Actress-writer Najla Said

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Said reflects on being caught between two worlds and negotiating Arab identity in America, which she writes about in her memoir.

Najla Said is an important voice for second-generation Arab Americans across the U.S. The writer-comedian-actress has appeared in numerous plays, in film and on TV. Born a Palestinian Lebanese American and the daughter of a renowned academic and outspoken Palestinian advocate, she grew up in Manhattan, but often felt conflicted about her cultural identity. She graduated from Princeton, studied acting in NYC and has done a hugely popular one-woman show, Palestine. She's also a founding member of the Arab American theatre collective, Nibras. In her new memoir, Looking for Palestine, Said chronicles her journey to become an Arab American on her own terms.


Tavis: Having a brilliant and demanding father was something of a mixed blessing for Najla Said, the daughter of Palestinian scholar and activist Professor Edward Said. Najla was caught between two worlds – the rigorous intellectual domain of her parents, and the privileged Manhattan prep school in which she was raised.

She’s written a new memoir detailing that experience. It’s titled “Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Era of American Family.” Najla Said, good to have you on this program.

Najla Said: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Let me ask the question I’m sure you’ve been asked by everybody else. We can get this out of the way. How does the daughter of Edward – (laughter) you know the question already, don’t you?

Said: Yes, I do.

Tavis: Go ahead and ask (unintelligible).

Said: How does the daughter of Edward Said have no idea where she’s from? (Laughter)

Tavis: High five. That’s pretty good, pretty good.

Said: I got it.

Tavis: All right.

Said: It’s the easy number one question.

Tavis: Let’s get that out the way, yeah, yeah.

Said: I have no – these are my answers. Maybe I’m stupid, I was a little kid, my father is not that clear-cut. I think that a lot of people assume that my father was a professor – because he was known for being Palestinian that he was, that Palestine was a very readily available thing for me and that Palestine was a place I’d been and a place I had connections.

It really wasn’t. My mom was from Lebanon, my dad was Palestinian, but he was an English professor. He didn’t have an accent, he spoke Arabic, but he spoke English. My family’s Christian, all sorts of Christian.

So I didn’t fit into any of the sort of – the irony of it all is that my dad wrote this book, “Orientalism,” which is about how we have these sort of one-dimensional representations of people from theme and Arabs and Muslims in popular culture.

I was completely fooled by them myself, so I didn’t really know – I didn’t fit in. I didn’t think I was an Arab because I didn’t fit into any of those things that were given to me.

I didn’t have – I wasn’t Muslim, I wasn’t brown, I wasn’t whatever, all the things that I was supposed to be.

Tavis: Let me jump ahead given that answer, so thank you for the question. (Laughter)

Said: Yeah, you’re welcome.

Tavis: You want to change seats here?

Said: Yeah, let’s do that.

Tavis: Thanks for the question, thanks for the answer. Let me jump ahead and then I promise to come back.

Said: Okay.

Tavis: Having said all that, Najla, have you figured it out now, or are you figuring it out still?

Said: I think I’m figuring it out, but I think that in a sense, what I’ve come to suspect is that there’s no answer, and that it just depends – identity is a fluid thing, and I’m in as many ways – I’m Arab, I’m not Arab, I’m American, I’m not American.

Arab American never felt like it fit. So I think one of the things that I learned in the journey of writing this and the play that I wrote before it is that there is no – there’s no, you’re not going to find an answer.

Identity is this – we all are mixed up. It just depends on what you – I wrote this originally, the book came out of a play that I wrote. We titled the play “Palestine,” just because I didn’t know what to call it.

Then I got an award from a feminist organization. So I thought if I had called the play “Woman,” would I have gotten an award from a Palestinian – you know what I mean? (Laughter) It’s just like so, so arbitrary. Just whichever identity you pick to focus on – you’re all of those things.

Tavis: See, that argument cuts at least two different ways for me.

Said: Yes.

Tavis: On the one hand I think it’s a beautiful mosaic, it’s a beautiful mix, that one doesn’t necessarily have to figure out. One can embrace all aspects of it as part and parcel of who you are, and I get that.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t figure something out, then one lives in a state of confusion.

Said: Yes.

Tavis: I don’t know that that’s where we want to be either. Or where you want to be.

Said: No, I agree with that. I think it’s tricky, because I think what happens is even those – I learned this sort of by questioning my father, because when I came of age, and when I was in high school and college it was the ’90s, and political correctness was – everyone was something-American at that point.

My father told me he didn’t really believe that we should, everyone should sort of assert their identity in that way, to say African American or – even though you should be proud of where you’re from, being American and the idea of America being this melting pot.

It becomes a problem, because it’s like you’re trying to assimilate into something that is supposed to be mixed. So this “American” thing becomes sort of muddled. So I get that, but then at the same time my father was very proud of being Arab and Palestinian.

Tavis: I was about to say –

Said: He made it very clear. (Laughter) So that’s part of it that I struggled with, and I think what happens, what I realize is that what happens is that becomes an identity in and of itself, and if you don’t fit the stereotype of that Arab American or African American, then you feel like you don’t belong.

So I think what it is is finding that even within these identity labels that there is variety and there is difference and there is just variation.

Tavis: So when you are all that and then some, and this is a fascinating book because we live in a country now, as I say all the time, that is more multicultural, more multiracial, more multiethnic than ever before.

We also live in a country where all of that is what makes up this new generation of kids.

Said: Right.

Tavis: So if you think you’re mixed with a lot of stuff, stick around here for another 15, 20, 40, 50 years. We’re all going to be, all these kids and grandkids are going to be mixed up with a lot of different stuff.

So how does one come to terms, then, in terms of living your own life and being okay with all that you are, how does one come to peace with that?

