My Father, Edward Said: First the Show, Then the Book - and Now the Interview

Najla Said talks about her relationship with her father, her privileged upbringing and the guilt she feels toward the Palestinian people.

Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari
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Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari

More than 100 people came to the Barnes & Noble bookstore at the corner of 82nd Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan earlier this month for a book reading by Najla Said. The daughter of Edward Said, one of the most important thinkers of the last century, Najla Said was reading from her newly published memoir, “Looking for Palestine,” which is subtitled, “Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family” ‏(Riverhead Press‏). She chose to read two passages from the book. The first was about Edward Said; not the intellectual, the father.

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“To me,” she read, “he was my daddy, a dapper man in three-piece suits tailor-made in London. A cute old guy who yelled at me passionately in his weird sometimes British, sometimes American accent and then ‏(five minutes later‏) forgot he had been upset; the one who brought me presents from all over the world, who talked to me about ‘Jane Eyre’ my favorite book when I was 12 and held me when I cried. He played tennis and squash, drove a Volvo, smoked a pipe, and collected pens. He was a professor. He was my father.”

The second passage describes with humor and warmth her parents’ wedding day in City Hall in downtown Manhattan, in December 1970. It was a cold, snowy day. Her mother wore pants and warm wool tights under them. When they got there, they discovered that there was a standard procedure by which women getting married had to be attired in a skirt. The clerk, who smoked a cigarette under a “No Smoking” sign, refused to marry them. While Edward, outraged that the clerk himself was breaking the law by smoking, quoted John Stuart Mill in support of his argument, Mariam slipped into the bathroom, slipped out of her trousers and came back wearing only the tights and her turtleneck sweater, which was so long that it stretched to her knees. “Okay, I am wearing a dress,” she told the clerk. The clerk proceeded to marry them and − as his daughter observes more than 40 years later − Edward, who thought his learned arguments would persuade the official, realized that there was more than one genius in the family.

Her voice quivering with emotion as she finished reading the excerpts, Najla Said asked for questions from the audience. It was not a very formal event, and it was held in the neighborhood in which she grew up. Most of the crowd consisted of older people who live in the neighborhood, some of whom attend lectures at Columbia University, which is a few blocks north, or go to the opera at Lincoln Center, which is a few blocks south. They are people who vote Democrat, celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and take vacations in the Hamptons in summer and in the Caribbean in winter.

Among this crowd, one woman raised her hand and blurted out provocatively, “You titled your book ‘Looking for Palestine,’ so I would like to know: What do you mean when you say ‘Palestine’? Because, according to the maps, there is no such place as Palestine. Not according to the United Nations, either.” Everyone in the room seemed to shift uneasily in his chair at the insensitive, violent and impolite comment. Said smiled in embarrassment; for a moment I was afraid she was going to burst into tears. “You apparently don’t understand what the book is about,” she replied, still smiling politely. “You really should read it. It’s a memoir of my life and the life of my family. It is not a political book.”

That did not satisfy the rude woman. She asked Said who she thinks Israel belongs to, the Israelis or the Palestinians, and then added a few remarks about her own family, who came to the United States after the Holocaust. Although Said tried to remain calm, that was already too much. “This book is about me,” she snapped back, “and the title is a metaphor, a concept. It is not a book that discusses what I think about Israel or about the Palestinians.”

“I almost cried when that woman asked me that question,” she told me the following morning, when we met in the Pilates studio where she is an instructor. ‏(“You’re probably the most accomplished Pilates teacher in New York,” I joked with her at the start of the conversation. “You gotta keep it real, girl!” she laughed‏) “And it was so unpleasant for me to lose my temper at her. But the book is about me, not about my father,” she said, genuinely surprised that people don’t understand this. “In every interview since the book’s publication I have been asked about my father’s philosophy. But I don’t know anything about politics and history. The book is about a little girl who grew up in New York and about the young woman who I am.”

