BOOK REVIEW: “Looking for Palestine” by Najla Said 18Nov13 November 18, 2013
reviewed by Nourhan TawfikÂ Â -Â Â Al-AhramÂ Â -Â Â 18 November 2013
Najla Said:Â “Looking for Palestine:Growing up confused in an Arab American Family” (Riverhead, 2013)
In her recently published memoir, the daughter of the late world-renowned scholar Edward Said, Najla, writes of her turbulent search for identity as an Arab-American. It is a haunting and inimitable life story that chronicles growing up in the shadow of a larger-than-life figure and embroidered with a battle against distorted notions of ethnic, racial and cultural identity.
âI struggled desperately to find a way to reconcile the beautiful, comforting, loving world of my home, culture and family with the supposed âbarbaricâ and âbackwardâ place and society others perceived it to be. I wondered why I was âan exceptionâ to the rule of what both Arabs and Americans were âsupposedâ to be like, and why I was stuck in such an uneasy position,â writes author, playwright and actress Najla Said, who takes readers on a journey into her life as a second-generation American, sharing the quest for negotiating and carving out an identity of her own. By dwelling on the difficulties she has encountered as the daughter of a prominent Palestinian thinker and his Lebanese wife, Mariam â up to and including the inevitable âracialisationâ that went into them â Najla Said offers an intense, candid account of living as âthe otherâ.
An early resort to drama classes had paved the road for Najlaâs eventual pursuit of a career in acting where she participated in Off-Broadway shows as well as in film and television. Her frustration was that she was rarely given the role of the Arab woman because she looked more âwhiteâ and less âexoticâ than a typical Arab â a frustration that became acute in the aftermath of 9/11. An ever-increasing coinage of the Arab as the âotherâ incited Najla to voice her outrage through her work and write about her own trail to self-definition in the form of a one-woman show under the title of Palestine.
The show, which would complete a nine-week sold-out Off-Broadway run in 2010, inspired Najla to turn the solo spectacle into this warm and enchanting memoir â a book that, despite bearing a profound and contemplative message, left those who regard Najla as Edward Saidâs daughter disappointed. Such critics had politicised her story and were expecting countless mentions of UN resolutions and a deep analysis of the peace-process. What they failed to see was how Najlaâs vivid description of the quarrel between the Arab and American components of her identity â recounted with a melancholy honesty and deep humor â render her account truly unique.
The memoirs open with Najlaâs description of growing up in the 1980s on the Upper West Side of New York, with a father arguing against faulty representations of the Orient and a mother effectively managing all daily and mundane tasks. However, as Najla asserts, this flamboyant upbringing coupled by the fact that the Said household welcomed some of the Western worldâs greatest scholars and writers â Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida, for example â did not prevent Najla from developing severe insecurities about the place she came from and the identity she was expected to uphold.
As Najla explains, such insecurities were inevitable since the school she attended in Central Park on the Upper East Side opened her eyes to the countless ways in which she was different from her schoolmates. She had come to realize how, unlike girls at school who were blonde and lived in fancier homes, she had âhairy armsâ and possessed a weird name whose meaning was âbig black eyes like a cow.â For the first time, it registered in Najlaâs consciousness that her physical awkwardness and all the manifestations of this otherness were on full display. Consequently, it was this vast difference between TV news stereotypes of the Middle East at a time when the words âArabsâ, âextremismâ and âviolenceâ were being used interchangeably and her cultured upbringing that incited Najla to question her identity.
At the beginning of the book, and especially in the first chapters dealing with her early life, Najla describes how this confusion took on an accelerated pace when she was struck with the reality that her parents adamantly refused to be categorised as anything but secular humanists while insisting on holding on to their Arabness. A twofold reality that profoundly bothered Najla, as she explains: âAs a little girl, I had desperately wanted my parents to believe in something, anything, the way âother peopleâ seemed to, but every time I tried to latch on to a part of my identity, my parents would take it away from me. They always had to make sure that I knew I wasnât only Palestinian, or only Lebanese, or only American.â
However, as Najla goes on to explain, the fact that the Saids held so tightly onto their leftist politics did not seem to bother her older brother Wadie. To Najla, Wadieâs ability to relate to his parentsâ intermixed identities rendered him the more loved of the children, as she writes: âWadie inherited the wild and wonderful charm of my father, the strange peculiarities and the relentless fascination with whatever struck his fancy.â Najlaâs quiet murmurs of disapproval, although powerful, did not help her to strike a balance between being a âreal Americanâ at school and remaining loyal to the meanings she cherished about her home. This ineffable failure to be both Arab and American becomes vivid in Najlaâs graphic descriptions of minor day-to-day details. For example, she recounts how as a child she felt the need to ask her mother to inform the teacher at school that she could have âa Dannon yogurtâ with âfruit on the bottomâ like other âAmericanâ children, but at the same time also enjoyed eating yogurt with rice and salt; labne, zaatar and olive oil and âscooping it up with warm Arabic breadâ.
