Features

Najla Said’s “Palestine”

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Catie Byrne and Emily Moser
Staff Writers

How do you identify yourself? How do others identify you? Who are you?

            These difficult questions were addressed in the 2016, Keker First Year Common Read, “Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family,” by Najla Said.    

            And on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at noon, Said met for a private, intimate lunch in Cone Ballroom. Here, she gave a brief introduction to her play, “Palestine,” further explained her inspiration for writing,Looking for Palestine” and answered questions from the luncheon attendants.

            “Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family,” is a funny, entertaining memoir focused around Said’s upbringing as a Lebanese-Palestinian-American, raised in New York City.

            Said, is the daughter of the famous Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said and Lebanese mother, Miriam. Her father, the author of “Orientalism,” is famous for founding the academic field of postcolonial studies, and being the first to address the dehumanizing depiction of Middle Eastern people in American media.

            During the luncheon, Said performed the opening scene to her show “Palestine.”

And after performing the scene, Said went on to explain her inspiration for writing the play, “Palestine,” and later the book, “Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family.”

Said, as an Arab who grew up in America, explained that she always felt guilty for growing up in America, and asked herself; “Why am I so lucky?”

The goal of “Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family,” she explained, was to make at least one person in a similar situation to her, not feel so alone.

She also explained the idea of an ever-changing identity. From her own personal experience with an ever changing identity, she is fascinated by the categories we all try to fit ourselves within.

Furthermore, she conveyed that: no matter how you identify yourself or how society identifies you, you are a human. And, all humans deserve equal respect.

Said demonstrated a genuine excitement for the open and welcoming campus of UNCG. She is inspired by the many different identities displayed and the loving environment alloying this.

Related to the subject of ever changing identities, collages made by students lined the walls of the Cone Ballroom.

Each collage addressed the questions: “Who am I?” and “How do others see me,” images which perfectly aligned with the themes of the book. Interestingly, the collages were very powerful, her personal voice truly showed through.

            This was further explored in Said’s one-woman performance, “Palestine,” at UNCG’s auditorium on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. Said’s “Palestine” was animated and dramatic performance, filled with deprecating and serious moments of self-expression.

In her opening of the show, Said deprecatingly discussed the ways in which she was perceived as ethnically ambiguous woman growing up in New York City; perceived to be anything other than what she is, an Arab, Lebanese and Palestinian woman.  

She contrasted her personal experiences of ethnic erasure with that of her famous Palestinian father, Edward Said. “He was, the most famous Palestinian-American that ever was… My father was well-known, and respected, and a Palestinian… To some, he was the author of ‘Orientalism,’ the book that everyone will read at some point in college… To other people, he is the symbol of Palestinian self-determination, a champion of human rights, equality and social justice; a humanist who spoke to truth and power! And then to other people, [they] still insist he was a terrorist…To me, he was my daddy.”

Said spoke at length about what it was like to grow up with her famous father, as well as what it was like to be a wealthy Christian growing up in New York, who would try to mask her ethnic identities with her wealth and prestige as Edward Said’s daughter.  Growing up, Said said that her status made her feel “cosmopolitan,” and because of the resources and wealth her family had, “There was no way we were Arab, and certainly not Palestinians… So I fit in, and I assimilated.”

            Said’s struggle with her Arab and Palestinian identity, however, began to intensify in her late teens when her family visited Palestine. Suffering from depression and anorexia related to her father’s recent cancer diagnosis, at the time, Said said, “I felt empty, empty, scared, lost and rejected.”

Upon arriving to Palestine, Said said, “So here it is, the promise land, that is nothing to me but a horrifically frightening place; my head aches from the heat, and the sight of barbed wire and the feel of palpable tension and anger that is everywhere… There is water here, but I notice only desert. Here it is just division, separation, yes; apartheid.”

Said expressed feeling a sort of culture shock, being only 18-years-old at the time of her visit, and knowing little about the conditions of the Palestinian people she was trying to understand her connection to, because she was raised in New York her entire life and lived a relatively privileged life. Of her difficulty connecting to Palestine and Palestinians, Said said, “So you go to Palestine, knowing that you are one of them, but looking and sounding like you are one of us [non-Palestinian].”

However, these complex feelings of alienation regarding her Palestinian and Arab identities began to shift as a result of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

There was a moment, Said recounted, that occurred during this time, which caused her to begin to embrace herself as Arab and Palestinian. Of 9/11, Said said, “That was the moment my life changed forever… Back at the gym, I was standing side by side by a trainer, watching the events unfold”— Said then said that she heard the trainer say something offensive regarding Palestinians and Arabs — to which Said said, “for the first time in my life, I turned on my heels and said ‘what are you talking about?’” Said then proceeded to passionately perform her rebuttal regarding why Palestinians had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

After 9/11, Said expressed feeling as though she would never find a home in which she would feel secure; “If Palestine, Lebanon and New York aren’t safe, then where on this earth do I go?” Said then expressed that she finally began to see herself as Arab and Palestinian, however, expressed that she would never entirely feel American, Palestinian or Lebanese, in part because of the way she grew up, and how her father viewed the politics of identity as not particularly useful.

Said began to close the show, discussing the pain of her father’s death due to cancer, in 2003, and how this affected her conception of her identity. One of Said’s most powerful remarks regarding her identity towards the end of her performance of “Palestine,” was:  “And while I’ve never returned to Palestine, Palestine always returns to me.”

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