2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture: Looking for Palestine with Ms. Najla Said


Video and Edited Transcript
Najla Said
Transcript No. 391 (2 October 2013)




2 October 2013
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC


Najla Said:

Thank you so much, it’s an unbelievable honor to be here as speaker in general, a lecturer, which is just beyond me. But also to be here as the Edward Said speaker. My father meant a lot to me, obviously as most parents do, but he was very important to me as a father as well as who he was to everyone else. So, thank you very, very much for inviting me here.

I have just published this book called Looking for Palestine, the subtitle is also very important because it’s called, “Growing up confused in an Arab American family”. And that is the main thing that propelled me to write this book. It was my own confusion, fear and apprehension about this being the daughter of this famous “Palestinian” and not really feeling like I had any idea what that meant and or who I was.

So, I’m going to just talk a little bit about what’s in the book, just to give you a background on that and I then I’m going to read you from it because I feel that’s easier than explaining what I’ve already written. And just to give you an idea of how my own identity as a Palestinian American, how I formed it in the past few years, which is very difficult.

My mother is from Lebanon. My mom is from a Christian family but they’re actually Quaker: so there is the first problem. My dad, as many of you know, was Palestinian but born with American citizenship, went to British Schools, and he wrote a lot about his own identity issues. And he left Palestine at a very young age. He was raised in Jerusalem, then Cairo. He came here to the United States at the age of fourteen or fifteen. And he was also Christian, Anglo-Episcopalian, to be precise. I was born and baptized as an Episcopalian, so that again is another strange thing.

So then I was raised in New York City and I was sent to a private school for girls on the Upper East Side because my parents, of course, wanted me to get a wonderful, good education and it was a very good school. However when I went to the school, everyone seemed to be blonde and “WASP’y”. But I was Episcopalian. So you see, I sort of fit in but I didn’t.  And then, my father was meanwhile was in the other room writing Orientalism about representation of Arabs in the media, arts and literature and I was, as I say in the book, watching I Dream of Genie and trying to figure out why I didn’t have blonde hair, magic powers and a sexy outfit. So, this is sort of how I see myself to this day, as this kind of confused, lost child of immigrants.

And yet I am also the daughter of this person who, to many people, really symbolizes Palestinian identity, or Palestinian American identity. So when I became a professional actress, and I am not going to get too much into this, but it became interesting to me to realize how much it mattered that my name was Najla Said and I didn’t want to change it. I didn’t wanted to change it because, I don’t know, it just seemed, as I said last night in a book talk, I really honestly thought that maybe if somebody said a different name I wouldn’t answer them because I would forget that I changed my name or something.  You know everyone thinks that I did all these things with a certain amount of integrity and thought, I honestly didn’t want to change my name, it seemed like a very old-fashioned, silly thing to do in the world in which we live. But when I became a professional actress and I realized that having this name Najla Said, which regardless of who my father was, was how it meant I would be perceived and what would be expected of me,  I began to really start to deal with my identity.

So in the book I write a lot about how as a little girl I went to school with these white Episcopalian girls and I was an Episcopalian and relatively white. So, I was trying to fit in but then I kept hearing that I was Arab and then I would sort of look at TV and see what was being presented me as what an Arab should be, which was Muslim and really brown-skinned and a certain type of, you know, all the things my father wrote about, terrorists, or you know fanatic Muslims or just belly dancers and so I didn’t fit into any of these categories. So, I was trying very hard to fit into America and to be like my friends but it wasn’t working. And then when I was in high school I switched to another school where the students were mostly Jewish. And all of a sudden, I fit in. Part of it was because the way I look and the way I act because I’m from the Upper West Side of Manhattan which, to many people, is just a connotation of, it’s just Jewish.  It’s this idea that New Yorkers from a certain part of New York, who talk a certain way, and have a certain type of neuroses, are Jewish people.

So I think that what happened to me was that I had a lot of confusion about my identity. And then as I got older, the time in which I was born, I was born in 1974.  My mom is Lebanese as I said, so we would go to Lebanon, but the war started when I was about a year old.  So there was a war in Lebanon and then my dad was Palestinian and I did not understand how that fit in because sometimes he couldn’t come with us.  And then my parents were Arab, but we were not Muslim. So there was a lot going on in my brain.  So I thought for a long time that the best thing to do was just to avoid it and try to be American, which I think is something that a lot of young children of immigrants try to do.  But then as I got older I realized that I couldn’t really avoid these things and I would have to find a way to deal with my identity.