Said: I think you just sort of have to embrace it and go with it, and just, as you said – my nephew is Irish-Palestinian-Lebanese – he’s all sorts of things. His cousin is Native American, African American, Lebanese – I’m sorry, Palestinian, Irish.

So these kids, it’s true, they’re all – it’s just going to keep going, and then you’re going to just sort of end up being, we’re all going to end up being huge mixes of identities.

I think you just come to terms with it by just – what my parents taught me was that a human being is a human being and that’s kind of it. I think that one of the things I do in this book is like there was a lot of my childhood because of where I grew up, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and where I went to school, and what I look like, and what people think when they look at me, that people think I’m Jewish.

I’m like, if you can think I’m Jewish, then maybe I can have equal right if I wanted to move to Israel. Then it sort of gets confusing, because people are like, “No, but you’re Palestinian, you’re not Jewish. You’re not Jewish, but you act Jewish, but you look Jewish, but I.”

So what are these labels, how are they serving us? I think it’s good to have a connection to your past and your culture and where you’re from. I think it’s really important. But I think at the same time we have to know where those, like, what we’re doing with those labels and why we’re using them.

Is it to make ourselves feel more special, or is it to sort of just have a sense of where we’re from, and yet continue to move forward and be just human with the rest of the world? I don’t know.

Tavis: You’ve mentioned that this book, “Looking for Palestine,” comes, of course, out of a play.

Said: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: An off-Broadway play. Your dad had a chance to see that.

Said: He saw the first version of it, yes.

Tavis: What did he make of that first version?

Said: He was very, very proud. He was very proud. On the one hand, he was my father, so I always say that when I begin, because my father is my father, and anything I did, I was the best at it and nobody could do it better than me, and I was the most beautiful and the most talented and the most wonderful.

Tavis: But he was also a truth-teller, though.

Said: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Said: So he – there were many points, and there were things that he was critical of and that he thought were cute and that he thought I should develop, especially – what’s sort of at the end of the book is also at the end of the play.

But he would always be like, “Keep going with that. Think further, think more, think, write more.” To me, there’s, like, a sense of I get to a point where I’m confused and then I sort of throw it all out there and I let the audience or the reader sort of think about it, and I don’t give answers.

I think he would have wanted more analysis, perhaps, but I really like the way that I don’t have any answers or easy fixes for anything.

Tavis: Your dad clearly was an academic and also obviously was an advocate. You are an actress. Tell me about the pressure that you have felt, to the extent you have, from people who adored your father and adored his courageous truth-telling as an advocate and as an academic. How does one who’s an actress wear that garment?

Said: It’s difficult. I think there’s a couple of different layers of that. On the one hand there’s the sense of prominence and celebrity, and when you’re the child of someone who is revered for his ideas and his presence and his sort of humanity and his sense of social justice and his intellect, it’s very different than being the child of a movie star.

Not that that’s not a great thing to be, but it’s different, especially when you want to then become an actor. People think it’s going to be very easy for you because you have connections and you – it’s actually not, and it’s more challenging because you have on the one hand people who want you to be more intellectual, more serious, more – I didn’t know I was going to write a book.

I wanted to be an actress, and here I am writing a book, which is what my father would have wanted me to do. So I sort of feel like a failure, but so there’s that level of it.

Then there’s just this idea that I am somehow – if your father’s a doctor, you don’t necessarily know how to take someone’s blood pressure. So I think that that’s the issue.

It’s like I write about my identity and I write about myself and I write about my experiences, but I’m female, I’m of a completely different generation. I’m far more American. I write in a much more casual style, my medium originally is the theater, so performance.

That’s not my dad’s – he was quite a good speaker and he was very charming and could perform very well, but that wasn’t his world. So it’s difficult, because I think people assume there’s, like, a level of intellectual sophistication, that I’m going to talk about Adorno and Kierkegaard or whatever my father talked about. (Laughter) I’m, like, talking about, I don’t know.

Tavis: One of the persons your father talks to about a lot of those things, this person is a huge admirer of your father – so much so that he blurbs the back of the book.

Said: Yes.

Tavis: He’s a long-time friend of mine, my dear brother Professor Cornel West, who quotes your – we do a radio show together, as you know.

Said: Right.

Tavis: “Smiley & West,” and he quotes your father all time, particularly the line that “Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism.”

Said: Yes.

Tavis: That’s Said, and Dr. West reminds us of that all the time: “Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism.” I’m out of time, but before I go, there’s a funny story – there’s some funny stuff in this book. There’s a funny story about the first time you met Dr. West when you were a kid.

Said: Yeah.

Tavis: You know the punch line I’m looking for.

Said: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay. So tell the story right quick about the first time Dr. West comes to your house to meet your dad.

Said: Okay. Well, he came over and my father had forgotten about the appointment or was late or something, was on the other side of town, and I opened the door, and this man came in and he waited for a bit.

I called my dad’s office and his assistant was like, “Oh, he forgot.” So I went out and I told Professor West, “I’m sorry my dad’s not here, but he’ll call you to reschedule.”

He was very sweet and he told me to give my love to Brother Edward and Sister Mariam, my mama. Then he said to me, “I want to tell you something, little girl – don’t ever let a strange Black man into your house.” (Laughter) So it was –

Tavis: Even if he’s wearing a three-piece black suit.

Said: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Said: And looking at the books with the glasses on the end of his nose. He’s very funny.

Tavis: Yes. That’s him. I thought that was a funny story.

Said: Yeah, he’s great.

Tavis: Anyway, the book from Najla Said, the daughter of the late, great Edward Said, is called “Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Era of American Family.” Love that cover photo.

Said: Thank you.

Tavis: Great photo on a great book. Good to have you on.

Said: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm