, my Arab-American story is not typical in any way, but when I was growing up, I only had Toni Morrison to read, and that was it in terms of feeling like an outsider, so I think that part of the inspiration was to have a book out there for young people who are Arab-American and who are also not Arab-American, but who feel like outsiders. Something that could help them feel less alone, so they could have a book that felt like it was closer to their experience. Especially in the last fifteen years, the idea of Arab-Americans has become very, like – it’s a phrase you hear a lot, and people are constantly trying to define what they think is this new ethnic group. But we’ve also been here for a long time, and it’s important to let people know that.

So, do you see sort of see a paucity of literature in the Arab-American canon?

Yeah, yeah. And also just simply because I felt like, even though I was born into this family where everyone expected I would know everything about the Middle East inherently, I had to discover all these things on my own. So many people who are American, of whatever background, are afraid to engage in important political conversations because they don’t want to be offensive, and they think it’s so complicated. [They say things like] “I dunno, I don’t want to offend.” “It’s so ancient, it’s just such an ancient conflict.” I wanted to let everybody know that not all of us, even those of us who are Arab, know everything there is to know about the politics of the region, so I thought [mine] was a nice disarming way to take people on a journey of learning this without making them feel stupid.

Also, I think everyone who’s Arab-American has sort of a running list in the back of their head of 100 things that are misunderstood about [our] culture. I kinda wanted to do something like that, where I could just explain: “Iranians are not Arabs. Arab is a person who speaks Arabic.” 

Were there any specific jokes or moments in the stage show that you had trouble translating onto the page? Because I remember, there were some lines – you have this anecdote of singing along to Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, and your brother chiding you about singing the “children of Israel” line in “Close Every Door,” and I could see that working really well onstage.

Yeah, that one, and there’s the line – my singing “Born is the king of occupied Palestine” [from “The First Noel”], was a huge last moment in the play. And my brother being like, “You can’t say born is the king of Israel!” That was huge. And also at the very end, when I’m in Lebanon in 2006, and I get really angry at the Israeli planes overhead, and I scream “I hate you!” The next thing I say is that after feeling that kind of anger, I calm down and rationalize, but it was because I was able to leave and because I know good people on the other side, and I say, “because I was able to talk on the phone with my Jewish therapist in New York.” Because what [that line] comes after is so intense, there’s this moment of real anger and then people need to release. But that line got more laughs than anything I’ve experienced in my life. 

You also relate some really personal details in the book. You have the day-to-day account of your father’s illness and passing [in 2003, from leukemia], and you talk about your years-long experiences with anorexia. Was it difficult writing about that? Why did you personally feel it was important to include in a narrative about Arab-American identity? 

I was not able to write about that, or even talk about that, for a long time. I found it more difficult to write about my father’s death, which was almost ten years ago, but was still more immediate and more painful. The anorexia, I think it was because I had moved through it so much since then — I’d worked on it in therapy and dealt with it for so long — that I felt like that was a lot easier to write about, because it was farther away from who I am now. But I did feel it was important. In fact, when I was working on my play, the director, who is also basically my dramaturg who helped me write the whole piece, had been like, “Why is this anorexia important?” I got very upset, because I think it’s one of those things that always gets completely misunderstood, and it was important to me that it be part of my story because I became anorexic in the 8 or 9 years that I was not allowed to go to the Middle East, because of the war. I felt exiled from the Middle East completely. I was American and I was here, so it was in part this feeling of disconnection and not being held or feeling like I had a place. So much of my recovery was about realizing how much love and nourishment of an emotional kind that I needed and couldn’t seem to find anywhere around me. So I found the connection between my eating disorder and my feelings of disconnection from my own culture to be a really important part of my own journey, and I wanted to write about it for that reason.

I was also gonna say, when I was writing about this trip in general, I thought it was important to note, because it’s a physical manifestation of me not fitting in in the Middle East when we go there. Anorexia in general is rampant in the Middle East as well, but it was very much associated with my being totally an alien. It was, like, “Oh, the skinny girl from America who doesn’t eat.” In the Middle East, and in other Mediterrenean cultures, food is such a huge part of life, so I just looked at it as a really striking physical image of a person who kinda didn’t fit in.

You don’t provide much historical background or political context for the events you describe. Do you think there are any benefits or drawbacks to writing about something as complex and thorny as Arab identity and the conflict in the Middle East in this way?

That’s partly why I also wrote the book, because I grew up around people whose politics were completely different from my family’s politics. They were my friends. They came to my house and they knew my parents and they liked me. So one of the ways in which I sort of experimented with diving into the political arena was by telling people the story of my parents’ family and how they grew up and where they grew up and what happened. I realized when you tell people your experience, they listen. It’s that simple. I’ve had a lot of people  argue with me and start bringing up UN resolutions and all these things that make my head spin and confuse me. And I’m just like, “This is all I know. I know what happened to my family. You can tell me what happened to your family” — like, if you’re talking to a person who’s very Zionist and has parents who’ve survived the Holocaust. This is something my father talked about a lot: if you listen, if you acknowledge each other’s narrative, if you try to move forward from there, it’s gonna have a much more positive effect because you’re accepting that you have a different story, or a different side of the same story. 

Have you observed over the course of this project, people listening to each other’s stories more, on both sides? Just from your perspective, since you’ve been touring with your play for a few years now, has the audience feedback, particularly from those who might be Zionist or have Zionist sympathies, changed or evolved at all? 

Yeah, you know, you see a couple of different things. A lot of times I perform at colleges and high schools. One of the first times I did it, it was a private school in New York, so there were a lot of Jewish kids who were very defensive. They didn’t really know why, they were just like, “I don’t”… So usually what happened is when I would perform, then they were able to say, “OK, I disagree with X, Y, and Z, but it reminds me of my family and my story.” Also, I present it and myself as awkward and completely flawed and confused and not having any answers, so I think that enables people to just be like, “Oh yeah, OK, well, I’m sort of confused too, but this is what I learned, and this is what I think, and maybe it’s different, but”…

I also have observed in general – I went to a very apolitical college [Princeton University], there wasn’t a lot of political activity on campus — and in that period in my high school and college years, nobody was pro-Palestinian. Nobody would wear a keffiyeh to like, walk down the street, unless you were really Arab. It wasn’t a popular thing to be pro-Palestinian, and I’ve noticed how different it is now. I think that’s probably a result of the Iraq War and 9/11: people have been more engaged with what’s going on in the world and trying to learn more about the Middle East, and are engaged in this particular subject. I feel like when I was younger, the only people who followed this stuff were Arab-Americans and Jewish-Americans, because they cared about Israel and they cared about Palestine. But now I feel like there’s a lot more people who are reading and learning about it and learning Arabic and trying to figure out what they believe.

Does the feedback for your stage show sort of shift and change with developments in the Arab world, like the Arab Spring?

Yeah, that’s interesting. Definitely. I haven’t done it as much since Arab Spring and all those events a couple years ago, but the Middle East, unfortunately — it sounds so awkward, but it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Because every time I perform it, there’s been a development, so people are seeing different parts of it, and take different things away from it. I think there’s, like, a video on YouTube of me performing this excerpt about our trip to Gaza, and it was the original version of this portion of the play that I’d written before 2008, before there was a war. After that performance, because of what was happening in Gaza at the time, I went back and rewrote that whole section. So when I did that piece of the play in 2008 and 2009, when there was that war in Gaza, it became much more intense and powerful, and the audience reacted in a totally different way. It was fascinating.

By Ej Dickson

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Arab-american Books Edward Said Looking For Palestine Najla Said