As the memoirs advance, Najla recounts her eye-opening experiences as she spent every summer in her motherâs war-torn yet beautiful homeland, something that sharpened her realisation of her âothernessâ yet helped her develop a sense of belonging to Lebanon. She echoes the merriment she would experience in her grandparentâs house in Brummana, which lay in the mountains overlooking Beirut: âI seemed to live in a storybook. I loved that Beirut seemed so much like New York most of the time, but that every so often I would notice something magical about the place, like farm animals on roofs.â
Living through a first-hand experience of the Lebanon war in 1982, as shells dropped on houses and a power cut resulted in a âdark that was beyond any darknessâ, Najla was further tormented with this logic of otherness. Here, Najla makes a lengthy pause to explain how while she was stricken with this feeling of strangeness, she remained unaware of her fatherâs scholarly contributions, which were well underway, rejecting generalisations about and the dehumanisation of the Orient. Stripped of an interest in politics and a personal attachment to her homeland, Najla could not identify with Said as the âfather of post-colonial studiesâ, âthe author of Orientalism, the book that everyone reads at some point in collegeâ or âthe symbol of Palestinian self-determination, a champion of human rights, equality and social justiceâ… or even the âhumanistâ who âspoke truth to powerâ.
A loving if âtemperamental soul mateâ is how she identified with him instead: âTo me, he was my daddy, a dapper man in three-piece suits tailor-made in London. A cute old guy who yelled at me passionately in his weird sometimes British, sometimes American accent and then (five minutes later) forgot he had been upset; the one who brought me presents from all over the world, talked to me about Jane Eyre â my favorite book when I was 12 â and held me when I cried. He played tennis and squash, drove a Volvo, smoked a pipe and collected pens. He was a professor. He was my father.â One remarkable aspect of Najlaâs sincere account of that affectionate father who was passionate about 19th-century European literature is how she presents the reader with a clever and bold reconstruction of Edward Said as the world knows him. In this sense, she refuses to have the world remember Said solely as an advocate of Palestinian rights or as the creator of Orientalism, forcing the reader to see an ardent lover of literature who rejected labels and enjoyed the life of the worldly intellectual.
As the memoirs unfold, Najla continues to be entombed between the two identities, suffering from the continual âorientalisationâ of her name which would manifest itself when colleagues ridiculed her saying, âWhat does it take to get into the Naj Mahal?â This toilsome scuffle with identity and acute sense of rejection peaks when she sees US-made bombs landing on Iraqi homes in 1991 and later when she visits Palestine for the first time only to find that Gaza was âan enormous concentration campâ where she wandered around in suede shoes and a $150 skirt only to board a plane and go home.
