Before Najla Said’s memoir “Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family” was a book, it was a one-woman play called “Palestine.” The memoir reads as though it were being acted: Said’s voice is rich, evocative and cadent, and so are the voices of the many characters that have built her childhood.
But Said’s memoir begins with only her, as a New York City fourth-grader who is terrified of Jews.
Manhattan is not an ideal place in which to be afraid of Jews. Said’s anxiety leaves her paralyzed with fear at a friend’s apartment, and, ironically, close to tears during a meeting with her (Jewish) school psychologist, to whom she has been sent because of her anxiety. Walking by synagogues leaves Said with the vague desire to apologize; for what, she has no idea.
It isn’t that she is scared of Jews, per se. Rather, she is scared of their finding out that she is an Arab. Said is the daughter of a polished Lebanese mother and an absent-minded, intellectual Palestinian father.
For the first decade of her life, Najla Said is embarrassed by her father, Edward Said, an esteemed scholar and author who coined the term “orientalism,” which is also the title of his famous 1978 book.
(“You know,” Najla quips, “like ‘Aladdin.’”)
But as a child, Said doesn’t mind the “Aladdin” designation. She will take anything that allows her to fit in at the Chapin School, a bastion of willowy blonde girls who spend their summers in the Hamptons and do not venture west of Central Park.
Najla Said is not willowy, or blonde, or Upper-East-Side. Because her father teaches comparative literature at Columbia University, Said lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side among professors from around the world and their families. At one point, young Said eats peanuts in her apartment with the famous philosopher Dr. Cornel West. Many of Said’s Chapin friends are forbidden from visiting her apartment; those who do visit come accompanied by drivers.
Najla Said is growing up in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the height of conflict in the Middle East, in a city far removed from the fighting but in a family very much invested in it. Dr. Said is vocal about his criticism of Israel’s occupation, fueling Najla Said’s Jewish anxiety. On her mother’s side of the family there is Beirut, the paradise-turned-warzone. When Said is still in Chapin’s Lower School, Beirut is already synonymous with instability and violence. Said is left to reconcile her happier childhood memories with the civil war that has taken over Lebanon.
At home in New York City, the ground does not shake with bombs, but Said’s legs shake with fear of ostracism. In third grade, Said is summoned for height and weight checks, in which a cheerful nurse calls out the girls’ heights and weights for all to hear. Said’s classmates take this opportunity to bond over common statistics (“You’re 94 pounds? So am I! We’re twins!!!!”), but Said is taller, heavier, and darker than her classmates. The height and weight checks only amplify her differences.
In high school, her father speaks at an assembly. Said’s friends, many of them Jews, gush over her father’s brilliance. Said’s friends are doubly wowed by her father’s ability to “diss” an obnoxious teacher who asks an inane question after the talk. As students swarm her father after the assembly, Said begins to realize that her father is actually sort of cool.
Though she’s slowly coming to terms with her identity, she is still standing with one foot in New York and the other one in Palestine. One evening, Said and her brother, Wade, are in the backseat of Dr. Said’s car, cruising the streets of New York around Christmastime, when the song “The First Noel” comes on the radio. Najla sings at the top of her lungs, “Born is the king of IIIIISSSSRRRAAAEEELLL.”
She receives a sharp jab in the ribs from Wade. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Born is the king of Occupied Palestine,’” he instructs her.
Wade Said is the activist, rejecting stereotypes left and right, but Najla Said, at the Trinity School, embraces her “exoticism.” Yes, she capitalizes on the very thing her father is famous for denouncing, and no, he doesn’t know. Her name means “big black eyes like a cow”; she learns in an advanced Latin class that this is high praise, especially in ancient times.
And the boys at Trinity, too, are enthusiastic about her foreign look. Jokes are made that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved each time her lips meet those of a Jewish boy.
At this point, Najla Said is no longer afraid of Jews. She is, however, afraid of something else: her father’s imminent death. He has been diagnosed with leukemia that will kill him, and before he dies, he wants to see Palestine, the home from which he fled in the 1940s.
In the wake of her parents’ announcement of her father’s illness and the Palestine trip, Said makes what she calls “the brilliant decision to stop eating.” She acknowledges that this decision is linked to her father’s diagnosis. Said posits, too, that her anorexia is partly a quest to distinguish herself in a way that she can control: being really skinny is a less sticky identity than being really Palestinian.
Dr. Edward Said’s official birth certificate reads “Jerusalem,” changed from the nonexistent “Palestine,” because he cannot bear to have it read “Israel.” As soon as their plane touches down, the Saids discover that the Palestine of 1992 is nothing like the Palestine that Dr. Said left as a young man. Dr. Said meets with prominent Palestinian leaders in smoky rooms while Najla and Mrs. Said make small talk with their wives.
Said has found Palestine, but she does not know where she fits into it. She feels like a wealthy New Yorker when she visits the unimaginable squalor of Gaza, but in New York she feels “exotic,” a role she is growing increasingly less comfortable playing. As the car glides through Palestine’s destitute streets, Said is gutted, at home nowhere.
“Looking for Palestine” is not about global politics: Said does not take sides or resolve her feelings about international conflict, nor does she dwell on it. Debates such as the current boycott against Israeli universities by the American Studies Association (a subject upon which President Roth and Professor of East Asian Studies Vera Schwartz have opined for the Huffington Post and The Argus) do not interest her. Said is not an intellectual like her father. Rather, she tells stories: most notably, her own, distilling enormous conflict into personal experience.
“I don’t do [my father’s] work,” Said told the Princeton Alumni Weekly (Said graduated from Princeton in 1996). “I’m an actress, I’m not an activist. I hate going to protests….I’m a storyteller.”
And that story is enough.