Palestine on the Lower East Side

By Rory Kress

Najla Said

NEW YORK — Najla Said has been many things: a Jew, a WASP, a Quaker, an Arab, a New Yorker and an anorexic. But she’s always been her father’s daughter: the younger child of late literary critic and Christian Palestinian advocate Edward Said.

Now, Said is also a playwright and actress. In PALESTINE, her one-woman show at the Twilight Theatre Company in the East Village, she enacts a travelogue for the audience, playing tour guide for her family’s visit to a troubled Middle East.

Born in 1974 and raised—as she introduces herself to her audience—“as a Jew on the Upper West Side,” Said paints an unexpected picture of family life with her father, who died in 2003 of Leukemia. She remembers Edward Said as “my Daddy: a cute old guy who drove a Volvo, smoked a pipe and collected pens,” not the literary and political giant both revered and loathed throughout his controversial career.

In one scene from her early childhood, she recalls her father driving her and her brother in that household Volvo at Christmas time. Having just learned a new carol at school, the young Said begins singing “Noel, Noel: Born is the King of Israel.” Her older brother pinches her until she yelps and says: “You have to sing ‘Born is the King of Occupied Palestine, Naj.”

To this day, Said’s connection to Palestine remains one of uncertainty, dread and ultimately passion.  But when it comes to addressing her complicated love for her Palestinian roots, she is coy: “I can’t do this without self-consciously feeling like an Orientalist.”

The reference to her father’s seminal work on Western misunderstanding of the Middle East is greeted with laughter and recognition by her audience. But she goes on to demonstrate that both in the Middle East and in her native New York, Said is never truly at home. Even the scenery of PALESTINE is reflective of Said’s inability to attach to any one part of herself. The stage is empty with its lone actress: no chairs, no furniture, no signs of permanence.

“Palestine is an idea,” explains Said offstage.

It is this idea that is Palestine that both haunts and inspires her—from cowering in her cousin’s apartment during the Israeli shelling of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, to catching a glimpse of a pro-Palestinian demonstration on the streets of New York City.

“Palestine is always there, even when you think it’s not,” says Said reflectively, toward the end of her play. “Though I’ve never returned to Palestine [since 1993], Palestine always returns to me.”

But the Palestine that returns to Said is inextricable from her father, Edward Said.

In 1992, the family traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories—her only trip to Palestine to date. Her father had left his Jerusalem home for Cairo at age 14. Forty years later, he returned with his family as a visitor, finding—with horror—his ancestral home transformed into the home of the International Christian Embassy, now the home of Christian Zionism in Israel.

Unlike most family vacations, the Saids were trailed by a British photographer who would attempt to frame her famous father’s historic trip for his camera lens.

“’Can you notice that old tree for the first time again?’” Said mimics the exaggerated cockney of the photographer. “’Can you stand next to that Hasidic man ironically?’”

While Said dreaded the trip—wishing instead for a vacation to Paris—she felt it necessary, unsure as to why many of her Jewish classmates on the Upper West Side had already made the pilgrimage to Israel and she had not.

“Most of my friends had already been to my homeland—which to them was Israel,” Said announces to the audience, describing her private school education surrounded by Jewish teens. “For me, it was completely different because I went to Palestine.”

After a rigorous two-hour performance to a sold-out house, Said, 35, curls up in the third row of the theater, pulling her knees tight to her chest as she continues to sort out her feelings for Palestine both onstage and now off.

“The issue of Palestine is not religious and it’s not about Islam,” says Said, her voice light and girlish despite the political force of her words. “I have felt myself asserting my Christianity because it’s become a Muslim struggle and I’ve been made to feel not a part of it because of my Christian identity.”

Acknowledging that her connection to the Holy Land is entirely secular, she invokes uncomfortable divisions between Christian and Muslim Palestinians onstage when recalling her the continuation of her family’s trip into Gaza.

As the UN vehicle taking her family into the war-torn strip neared the border crossing, the driver pulled over and asked her mother if she would like to stop on the way to buy a hijab for herself and her daughter. Said’s mother reacted with indignation.

“’We are not Muslim,’ says Said, thickening her voice to carry her mother’s Lebanese accent as she mimics her response to their driver. “But we are Arab and we can be respectful without being covered head to toe.’”

Offstage Said admits she often feels “really deprived of a religious background.” She connects to her father’s lifelong struggle to define his identity.

“He always felt like he was half part of everything,” says Said, describing his memoir Out of Place as something she could have written about herself and her own life. Onstage, she deals with her identity confusion by brushing it off saying: “Daddy didn’t like labels.”

Though called PALESTINE, the play seems more like a love song to the beaches and nightclubs of her mother’s native Lebanon than to the barbed wire and mud she finds in Gaza and Palestine. Yet even there, she cannot find solace in her search for identity.

“I will never be given a passport from Lebanon,” she says of the law of the land that excludes Said due to her Palestinian father. “But in Lebanon, I’m not a Palestinian either,” she continues, because she is Christian and does not reside in a refugee camp.

As a cultural refugee, her connection to Palestine becomes clearer: her identity is as groundless as the Palestinian refugees she sees in the camps of her mother’s native Lebanon. In the end, it’s the word PALESTINE that Said embraces—one that she says gives her chills and can bring her to tears. The land itself remains a memory—her father’s birthplace, but not her home.

2 Responses to “Palestine on the Lower East Side”

  1. [...] See the original post: Palestine on the Lower East Side – Journey to Jerusalem [...]

  2. Dan says:

    And how is this entry(and a lot of the others, in this section) related to Judaism ???

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