TranscriptQuestion: What first drew you to the theater?
Najla Said: When I was a kid, I was super-duper shy and I wouldn’t talk to anyone and when, but I was, I was very, I like loved playing by myself and I was really imaginative and creative and my parents had this idea that if I did, like, a theater class after school, I would somehow open up, and they were right. So I started taking theater classes when I was about eight, or seven, and the minute I was put on stage, I started, I just lit up and I started being comfortable. I think... I think you’ll hear a lot of actors say that they were very shy and for me, I felt... having grown up in New York and being Palestinian/Lebanese, and having grown up in a pretty homogeneous world with, gone to private school and not understanding what I was, I looked different and my parents spoke a funny language, I think I found refuge in theater because I could be a million different things, and it was okay.
Question: Why did you then tell your story as a one-woman show?
Najla Said: I think the way it evolved was really organic and it came out of a journal entry I had written. So, what had happened was I had been acting professionally from the time I graduated from college in the late ‘90’s until about, until, let’s say, 2001. In 2001, actually, before September 11, a group of Arab-American artists, myself included, got together because we’d all sort of met each other but didn't really know... none of us had really explored our identity and we thought it might be interesting to get together and talk about working on a project about Arab-American immigrants in this country.
So we did and we started working on it and then 9-11 happened sort of in the middle of the process. So we ultimately did the play in the summer of 2002, but to do the production, we formed a company. So out of this company grew many things, and one of them was some education workshops that we did with kids. And I had met an Israeli filmmaker named Danae Elon, who is the daughter of Amos Elon, who just passed away... he was an Israeli journalist, an intellectual. And she and I, long story short, were working on a project to do in a private high school that... we both knew a student who went there. She wanted to tell about growing up in Israel and I wanted to tell about being Palestinian. So we decided to each write a piece to perform, 15 minutes, for these kids, a personal piece. And there was another member of my theater company who helped us with it and did her own piece.
And I didn’t know what to write, so I showed them a journal entry that I’d written when my father passed away. I was listening to my iPod and I heard a song that reminded me of this trip I took when I was 18, and I just wrote this stream-of-consciousness thing, that turned into a 15-minute performance. And then a few years later, I had the opportunity to perform it again at an event for Israeli and Palestinian, or Israeli and Arab playwrights, and then I had a working relationship with the New York Theater Workshop and they invited me to develop the piece further. And I kind of had no idea what it was going to be. I had dabbled in stand-up a little bit and I’d been an actress for a really long time, but I didn’t understand how this sort of monologue that was just about my weird family, would end up being an entire play.
But I took the challenge and I ended up working with a dramator and director who really helped me make it into a play. And so it never really occurred to me to have other actors in it, it just... and it also, still to this day, doesn’t totally feel like a play. It’s a piece that I’ve done where I get to show off all my different characterizations and abilities, but it’s purely my story.
So it’s funny because I had dabbled in stand-up, but I didn’t get how to write a joke. I just could... just stand on stage and babble, so this was the perfect way for me to put all that in and still be an actress.
Question: What are the challenges of a one-person show?
Najla Said: It’s lonely, you know, you find that a lot of us who do theater, the reason we do it is because it’s all about interaction with other people on stage and with the audience, it’s a very visceral thing, whereas when you’re shooting a film, you shoot scenes out of sequence and sometimes there’s no one else there, you know, if you’re working with some big movie star, they’re not necessarily going to be sitting across from you, you may just be talking to a camera. So a lot of the love of theater is because of the human and personal interaction. But what I found was, although it’s lonely, it’s incredibly, I mean, once you realize that you’re on stage and, I mean, first, it’s horrifying, you realize, “Oh, my God, if I mess up, there’s no one here to save me,” but then you also realize, “Everyone’s listening to me,” which, without sounding like a total egomaniac, that’s not what I mean, it’s just, it’s lovely, because it really gives the story an opportunity to be heard. There’s nothing else that people can focus on or listen to.
And then the connection with the audience becomes a little more intense, which is lovely. Because in both of these situations, and it’s not always the case, but, in general, I was talking to the audience. So, of course, that brings out the whole other level of difficulties because you’re not used, you know, in theater you tend to have a, what’s called the fourth wall, but it’s kind of nice, too, because you’re really talking to people.
So I find that it can get lonely and tiring to go to rehearsal for eight hours a day and it’s all you all the time, is tiring and it really brings out a lot of insecurities because you’re the only one getting notes and you’re also... and for this experience I was also the writer, so it was just a lot. But it’s also a challenge and it’s a total thrill and once you’ve done it, you’re like, “Whoa! I can do anything.” You’re not, sort of the fear of being on stage, if you ever had, like, I’m not really, I don’t get stage fright, but I do get nervous, like most people, so the idea that, I’ve done this now twice for an hour-and-a-half, both times, I mean, both productions and gotten through a full run, you just sort of feel like, “I can do anything now!”
Question: What challenges did you face growing up?