Golf in Beirut

Najla was born in 1974 in Boston, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she still lives. The younger of the two children of Mariam and Edward Said, she was named for her mother’s aunt. Her brother, Wadie Said, who is three years her senior, is named for her father’s father. She grew up surrounded not only by some of the most important writers and intellectuals in the Western world – Noam Chomsky, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Jacques Derrida, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Cornell West – but also by the elite of the Palestinian resistance movement. When she was seven, the family spent part of the summer vacation in the home of the iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in Tunisia.

She attended Chapin, a private primary school for girls, one of whose alumnae was Jacqueline Kennedy, and then Trinity, considered the best preparatory high school in the United States for Ivy League colleges.

Every summer, Said relates in the book, the family vacationed in Beirut, at the home of her mother’s extended family, where her grandparents lived along with her mother’s brothers and sisters and their children. She describes long summers, filled with Grandma and Grandpa, suffused with love, chocolate, chickens, sheep, pigeons on the roofs, houses with large gates and balconies, golf, brown beaches and a blue sea, and tanks in the streets.

In the summer of 1982, the family decided to visit the Beirut branch despite the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that June. Edward was in Geneva, attending meetings of the United Nations, so Mariam went alone with the two small children. The sounds of explosions met them when they landed, and they spent the days afterward cowering in the hallway of the family home, waiting for the airport to reopen. Finally, they used their connections to get out of the country, boarding a ship that took them to Greece, and from there flying to Paris and on to New York. It was then, at the age of eight, that Najla Said understood for the first time that the Middle East was not only Grandpa and Grandma, but also a frightening, incomprehensible place, which could not be more remote from her safe, protective home in Manhattan.

Said’s “Looking for Palestine” is a continuation of her one-woman Off-Broadway show, which had its debut about four years ago. She has turned the autobiographical performance into a book in which she relates her childhood and adolescent memories. With harrowing candor she describes a vulnerable girl, a teenager and a woman who is looking for her place in the world between a strong, loving family and a society that is hostile to her identity, while at the same time coping with anorexia.

“I have struggled all my life, because it is not easy to live as a sensitive person in an insensitive world,” she tells me. “All I wanted was to find a place for myself, to know who I am and to feel comfortable when I speak in public about the things that are important to me.”

Her dream was to be an actress, but her parents wanted her to be a writer, she says, because they viewed writing as the only legitimate art form. “I always knew I was good at writing,” she says, “but I wanted to do something that I was truly passionate about, acting.” But the dream of becoming an actress, in Hollywood and on Broadway, was not fulfilled.

“I wrote a play, I had a one-woman-show on Off-Broadway and I wrote a book, and those are all wonderful successes and people were impressed by them,” she says. “But for me, that is not what I chose. All I ever wanted to be was an actress. There is nothing harsher than a dream that does not happen in the way you wanted it to happen. I did not become a movie star, I did not move to Los Angeles or appear on Broadway and on television. I never got the opportunity for the breakthrough I wanted. That was a disappointment. I had a dream, but my life took a different direction.

“But because I was born with a brain and with a social conscience,” she continues, “and because I was taught that there are some things for which compromise is not an option -- I carved myself a different path from the one I had planned. I never thought I would do social theater of change. Now I am proud of it. I love my father and I love everything he believed in, but I wish it would have been possible for me to receive the opportunity to choose the direction for the focus of my life and my decisions. There is no way I can know what would have happened to me in life if my father hadn’t been Edward Said. Maybe I would be doing the same thing I am doing now in any case?”

Irony in Jerusalem

Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935. When he was 12, the family moved to Cairo, the home of his extended family, which owned a large number of businesses. None of them expected that a war would erupt the following year that would prevent them from returning to their home in the upscale Talbieh neighborhood in Jerusalem’s western section. Said immigrated to the United States in 1951 and eventually became a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia. His ties to Jerusalem were purely conceptual, as he never lived in the city again after leaving it at the age of 12.

In 1992, Najla writes in her memoir, when her father was ill and knew he did not have many years left to live, the family decided to make a trip to his childhood haunts. When they came to the address in Talbieh, Edward Said was tense and agitated, not knowing how he would react when he saw his childhood home again after so many years. Najla’s greatest concern was that the house would belong to a Jewish family she knew from New York. Fortunately, that was not the case. There was a sign on the door: “International Christian Embassy.”

After the visit, Edward Said discovered, as he later wrote in the British newspaper The Observer, that the ICE was a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist organization, militarist and Zionist, whose director was a South African Boer. As Christian Palestinians, she writes, the irony was not lost on them. Her father walked around the building and photographed it from every possible angle. He remembered the park that had existed across the way, recalled the gate and the balcony. He even pointed out the room in which he was born. However, he refused adamantly to enter. For Najla, too, it was not an easy visit. Thanks to her father’s status, the family was allowed to visit the Gaza Strip, and what she saw there jolted her powerfully. “We entered the Strip through a military checkpoint,” she writes. “There were army posts and intimidating soldiers manning stations all over the area, and more barbed wire than I have ever seen. Daddy commented to us ‏(and later in his article in The Observer‏), that the entrance gave the place “the appearance of an enormous concentration camp.”

In Gaza, she struggled to understand, “the existence of such a place in the world, where people are trapped like caged animals in the filthiest zoo on earth, while I somehow got to prance around in suede shoes and $150 skirts, and then get on a plane and go home.” The visit, she notes, added another dimension to her anorexia. “I wanted desperately to suffer,” she writes. “Not only for my daddy but for all of Palestine as well.”

Stones at the border

In the summer of 2000, the Said family traveled to the Middle East again, this time to Lebanon for a family wedding. They spent most of their time on the coast. When her father was invited to visit the south of the country, to see the area from which the Israeli army had withdrawn not long before, the family joined him. At the border, one of their escorts insisted on taking them to see an important site: an abandoned Israeli army outpost, which had become a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the region. As an act of solidarity with the Lebanese who had been under military occupation until a month earlier, and as a symbolic gesture of happiness at the area’s liberation, some visitors threw stones at the abandoned military post.

Najla Said writes: “My brother said, ‘Look how badly they throw around here; that’s ‘cause they don’t play baseball.’” Then he picked up a rock and threw it, pretty far, into the empty, dry land. My father, never one to be outdone, suddenly wanted to show that he could throw just as far as, if not farther than, my brother.”

The photographer who accompanied them published the image with the sensational headline, “Edward Said throws stone in solidarity with South Lebanon residents.” By the time they returned to Beirut, two hours later, the photograph had already appeared in The New York Post. There were some who demanded that he be dismissed from Columbia because he was a “terrorist.” The incident, his daughter writes, marked the onset of a state of dejection in her father.

“I look back at this event as the beginning of the end of my father’s spirit,” she writes, “between the backlash at Columbia, the Second Intifada beginning in Palestine that fall, and the crowning event, 9/11, Daddy stopped speaking to the American media. He wrote for the Arab press more, and agreed to do interviews only for the BBC or other European media outlets that would give him more than a two-minute sound bite to explain ‘why they hate us.’”

Elaborating, she tells me, “People, including Arabs, don’t understand that my father did not live in Palestine and had no interest in living there, either. He was above all a professor of English, a humanist and a thinker, and he believed in justice and in human rights. He was not a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, even though in the eyes of many he became its voice.”