It is this mounting discomfort with her identity as the âotherâ, along with an aspiration to suffer after she witnesses the torment of Palestinians, that pushes Najla to âstop eatingâ the moment she becomes aware of her fatherâs diagnosis with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2003. To explain how a shrinking body would satisfy her need to be invisible yet accepted and acknowledged all at the same time, thus earning her âan identityâ, Najla makes the following pained remarks: âI actually wanted to become some sort of ascetic, crucified, suffering martyr. I wanted to stop being so conspicuous, I wanted to go away, I wanted to scream loudly, âWhy is all this happening?â but I had no voice. My body had become my voice. Starvation, more than ever, would become my language.â
As the memoir progresses, and especially in the sections where she narrates her experience as a college student of comparative literature at Princeton, Najla recalls quite vividly how the continued fear of being different and all the realities that supervened as a result of it eventually matured into an incredible advantage as an adult. As she embarks on her college experience and continues with her acting classes, Najla is able to perfect a newly carved identity for herself as a âEuropean intellectualâ which ultimately eases her out of her insecurity and helps her to be at peace with herself. It is this string of developments that eventually weaves her consciousness with the necessity of âtaking up spaceâ and forces her to put an end to her anorexia nervosa. As she clarifies, âIt was something that I had to learn to do, in more ways than one. I was told I was not really a full human being but needed to become one in order to be able to succeed in my chosen field. I not only needed to literally gain weight, I needed to figure out who I was.â
Najlaâs reconnection with Lebanon, which she carved out as a âhomelandâ, further counters her identity issues and reduces her confusion over her fatherâs prominence. Finally identifying herself as a Lebanese Palestinian American, Najla explains how she managed to find a deep fondness for her heritage and culture: âI wish I could help everyone discover all the wonderful things that I was lucky enough to be able to rediscover about it, all of the little details that make the culture so incredibly addictive and captivatingâŚ There is indeed the muezzin, the call to prayer, amazing at twilight, and there is that mysterious, deeply spiritual feel of the air and water (you are almost constantly aware that all the Bible stuff happened here). There are the smells and sounds and spices and flavors and carpets and hookahs, I suppose, if youâre looking at it that way…â
But it is after the events of 9/11, as Najla explains in the concluding chapters of her memoir, that her recognition of her identity fully blooms. She explains how she saw this event as âan unbelievable attack on home. Not home in the sense of America, but in the sense of my house, my world, my life,â and how she rejected what others tried to put forward as an âArab attackâ orchestrated by âPalestiniansâ. As Najla elucidates, it was at thisÂ moment of change that she came face to face with the realisation that she was for the first time defending what her father, as a humanist first and foremost, fought for all his life:
âI began to see how I had come to absorb all he believed in and thought about without even trying. That was a wonderful realisation: I had somehow created and thought incessantly about my own mixed-up âidentityâ precisely because I was never encouraged to embrace just one. I feel totally American at times and totally not American at times, and I feel the same way about being Arab.â
The horrifying reality of being crowned as an âArab-Americanâ pushed Najla to work with other Arab-Americans on a documentary-style theatre project in which randomÂ interviews were held with people surrounding the question of what comes to mind when one hears the word âArabâ? The footage was modified into a collage and then into a performance at the New York International Fringe Festival. It is this coming to terms with her identity and development of a sense of gratitude for her parentsâ humanistic principles that eventually helps Najla see the beauty behind her once so despised name, as she says:
ââSaidâ actually means âhappyâ in Arabic, or as my father told me: âNot âhappyâ as in âla-laâ… But, rather, a more profound sense of contentment.â… And my middle name, which was my maternal grandmotherâs name, âWadadâ, means âloveâ. Put all that together and I, Najla Wadad Said, am literally, âa happy gaping wound of loveâ.
Funny thing is, the more I think about it, the more I realise that it kind of fits. Perfectly.â
Just as Najla acquires a firm standing in the world and seeks to excel at her acting career, her fatherâs death on 25 September 2003 gives that newly acquired stance in life a severe blow. She so painstakingly describes the mournful stage that ensued: âSo I spent nearly a year comforting other people who mourned my father. Almost every time I said âI miss my dad,â someone would say, âOh, we all do,â and begin to wax eloquent on how he had changed their life. (To be honest, this still happens every time I say I miss my dad.) It was always qualified, of course, but usually in a way that didnât make me feel better: âHe was your real father, but he was a father to us all.â I felt I couldnât have my dad to myself. I did not know how to mourn âEdward Saidâ, and I did not want to mourn my daddy.â
Since she performed her one-woman show Palestine for the first time, Najla has incessantly been invited to talk, write, and perform as an âArab-Americanâ. Through her talks and performances, Najla has managed to help those troubled with a sense of otherness come to terms with their uniqueness. An accomplishment that was unearthed to Najla one day as she read feedback from someone who attended one of her talks: âSomewhere in all of us there is that same thing that I share with Najla, that otherness where our stories truly begin, that otherness that makes us belong.â This is precisely how Najla has given her readers something much more noteworthy than just an account of a real life lived in search of a comforting identity. Hers is a manual for all those tormented by a sense of being out of place and it is exactly this that makes her a brilliant and gifted artist.
Reviewed by Nourhan Tawfik