Edward Said's daughter: I'm Arab-American - and Jewish

Edward Said’s daughter writes a play about growing up in New York

By Ellen Tumposky, April 1, 2010
Najla Said sees many similarities between Arabs and Jews

Najla Said sees many similarities between Arabs and Jews

Najla Said, the daughter of controversial Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, says she "grew up as a Jew in New York City".

"I was more likely to say 'Oy vey' and 'I'm shvitzing' than dare utter a word of Arabic."

The riff runs through her one-woman show, Palestine, now playing off Broadway at the 4th St Theatre in New York with a future London transfer likely.

It uses both humour and pathos to describe the identity issues confronting Ms Said, whose father was a Palestinian Christian and a prominent advocate of Palestinian rights, and whose mother is a Lebanese Quaker.

Ms Said was wary when she first performed the show.

"With an issue like this, people's radars are up, so I was very nervous. The reason I knew I could tell the story is because the way I was raised and where I was raised and continue to live my life is amongst Jewish New Yorkers. And I have never been met with hostility."

In fact, she says, when it comes to Arabs and Jews, "I just see so many more similarities than I do differences. That's so heartbreaking in a way. I don't want to sound too Kumbaya about it."

This is very much the voice she uses in the play: a Manhattan princess shaped by the private schools and summer camps of that elite.

The play emerged from a journal Ms Said wrote after the death of her father in 2003, and is produced by the New York Theatre Workshop, which in 2006 cancelled a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie because of opposition in the Jewish community. Financial backers include conductor Daniel Barenboim - who was Edward Said's closest friend - and playwright David Hare.

It portrays a teenage Najla, anorexic and bored, being dragged along on a family trip to the Middle East. In an attempt to look modest, she wears her best Agnes B skirt to visit a refugee camp in Gaza. She chafes at a ceremonial visit to Yasir Arafat.

"Everyone smokes. No one says anything. And then we go. Clearly this is why nothing ever gets accomplished in the Middle East," she tells the audience.

On a trip to Lebanon two years later, Edward Said is photographed throwing a stone at an abandoned Israeli checkpoint tower. It was just a contest with her brother, according to Ms Said's account in the play, but the photo created a firestorm that led to calls for Columbia University to fire her father.

Mr Said claimed at the time it was simply a symbolic expression of joy at the end of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

"To come home and find out your whole reputation is on the line-it was just hurtful... it still hurts," she says.

These events - along with experiencing the 2006 bombing in Lebanon and the 9/11 attack on New York - awaken Ms Said's Arab-American identity, but she treads lightly on the theme.

Her play, she says, is more about finding her voice than stating a political viewpoint.

And the method relies heavily on humour, which in her family "is how we deal with the heavy stuff in our lives. That's how we cope."

Last updated: 11:39am, April 1 2010