Najla Said: When you come to this country, you become American and you’re meant to assimilate and then Arab-American, for example, or Italian-American, becomes a new thing. There’s Italians, and then there’s Italian Americans. And for me, having grown up largely in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, but going to a private school, which was mostly—as I say in the play—WASPs, as a young girl. I, first of all, thought I was Jewish, because I didn’t, there were no other, there were no Jewish people, and I looked different and had dark care and lived on the west side, so I thought I was Jewish. And also, I didn’t seem to understand how I fit in with the vision of an Arab that I saw on TV and in the news and in movies. And then again, I didn’t feel like I had any identification with what was I was being told was an Arab American. So let’s say there’s a large community in Detroit, in Michigan, of people whose families came here generations ago, that are originally Syrian or Lebanese or whatever, and I didn’t feel identified with them. So I didn’t really understand what this idea of being either, I wasn’t Arab, and I wasn’t fully American, but I somehow didn’t feel like I was Arab-American.
It was confusing, and also, my father was an English professor. So it didn’t make sense that, you know, nothing made sense and we were Christian. And not only Christian, we were Quaker. So all of the things that I would hear about what an Arab was, I didn’t fit any of them. And so it was difficult, but I find it was funny because when I was at a school with mostly Christian people, even though I was Christian, I felt really different, and then I went and switched schools and I went into high school with mostly Jewish people and I felt more comfortable. And it’s sort of the funny thing of how because they were Jewish and they knew about Israel and what was going on in the Middle East, somehow I became able to know what it meant to be Arab in that way, in a more personal way. And so I suddenly began exploring and finding out who I was. But it was really, really confusing as a child.
Question: In what ways was this cultural confusion beneficial?
Najla Said: I found a way in, because I started with the premise of "Everyone thinks I’m Jewish." And so I, this has been misconstrued, because people haven’t seen the play and then they hear some sensational thing about how I talk about being Jewish and they get confused. But I wasn’t saying I’m Jewish, I was saying, "I grew up in New York City, on the Upper West Side, people have called me a Woody Allen character." When people meet me, I tend to come off as an Upper West Side New York Jewish or Italian girl, and in that sense, I use that to my advantage because the first part of the play, I talk about how I grew up and then, you know, kissing Jewish boys and, you know, saying, "Oy vey," and eating bagels and lox, and being neurotic, and going to the shrink when I was 10, and all of that stuff which is very stereotypically like the Jewish cultural, Jewish New Yorker. I use that as a way for people to listen.
So once I get the audience to listen, then I start saying, "Okay, but I'm really Palestinian and Lebanese," and I never claim to know more than anyone else or, I mean, I think the struggle in and of itself of trying to figure out where I fit is what people relate to. And in the end, someone said to me, a friend of mine who’s Jewish, “It’s a Jewish story,” which was the ultimate compliment in the sense that you couldn’t offend anyone. So on one hand, I managed to say a lot of truths about what goes on in Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, but on the other hand, I was able to do it in a disarming way, which I think you can only get if you’re born of two cultures.
Question: How were you able to achieve enough creative distance to tell the painful aspects of your story?
Najla Said: The first part of the story is mainly about my youth, and I talk about this first trip I went on to Palestine, the only time I’ve ever been there, when I was 18, in 1992. At the time, I was very sick, with an eating disorder. I was anorexic. That part was difficult, but it was less difficult than some of the more recent stuff, because it was long ago and I’ve processed it and been through it and been in therapy, and I’m better. So everyone thinks, “Oh, you’re so brave.” It was difficult on a daily basis to rehearse this period of... who wants to be 18 again? Who wants to be an adolescent again? Everything was miserable and so dramatic and you don’t want to go through that again. But on the other hand, it was nice to go back and just be like, “I’m not this person anymore, look how much I’ve grown.”
But on the other hand, the more recent stuff, like, my father’s death, when we got to the part where my father died, I kept skipping the section and going on to the next one. And they were like, “Uh, go back, you have to, your father has to die.” And it’s chronological, so it was just this mental block in my head and I found that very, very challenging. But I think what happened ultimately was that I began to feel like my father was on stage with me for the duration of the performance, so I tried to flip it so it was like a positive thing that I was with him for the whole hour and 40 minutes, and I think that helped a little, but it was definitely difficult.
And also, one last thing was I spoke about being in Lebanon as a nine-year-old, being bombed, and then again in 2006 as a grown up, being bombed. And what’s interesting about that is that I didn’t really realize that I was traumatized as a little girl until I was there in 2006 and I heard the bombs again and I had a very sort of overwhelming, seemingly melodramatic reaction, which I guess is trauma, or post-traumatic stress. So when we recreated both of those events, both being bombed in Lebanon as an eight-year-old, a nine-year-old, and as a, however old I was in 2006—I’m really bad at math—my reactions were real. And so, they made it very clear, because I say in the play, there’s no way you can replicate the sound of a bomb when it’s real because part of it is the psychological knowledge that it’s a bomb and the other thing is that it’s just louder and scarier than anything you’ve ever heard. So they very consciously used a sound key that was like a drum. You can tell it’s a drum, but the loud noise really, really, really scared me. But then again, that was an advantage because I was really scared every night. So on the one hand, when you’re retelling a story, it can be very emotionally intense in a negative way, but it also serves you, because you’re really able to relive it in a very pure way for the audience. So I think that was kind of great.
