BEIRUT: Najla Said was born in New York and, baptized Episcopalian, she was raised a WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Educated at Chaplin, a top-notch private girl’s school on the Upper East Side, she spent her teenage years hanging out with mostly Jewish friends. She attended Princeton University, majoring in comparative literature.Under the surface of this typical wealthy New York lifestyle, however, things were more complicated. A Palestinian-Lebanese-American, Said’s home life was completely at odds with her school life.
Thanks to her glamorous Lebanese mother, and her father -- prominent intellectual, Columbia University professor and pioneer of post-colonial theory, Edward Said -- her family spent their summers in the Middle East. They kept company with such `well-known writers and resistance figures as Mahmoud Darwish, Yasser Arafat, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and Jacques Derrida.
Najla Said’s newly released memoir, “Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family,” is a sort of nonfiction bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) about her struggle to establish a sense of identity amid warring perceptions of what it means to be at once an Arab – specifically a Palestinian – and an American.
Said writes well. Her memoir is engaging and often quietly humorous, displaying a self-awareness and a willingness to expose her more ignoble sentiments along with the unselfish ones.
Born in Jerusalem, her father moved to the U.S. at the age of 14, having inherited American citizenship from his own father. Her mother was a Lebanese Quaker whose family decided not to leave west Beirut for east when the Civil War broke out and “refused to hate Palestinians, Muslims and whoever else they were supposed to hate.”
Unlike her famous father, Said’s mother seems less important for who she is than what she is – somewhat ironic given that the memoir is about establishing a sense of self.
“When I was starting to put together the facts about the Civil War during my teenage years,” Said writes, “I really wanted my family members to be on one side or another so that everything would make sense.
“I needed to put them in a box, so I could figure out who I was, but then I was told they’d never do that because they didn’t hate Palestinians. I found this detail annoying.”
Presumably her parents explained their backgrounds to their children at a young age. Indeed, she stresses that her older brother Wadie always seemed to know exactly who he was and what that meant. Her own feeling of being lost, of not fully belonging to any group, is the focal point of the memoir.
As a child, she explains, she felt that whenever she tried to latch onto an identity it would be taken away – she was at once Lebanese, Palestinian and American, but at the same time she was not fully any of the three.
Said’s lengthy identity crisis, which manifested itself in feelings of anxiety and guilt from as early as 6 or 7 years old, resulted in a sense of isolation and self-loathing, even affecting her health during a bout of teenage anorexia.
One superbly ironic passage details how the author, at age 9, became entranced by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and began singing along with the cast recording at home, visualizing herself as Joseph, kidnapped by the “hairy Ishmaelites.”
She belts out lyrics about the Children of Israel being promised a land of their own until her brother tells her to turn off the “propaganda.” It exacerbated her confused awareness of their difference from the families around them.
Said simultaneously evinces a need to discuss and dissect her background and the loyalties she believes it should engender along side her fervent wish to deny it in favor of being a “regular” American girl. She describes how, after Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion, she tried to chat with an Israeli girl at summer camp without revealing her own Arab background.
She asked the girl if she had “heard of any interesting wars going on lately” (“hardly transparent,” her adult self reflects, “but I was 7!”). When friends’ parents ask her where her family is from, she starts telling them she doesn’t know, or has forgotten.
Though Said’s memoir is focused on her own psychological and emotional development, her matter-of-fact tone and grasp of the bigger picture yanks it back from self-indulgence. Many of her feelings will resonate with any third-culture kid struggling to balance the influences and expectations of a different home and school life.
Anyone hoping for a behind-the-scenes look at the political views or work of Said’s famous father will likely be disappointed. Although he features prominently in “Looking for Palestine,” it is in his role as a father, not an academic or prominent Palestinian spokesperson.
Said includes some wonderful anecdotes that help establish a sense of his personality. She recounts how after a speech at her school – the content of which she completely misses, such was her anxiety about her schoolmates’ and teachers’ reactions – her Jewish best friend praised him for “dissing” a teacher.
“What does it mean that I ‘dissed’ her?” Said senior asks, and for the next 13 years of his life, she writes, he “tried to use the word in his everyday speech as often as he possibly could.”
The transition from confused young girl to angry, self-loathing teenager, to politically apathetic university student is nimbly conveyed through a series of cherry-picked anecdotes.
Said ably communicates her gradual acceptance of her own background and growing sense of identity as neither a typical “Arab” nor a typical “American” but rather something in-between – which in part stems from an Arab-American theater group she joins after university.
“Looking for Palestine” is not perhaps the book one might expect from Edward Said’s daughter. Yet that is at the root of Said’s struggle to establish an identity independent of him. Now an actress and activist based in New York, Said seems to have come to terms with her complicated background and overcome her aversion toward anything Middle East-related.
Her memoir – which evolved out of an off-Broadway play – is at once the universal story of a child growing up wedged between two cultures, and a deeply personal account of the struggle to find a place in a complicated world. Nicely written and thought provoking, it is worth a read.
“Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family” by Najla Said is published by Riverhead Books, part of the Penguin Group.