Saturday, November 2, 2013

Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family By Edward Said's daughter Najla Said

     Book of the Month
Looking for Palestine
Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family
By Najla Said
Riverhead Hardcover, August 2013, 272 pages, $19.00
Reviewed by Shams Hanieh

“I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman, but I grew up as a Jew in New York City. I began my life, however, as a WASP,” writes Najla Said in her funny and poignant memoir, Looking For Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family. Najla grew up in New York City, as the daughter of a Lebanese mother from an academic family and Edward Said, the famous Palestinian intellectual and scholar. While Najla’s father affirmed Arab culture and Arab rights, his daughter was completely unsure of her identity or history. Was she Christian, American, Arab, Lebanese, Palestinian, or all of the above?

Her humorous yet melancholy biography begins with her speaking about her childhood, going to the elite Chapin School for girls, where she was the only Arab. She recounts funny anecdotes about her classmates living on New York’s Upper East Side, thinking her home in the Upper West Side was dangerous or had tumbleweeds. Her struggle with her identity eventually led her to become anorexic as a teen. A family trip to Palestine in 1992 was even more stressful when she witnessed how Palestinians really live, especially in Gaza. Making things worse, that first and so far only trip to Palestine came right after her father was diagnosed with leukemia. Najla saw how Palestinians struggled and how her father struggled, and so she wanted to ache and hurt as much as they did. On the other hand, Najla tells of both traumatic experiences during the civil war in Beirut, as well as fun, heart-warming memories with her family in Lebanon. After brilliant studies at Princeton University, Najla decided to pursue a career as an actress. She ended up meeting fellow Arab-American actors and began her journey to self-acceptance.

Edward Said’s death had a huge effect on his daughter. She went to Beirut the summer after his death, and the one following, and finally came to terms with her Arab identity. She spent amazing summers in Lebanon rebuilding after the civil war, helping her recover and giving her peace and pride in her origins.

This book is important for Palestinian readers who want to learn about Edward Said, the man and the father, and for readers in the diaspora, because they can relate to the frustration Najla feels about the way non-Arabs view Arabs and Arab society, with discrimination, ignorance, or hostility. Local readers can relate to the feeling of having no real country or homeland, given that theirs got taken away from them. The title of the book may be misleading for some, however, because the book is more about accepting oneself and coming to terms with one’s many identities - especially the fact that Najla is more attached to Beirut, where she has family, friends, and diverse memories, rather than to Palestine.

Personally, I could especially relate to Najla Said’s memoir as a Palestinian teenage girl with multicultural educational experiences. I enjoyed the informal tone of the book, which is written like a conversation, so that no matter how serious or disturbing the topic at hand is, it is written in a light and funny way.
The book is actually adapted from Najla’s one-woman show, which she has performed throughout the United States. Hopefully, she will soon be invited to perform in Palestine so that we can enjoy her show and so that she can rediscover and connect with her father’s homeland.

1 comment:

  1. Page 241 ... "We carried his ashes to Lebanon and buried them in the Quaker family cemetery in Brummana, my mother's ancestral village. It is what he wanted. People, sometimes in outrage, asked why he was not laid to rest in Palestine. These were the people who saw him as a human symbol of a geographical place. These people make me crazy, even though they mean well. It never occurred to us to bury Daddy in Palestine , because Palestine, though a cause he embraced wholeheartedly and fought for his entire adult life, is a place he hadn't really known. The world had conflated "Edward Said" with Palestine, but I had not. I had only really known Daddy, but how could I explain that to the world?" Najla Said