Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Palestine on the Hudson

Najla Said, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family

It’s tough for girls growing up amid America’s images of lithe blonde perfection; girls from non-white backgrounds have it even tougher. So imagine how hard it must be if your father is a world-famous spokesperson for one of Earth’s most reviled ethnic groups. Najla Said’s father, Palestinian-American professor Edward Said, changed the intellectual landscape with his classic, Orientalism. But that made life only harder for his daughter.

Already celebrated for her elaborate autobiographical one-woman show, having toured theatres and schools internationally with her tale of divided childhood, Najla Said now expands that story for readers beyond the stage. She proves a remarkably bold storyteller, blunt in her desire to expose the false face she spent years building. But unlike recent “confessional” memoirs, often lurid in their disclosures, Said keeps her story both personal and touchingly humane.

Growing up in Manhattan, Najla knew she didn’t fit in with the “society girls” at her prep school. Nobody else’s dad got regularly interviewed by Ted Koppel. Despite her parents’ pride in their Lebanese-Palestinian heritage, she knew more about Jewish culture than her own. Yet she took these differences for granted, as children do, desperate for life to be normal. But the older she got, the more “normal” became a slippery target.

Said’s memoir of growing up in her father’s long shadow highlights the perils of minority life in modern plural society. She sought her unique identity, separate from her father’s magisterial writing, but could not separate herself from the intellectual, heavily Jewish milieu in which she grew. While her father defended his people’s rights against Israeli and Arab infractions on the nightly news, she sought a cause of her own.

As the Palestinian intifada and Lebanon’s civil war colored global perceptions, Said took marked steps to separate herself from her heritage. She longed for the inclusion of MTV and shopping, and joined her Jewish schoolmates in celebrating World War II heroism. But she couldn’t stop being descended from a long line of Arab Christians. The gap in her heritage began manifesting in strange ways, including a long-simmering battle with anorexia.

Readers must not mistake this memoir for a continuation of Said’s father’s work. Far from his famous academic dissections and literary rhetoric, Najla unpacks private concerns. She tells her story, not pretending to speak for an entire people. Thus, her prose is often episodic, sometimes choppy, but mercifully free of thesis statements and perorations. Said proves George Bernard Shaw’s claim, that only the completely personal can be truly universal.

Attending Princeton as Edward Said’s only daughter proved a strange new minefield. Everyone expected some genius, some spokesperson for a dispossessed people in the halls of academic prestige—and she just wanted to be an undergraduate. The conflicting forces taking pieces of her spirit left her wondering who she was under the layers of learned response. Sadly, no answers were forthcoming.

As adulthood loomed, and Said’s father became ill with the slow cancer that ultimately ended his life, Said discovered she couldn’t sustain the duality that dominated her life. She couldn’t keep her American upbringing in one pocket, and her Arab heritage in another. Especially after 9/11 polarized American discourse, and temporarily made certain racist expressions acceptable again, she had to find some way to reconcile her two halves.

Easier said than done.

But theatre provided the opportunity she desperately needed. She found a company of similar American-born Arabs who simply wanted the opportunity to tell their strange, conflicting stories. Here, she didn’t have to remain eternally eloquent, or be judged as her father’s daughter. Her story became one among a chorus of voices, at a time when curiosity and interest in Middle Eastern peoples reached an all-time high.

Said’s performances have made her a minor star, but not because of some accident of birth. She shows, through simply telling her story, that the personal struggles we all face have their mirror across culture, and race, and class. She has persuaded people, especially young women, that they needn’t face their struggles alone. And she had proven to diverse global audiences that her heritage is an object of beauty.

Najla Said may not be a famous name, not like Edward Said. But in some ways, she’s proven herself her father’s truest heir. While he wrote about vast cultural forces that conspired to create gulfs between peoples, she writes about ordinary experiences that build bridges between individuals. We can’t ignore the heritage of our births, she says. But we can become the architects of our futures.

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