When I was 18 years old, in 1992, my father had found out he had leukemia the year before and so we went on a family trip to Palestine.  It was the first time I went and the last time I went.  I was 18 years old.  When my father passed away in 2003, I wrote a journal entry about this trip because I had never really thought about it or made sense of it but for some reason, I was missing my father and I started writing this long journal entry which ultimately evolved into a play called Palestine, which ultimately evolved into this book Looking for Palestine. What I think that this trip did for me was a few things.  It forced me to confront all the different things about my identity that I wanted to avoid.  It made me confront Palestine as a place and as an idea and figure out where I fit in, in that regard.  It forced me to deal with my father’s mortality, my own mortality. But also I just felt very afraid because I was 18 years old and here is my dad telling me, “I have just been diagnosed with Leukemia, we are going to go back to Palestine, you are going to see it, and then you are sort of going to grow up and deal with it and I am going to go.”  So that was the launch point for the book and the play.

I realized in the process of writing this book that although I always constantly feel like I still am  this confused, “I don’t know if I am American, I don’t know if I am Palestinian, I don’t know if I’m Lebanese, I don’t know if I’m smart, I don’t know if I understand politics,” that I’ve somehow still managed to internalize and really take in and understand everything that my father stood for and spoke about, was famous for, and was revered for, which is a certain amount of integrity and an association with my identity that it just is, it is part of who I am, and that is something that I will not deny.  Even if I don’t feel like I have a house in Palestine, that I know each nook and cranny of the walls, or like my grandmother was there, I do not have any of those tangible connections and I always thought that was what made me feel like I did not belong there.

But in writing this book and working through this process I have realized that I have actually taken in everything that my father taught me and taught all of us.  And so in a certain way, the most common question I have been asked besides, “How does the daughter of Edward Said not know where she is from?” which I think is not a fair question, is, “What would your father say were he alive now?” People constantly are writing, “We wish Edward Said was here to comment, we wish he was here, we miss his voice,” and what I have learned is he left us everything that we need to analyze and look at things the way that he did.  My style of talking, writing and performing is very casual, very American. I come off as just a human being who’s trying to figure it out. And I do that on purpose because it is important to me that I carry on something that he taught me which is that as long as you are human and you present yourself as a human—with all your faults and your daily struggles, your wishes, your thoughts about what you are and what you would like to be, and the freedom of movement you would like to have, to sort of relate it specifically to Palestinians—people will listen to you.  Many people talk about how he used to speak of this “permission to narrate” and tell your own story and also this idea that we are all just human beings and I think it is quite simple.  So sadly I went through this whole process of worrying about being the daughter of this person, who seemed to represent so much and have these lofty ideas, but what has come out of it is this incredible realization that it is very, very simple.  We mustn’t forget how simple it is.

You know, people have asked me, “Wasn’t your father was an anti-Semite?” And I’m like, “Well no, he was just Palestinian.”  And if you have actually have read anything he wrote, you can see that he is in no way an anti-Semite, but people don’t  do that.  People take their associations about your identity and just being Palestinian or saying I am Palestinian carries this whole thing with it.  So the best thing we could do, I can do, and that I have learned to do, is just to present myself as a human being and that is all there is to our moving forward in our quest for just peace and in terms of what’s happening in the Middle East right now with all the upheaval, and all the trauma and the sadness.  I think my father would be very… I remember when in 2011 when Mubarak was finally ousted, I cried because I think that my father would have been so – it was everything he ever worked for – this moment of people coming together and rising up and realizing that they have power to change things.  But in the months that followed, or the years that followed, people have been asking me, “Oh, what are we going to do?”  This is a necessary step, we are in a necessary place, the upheaval has to come, the difficulty has to come. Unfortunately there is a lot of violence and death and horrible things, but my father would never encourage anyone to give up hope and I think that is the most important thing.

So my book was written to remind those of us, the next generation, whether we are Palestinian or not, that we have all of the tools we need to continue this struggle to move forward.  I’m just going to read a couple of little sections from the book and then I will answer any questions that you have.

So in 1992, we went on this trip to Palestine and at this point, I just graduated from high school, my father has been diagnosed with leukemia, and I am myself quite ill with an eating disorder, which had developed in part because of my own sort of disconnect with my culture and my identity, I just wanted to kind of disappear, and there was a lot going on.  So we went on this trip and I didn’t want to go.  And we went to Palestine, we went to Jerusalem, we stayed in the American Colony Hotel, which at first really excited me because it was the “American” Colony Hotel and I thought it would be American and that would be good because I was not really excited about being in the Middle East.  Then we went and we saw my father’s home. And another thing, which I pointed out last night, was I was constantly… I was born in the States and I lived on the West Side of Manhattan and all my friends lived on the East Side. So all I wanted to do was live on the East Side.  And then my mother was from Beirut, which was divided into East and West and we lived in the West, but we were Christian so we were “supposed” to be in the East.  And my dad was from Jerusalem and he was from West Jerusalem, but we were Arab, so we were supposed to be in the East.  So that kept happening!  I was supposed to be in the East all the time and I was always in the West.  I only realized that recently, it is fascinating how much that played into these categories, these divisions that we create and how so completely arbitrary they are.  How I used to go to school in New York and I would go to school in the East Side and I would be worried that if they would somehow close off – there would be a war – they would close off the West side and I would not be allowed to go home.  So these are very real things that were very prevalent in my childhood, in my consciousness, in my psyche.  So this trip scared me for a lot of reasons.

So we went to Jerusalem and we went and visited my father’s house in which he was born and grew up, which is, as I have said, in West Jerusalem.  My father wrote about this in the London Observer, that although we were frightened, my brother and I were convinced that we were going to see the name of one of our Jewish friends on the house door.  We fortunately didn’t, but we did encounter a sign that said, “The International Christian Embassy,” which was a right-wing, Zionist, Christian organization.  So, again, we are Christian but I don’t know… all of these things started to just spin around in my head, and I thought “I’m never going to make sense of any of this.”

[reading from book] “It was on this trip that I learned that my parents both grew up in Arab cities, with Jewish quarters, that were as much part of the city as any other neighborhood.

In the Beirut of my mother’s youth, there was not only a Sunni Muslim area, a Shi’ite area and a Christian area, there was also a Jewish area. Even now, after more than one Israeli invasion and countless internal religious battles, the synagogue still stands in Beirut. And as in any other big city, each quarter earned its particular designation because of the families who settled there and not because someone drew a line. My mom told me the story about how our famously philanthropic mother put money for the “Jewish Home” in a blue box, on the coffee table of a German, Jewish neighbor in Beirut, without knowing that that home was going to be in Palestine. My dad talked of his Jewish friends in Egypt. My mom reminded me that her school, the one that her mother ran, was in the Jewish quarter of Beirut. I wondered how their experiences were different from mine.

I considered the Israeli kids in the park with their nannies. Their parents and their grandparents might have been victims of the European Holocaust, but those same adults had probably never thought anything about Arabs until they got to Israel. Yet here, now, not so much later, their children, me, these kids, none of us had ever known the other as anything but an enemy. It seemed so bizarre. I was suddenly struck by the reality of this conflict. It had not been going on for centuries, its origins were recent. Long ago and at the same time not that long ago. Each group of children has the memories of our parents separate tragedies to defend and protect, and none of us really get it. The divisions and separations began to suddenly multiply spasmodically in my head and then collide and violently come together: Palestinian, Israeli, Arab-Christian, Arab-Muslim, Arab-Jew, Palestinian-American, Jewish-American.

My father stopped in his tracks on the way back to the car, to tell me what he really thought about the Middle East conflict. ‘Naj, you know, it’s my generation that’s messed it up. We are too connected to the events of ’48 and ’67. We were there, we participated, and until we’re all gone, my generation, the Sharons and the Arafats, and all of us. Nothing is going to get done. It’s up to your generation to fix it really.’ He put his arm around me as we resumed our walk. I turned my head to stare back at the saucer-eyed Palestinian children whose blank expressions mirrored my own. I began to photograph them obsessively wherever we went; I had no other way of capturing what I felt inside.