Her voice tinged with anger, she adds, “It hurts me so much that people say he is anti-Semitic. He loved mankind and justice so much and he had a humanist outlook. And it wasn’t just that he loved his Jewish friends and colleagues so much, too. He knew all the dates of the Jewish holidays ... and would call a Jewish friend and declare over the phone, ‘Happy Simhat Torah!’ Whereas a secular friend ‏(who did not pay attention to the holidays‏) would have no idea what he was talking about.” Her mother also learned Hebrew, she notes in the book, and talked like a typical Upper West Side Jewish woman. “I am stressed because I have the whole mishpuche coming for dinner,” she would say, or, “This shmuck is kvetching about nothing. It’s annoying me”

Edward Said died of cancer in 2003, in New York, surrounded by his family and friends. “I just miss my daddy,” his daughter says over and over. “When I was a little girl he used to sing me ‘Naji Badji, pudding and pie.’ I always thought he made it up and I was proud he had made up a rhyme just for me. I was disappointed when I found out it’s a famous nursery rhyme [“Georgie Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie”]. He was wildly funny, like a mischievous little boy. A real character. On his birthday he would call me at 7:04 in the morning and yell at me, ‘How come you didn’t call to say happy birthday?!’

“But what I miss most,” she adds, “is that since he died there hasn’t been anyone who stood behind me 100 percent like he did. I remember once hearing an interview with the actress Salma Hayek. She said that every time she came out of an audition feeling she hadn’t done good work, she thought to herself, ‘It’s all right, because I will always be my father’s princess.’ When I heard that, I felt as though she were talking about me. I always knew that if someone hurt my feelings I could go to my father and he would say, ‘Who is that idiot? I’ll let him have it!’”

The memoir’s publication has only heightened her longing, she says. “I never wrote anything that he didn’t read, check and confirm that it was something that merited being written.”

‘I am floating’

Edward Said’s seminal theory is explicated in his groundbreaking 1979 book, “Orientalism.” Najla Said writes in her memoir that when she pressed her father to explain the term in “simple English,” he told her, “The basic concept is that historically, through literature and art, the ‘East,’ as seen through a Western lens, becomes distorted and degraded so that anything ‘other’ than what we Westerners recognize as familiar is not just exotic, mysterious and sensual, but also inherently inferior.”

“You know, like Aladdin,” she adds.

How ironic that the daughter of the conceptualizer of “Orientalism” grew up feeling ashamed of her Arab identity.

“In the book I describe how, as a little girl, I was frightened and embarrassed, and also a little ashamed that I am Palestinian and Lebanese,” she tells me. “When I visited the homes of Jewish friends I would think to myself, ‘Please don’t hate me.’ People ask me in astonishment, ‘Did you really not want to be an Arab?’ And I reply, ‘Tell me, were you here in the 1980s? I am not crazy!’ In the United States in the 1980s, the last thing anyone would have wanted to be was an Arab. I was even ashamed to say the word ‘Lebanon.’

“When I was in primary school, the mother of one of my friends asked me where my family was from, and I said I didn’t know. My mother was shocked when the other mother told her that. Until that moment she didn’t understand how hard it was for me with my identity.”

At the end of high school, in part because of her identity conflict and the shame that accompanied her Arab identity, she started to experience an eating disorder and was diagnosed as anorexic. Even today, she says, she suffers from a lack of self-esteem.

How can you not have self-esteem? You are so beautiful and talented and successful and brave.

“I feel that I am not beautiful and not smart and not successful. I hate it that everyone tells me, ‘You are so brave! You wrote a book and you are so honest!’ But I think to myself: ‘What are you talking about? I cried the whole time I was writing the book. I am human and I lack confidence and I need help.’”

I tell her that the way she expresses herself, with unvarnished candor, is painful and touching. “I want to be happy,” she says. “I want a partner. My brother lives in California and is married and has a child. My mother is independent and travels the world with the orchestra [the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra co-founded by Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose musicians come from across the Middle East]. But I feel that I am floating. All my friends have settled down in couples, but a relationship I had ended last year and I am afraid I will not find anyone, because who will want to be with such a complicated woman? My partners would always tell me to stop arguing. So I sometimes think that no one wants to be with someone who is so controversial.”

She goes on to say that she had a “hard year” last year and that “the publication of the book and the love and support are a gift for me. I feel lucky to have found my voice and that I represent not only Palestinians or Arabs, but also women and young, sensitive, empathetic girls. My book is for them.”

“I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman, but I grew up as a Jew in New York City,” Said declares at the start of the book. Much of the memoir revolves around her personal ties with Jews and Israelis in New York, ties which, without the politics, would be straightforward and natural. However, in the current political climate she finds it difficult to reconcile her desire to be accepted in the community in which she was raised and lives, and her Lebanese-Palestinian roots.

“Last night,” she says, “when that woman said that Palestine doesn’t exist, a statement that has nothing to do with my book or the reason I wrote it, it made me feel so bad. I told myself that I had been polite and courteous and humane, I told my personal story, and that woman attacked me just because of who I am and where I come from. Because I internalized that same criticism all my life, I found myself thinking again, ‘Maybe it’s true and I really am horrible and disgusting? Or maybe it’s the Zionist Jews in New York who react like that, because they also think that everyone hates them?’ And then I said to myself, ‘But I am saying exactly the same thing! I also feel that all of you hate me! So how can it be that you are the ones who are attacking me?’”

This feeling of frustration is a constant presence in her. “I have a Jewish friend from South Africa,” she relates. “He is always telling me, ‘Najla, you could be the bridge between Jews and Arabs, you have to tell your story. Look at South Africa: It looked impossible that anything would change there, but the change happened.’ I reply, ‘Well, it’s exactly the same thing with Palestine!’ And he says, ‘No, it’s not’ – and starts to talk about the Holocaust.”

It’s depressing, she says, but she harbors hope. “My father said it would take a long time. I think so, too. Whenever a Palestinian does something violent, I become frustrated and angry. But I don’t know what it is to be a Palestinian living in Israel. That’s something abstract for me. I don’t know what it is to stand at a checkpoint and have someone ask to see some ID.”

She continues, “But I see the children today here in New York, and they are different. They are more critical. The opinions my father expressed in the 1980s are no longer considered radical in the United States. There are also far more people who support the rights of the Palestinians, even though there are still not enough people like that. The young generation lives in a world of multiple and mixed identities, and that gives me hope. It’s beyond me why people want to live in a closed place and say: ‘I want to preserve a differentiated, closed identity and not intermix with anyone else.’”

Would you like to visit Israel?

“I communicate better with Israelis than with American Jews, even though I grew up among the latter. But I will not go to visit Israel, because I am not capable, emotionally, of undergoing the humiliation that every Arab undergoes upon entering Israel.”

She relates that her brother flew to Israel in 2004 on a working visit for the American government. “He was locked in a detention room and they refused to let him enter the country. He told them that he was working in the American embassy, but the embassy said they couldn’t help him. They wouldn’t even allow him to fly to Jordan, where he had a meeting scheduled the next day. He had to fly back to the United States and from there to Jordan. I would not be capable of enduring that. Last night I almost started to cry when that woman spoke to me rudely, so do you think I would be able to go through an experience like that?”

Deli insights

At the conclusion of the bookstore event, a long line formed of people who had bought the book and wanted an autograph. They told the author that the passages she read had moved them. After everyone had left, a woman with short hair approached her and reminded her that they had met before, in the famous Zabar’s deli at 81st and Broadway, where she has been shopping her whole life. “Do you remember we met in the deli when I was talking with Mohammed Bakri [a well-known Israeli actor of Palestinian descent]?” “Sure!” Said replied, happy to meet the woman again. The woman lowered her voice, “So would you like me to introduce you to his son?”

The next day, Said told me that the woman is the owner of Zabar’s and the director of the Other Israel Film Festival, held at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. “In other words,” Said added, “from her I get the most meaningful ‘kosher’ confirmation there is. So it was a bit amusing that she wanted to match me with Mohammed Bakri’s son,” she laughs. “But I don’t know if I should marry an Arab.”

You should marry a Jew.

“I should, shouldn’t I? People always thought I was Jewish. I was described as a real-life Woody Allen character.”

Najla Said. Credit: Christopher Hazou
Edward Said.Credit: Alex Levac
Najla Said.Credit: Christopher Hazou



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