On Tuesday, June 16th, 1992, we piled into a UN vehicle and went to Gaza. My mom had told me I had to wear a skirt there, which I initially thought would be no big deal since I had brought many with me on the trip.  As I got up from the breakfast room to change my mother quickly and apologetically added that it could not be a very short skirt. I was taken aback for a moment, because my mother never seemed to care what we wore. But I heeded her warning and carefully chose a blue prep Agnes B skirt that my parents had given me for my birthday. Long by my standards at the time, it hung just above my knees. I put on pair of brown suede, Oxford shoes from Fratelli Rossetti, an elegant store on Madison Avenue.  I had no idea what was expected. I had no idea what to expect. I thought I looked modest enough, especially since my rail thin body and baby face made me look much younger than my 18 years.

But as soon as we entered the van, the driver suggested he stop for me and my mother to get us some sort of full length abayas, cloaks, and hijabs, or headscarves, on the way. My mother refused, chiding the driver in Arabic, ‘We are not Muslim, but we are Arabs, and we can be respectful without being covered head to toe.’ He nodded his head, and he let us be. I wanted to throw up.
We entered the Strip through a military checkpoint. There were army posts and intimidating soldiers manning stations all over the area and more barbed wire than I had ever seen. Daddy commented to us, and later in his own article that, “the entrance gave the place the appearance of an enormous concentration camp.’ We were searched, cleared, and let through. I took pictures from the car window as we approached Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp. There were people everywhere. ‘This place has the highest population density in the world,’  Daddy told us, ‘65,000 people live here on top of each other. Naj, are you listening? In half a square mile of space.’

I was listening, but I didn’t need to hear the details. I could see everything. The car windows were closed, but I could still smell the open sewers. Daddy continued to lecture us, all the while mentally taking notes for his article. ‘The statistics are nightmarish. Terrible infant mortality rates, high unemployment, the lowest per-capita income in the occupied territories, the most days of curfew, the fewest medical services,’ and on, and on. And this is twenty years ago. Gaza today is much, much worse.

Despite my mother’s insistence that my outfit was fine, I felt very conspicuous and alienated from my people as I descended from the car. Then I put my fancy, suede shoe down into the muddy earth of Gaza, and inhaled that horrifying stench of raw sewage. It had penetrated the car window, but I had really only faintly smelled it when I was inside the vehicle. At that moment, I truly realized that I had absolutely no idea about anything.

We had lunch at the house of some important people. As we entered, all of the men, including my brother and father were guided into one room, the women into the other. I was confused, I had been to the Middle East many times before, and despite my relative isolation in recent years, had nevertheless had grown up around lots of Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, yet this was a custom I had never, ever encountered anywhere but in the movies. I followed my mom into the female salon. The women began talking about cooking. I understood them of course, but my Arabic was too weak for me to respond. Frankly though, I really had nothing to say. I didn’t cook. I didn’t even eat. My mother nodded, smiled and politely answered all of their questions. I could tell she was slightly bored, but was making every effort not to show it.

I too was bored, so I slipped away into the room with the men. A saucy, defiant act it was, but I knew I would get away with it. I knew that to these people I was both just a little girl, and an essentially American one. I could always pretend I didn’t know any better. My father saw me in the doorway and waved his hand, gesturing for me to come in. Quite a few of the men jumped up to give me their chairs, but I smiled sweetly and quietly and perched myself on the arm of my father’s, where I ultimately drifted off into a daydream. They were, much to my chagrin, but not to my surprise, talking about what men in the Middle East always seem to be talking about: politics. I felt like I had played the part of the bored teenager in this scene in just about every country of the Arab world, so I knew what to do: tune out.

Arab men, always, always, seem to want to sit and talk, very seriously, about politics. They would all listen intently to one another, everyone would smoke a lot cigarettes, drink cups of Arabic coffee, and some would finger prayer beads as they thoughtfully considered the argument to which they were giving audience. In this smoke-filled room in Gaza, all eyes were fixed on my dad. Most of the men did not even know why my father was important, other than that he was a connection to the outside world, or more specifically to the West. The irony of my dad’s renown was that until he passed away, his face and name were far more familiar to people outside Palestine than they were to anyone who actually lived there.

They did know that he was important though, and that they had been brought here to tell him their stories. After we left, I asked Daddy to explain to me exactly what had been said.   I wouldn’t have been able to follow the heavily accented Arabic conversation even I had been listening. Later in his article, he used basically the same words he had used with me, ‘I didn’t hear a single hopeful thing in the two hours I was with the men. One of them spoke about having spent 17 years in jail. His children sick, his relatives destitute. There was a lot of anger. The phrase I kept hearing was “mowt batee’”, slow death.

There seemed to considerable animus against West Bankers, who were variously characterized by Gazans as spoiled or privileged, or insensitive. “we are forgotten,” they all said, and because of the unimaginably difficult job of dramatically, or even slightly improving the general lot of Gazans, I was repeatedly enjoined, at least, not to forget.’

I can try to conjure a picture of Gaza, but all I really remember of that day is a feeling. There was a dead goat, head and all, on a platter for lunch, and there was a small piece of fruit given to me by one of the young girls at the house, which I pretended to bite into and chew, and swallow. She had plucked of a tree near the porch to me, and then she chose a second piece for herself.

She popped hers into her mouth and smiled. All that I noticed was the layer of filthy dust that had covered one she had given me. I didn’t want to eat it because of the, eight calories? But I also wondered how anyone could eat a piece of fruit without washing it. The inside of the house was immaculate and beautifully decorated, even though the outside was stinky and dirty. I tried to wrap my teenage head, around the existence of such a place in the world where people are trapped like caged animals in the filthiest zoo on earth, while I somehow got to prance around in suede shoes and 150-dollar skirts and then get on a plane and go home.

In this way, the trip to Palestine added another dimension to my anorexia. I wanted desperately to suffer not just for my daddy, but for all of Palestine as well. I felt guilty, horrible, and sick to my stomach. I never wanted to eat again. How could I, when others who were just like me in every other way were unlucky enough to be born into nothing.”

That was the initial memory that triggered the writing of the play and the book. And when I started working on both of these things, I was writing from a point of view of, “Everyone says I’m my father’s daughter and now my father is gone now and I have to be my father’s daughter.” And I want to explain to you how little I know about where I’m from and who I am and what my father did. But in the process of creating this work and the play as well, I realized that I am my father’s daughter. Everything in terms of the way I see the world and where I fit in it, everything I think about is colored by Palestine and being Palestinian and trying to find a way to integrate that part of my identity and you know, my father had talked about various different identities and I’ve embraced all of my confusion, my awkwardness and my pain and difficulty of accepting being all of these different things, but at the same time what all comes through is that I am still proud to be Palestinian.

So when I travelled to schools, which I do a lot with this work, I realized that what we have in part thanks to my dad’s work but also thanks to the work of so many people who work on behalf of Palestinian rights, justice, solidarity. You know I went to college 20 years ago and you wouldn’t be caught in a keffiyeh unless you are actually Palestinian and wanted to start a fight or something but now I would say most of kids on the campuses are well informed and they’re aware. Even the Jewish kids… I went to one high school in New York and I think that they may have, after I left, started a program about talking about Jewish identity because a lot of the kids were raised by grandparents and parents who were deeply affected by the Holocaust but these kids didn’t agree with Israel’s policies. So this little girl told me about, “My grandmother called me an anti-Semite, but I told her I’m Jew but I just don’t like what Israel does and what do I do?” So there is a lot of that going on.

What I’ve realized in the process of writing and working through this and actually engaging with younger people is that whether it’s my father’s work, or all of our work or whatever it is, there is still a movement for justice and equality for Palestinians and so this fear that everyone expresses that, “We wish you’re alive to tell us what to do or tell us how to react,” is totally understandable, but it’s also not necessary because if I even turned out okay, everyone else will too and I have great, great faith in the coming generations of young people, whatever their identity as Americans and as immigrants to this country, in terms of fighting for equality and justice for Palestine.


Ms. Najla Said is an award-winning actress and writer. As an actress, she has appeared Off-Broadway, regionally and internationally, as well as in film and television. She is a founding member of Nibras Theatre Collective and one of New York Theatre Workshop’s “Usual Suspects.” Her play, Palestine, is a one-woman show that debuted Off-Broadway in February 2010. It is a coming-of-age story about Said’s journey to become an Arab-American on her own terms. In 2010, Najla was named one of the “top 40” feminists “under 40” by the Feminist Press.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.