Question: How did you overcome your eating disorder?
Najla Said: I think one of the things that was important to me was that it not be dismissed as a shallow, you know, young girl just wanting to be skinny so she can be a model. I think eating disorders are often misunderstood, as mine was by my parents, very much; they thought it was very selfish. But I think that it was, for me, at least, and after many years of therapy I’ve been able to put this together, for me it was a combination of things. Yes, you want to be thin, but there’s a reason you want to be thin. Part of it is to fit in and I didn’t look like other people, I had an Arab body, which was, I had curves, and I didn’t want them, because no one else looked like me.
So there was that, and then on another level, on a deeper level, I didn’t want to grow up... which is another part of general anorexia, you literally don’t want to grow up, so you make your body like an adolescent’s body, and I was just graduating from college. And the other was my father had been diagnosed with leukemia and I think, whether we get migraines or ulcers or whatever it is, we take whatever stresses us out, we put it into our body, and for me, at the time, I didn’t know how to express my fear and my just incredible sadness at my father’s diagnosis.
So I think part of me, even though he would get mad and say, you know, "I'm dying, you’re killing yourself," part of me wanted to take on the sickness and share it with him, because I didn’t know to express my sadness. And so there was, there was a great deal of wanting to suffer with him.
When I went on this trip and I saw people suffering in Gaza... there were two elements of the trip that I use the anorexia. One was, it was such a Western thing to not eat. It’s a very Western. There are definitely women in the Middle East who have eating disorders, but the idea of not eating or not enjoying life or partaking in life was in many ways a rejection of that culture, which is so much about... food is love and "Eat, eat, eat." And me going there and being like, I’m not eating, was a very, a very vivid example of me rejecting the culture. And then the other thing was just going there and then feeling all the feelings that I felt about seeing people without food or without water, living in huts in the mud, and feeling guilty. So there was that element, which I sort of joke about being sort of, I only wanted to be a Christ figure in the Middle East.
But all of that stuff came to me years, years later after much therapy. I did not know any of that at the time. It’s not like when I’m writing about myself as an 18-year-old wanting to suffer, I had any consciousness of that, that was all years of therapy and growth. But for me, personally, the journey out of the anorexia was... I started seeing doctors right then when I was about to go to college. They had said I shouldn’t go to college, I had to go to the hospital, and I refused, so I did an outpatient treatment. And physically, I would gain enough weight to get my period, which is what they want you to do when you’re a girl, and then I would go on a diet again and lose it.
So that went on for a few years and it wasn’t until I was studying acting seriously that I began to actually physically, and mentally, get better... because I was taught to breathe and fill up with air and let myself experience. And my teachers were like, "You're too skinny, you need energy," so there was that.
And then the other, the last component of it was, I went to the Middle East as a little kid, I went when I was nine to Lebanon and we left under bombs and I didn’t go back again until I was 18. When I went back when I was 18, I was like, "Where is my country?" Like, where is my grandfather? And they were all dead and everything was bombed. I had spent my formative years, from the age of, basically nine-and-a-half until 18, with no connection to the Middle East, and that’s when sort of the anorexia formed. And as I began to go back to Lebanon and become more and more comfortable there and felt more a part of something. As I say in the play, I was able to "nourish myself."
So yeah, it took a long time, but I started to feel like I was part of something. And so, I felt the love of my family and literally they nourished me with love and food and I felt connected. So, I mean, obviously there are a lot of things, but I think for me that was really important because it was like I was able to find an identity, even if it was slightly confused and off. I belonged somewhere, to someone, and I remember Lebanon. Sometimes I walk down the street in Beirut and people know who my parents are because I look like them, and that’s the kind of place it is, it’s like a village. You know? This is the neighborhood that this family is from, so this must be their daughter. And I never had that before and it was just so nice to feel connected and rooted to somewhere.
Question: Your play describes your conflicted views on belief. What do you believe now?
Najla Said: My mom was raised Quaker, and my dad was raised Anglican and Baptist. It’s a very complicated story. My dad’s maternal grandmother was from Nazareth, as we all know, Jesus is from Nazareth, but he went to Waco, Texas, became a Baptist minister, and then moved back to Nazareth and founded a Baptist church in Nazareth. So my grandmother was raised Baptist and my grandfather, my father’s father, was raised Anglican, because it was an English colony, Palestine was. So that was my one side, and then my mother’s side, her father had converted to Quaker, which is completely random, I think there’s only two or three Quaker families in Lebanon to this day. So I was a minority within a minority in terms of the Arab world and I never understood what that meant.
So both of my parents were raised with all of this tradition. Both the schools I went to were Episcopal, so I had learned a lot of the Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer, so I was raised, in effect, as a Christian, in the way that many of us are in this country, sort of a secular Christian, like, we celebrate Christmas and Easter, we eat eggs, but there wasn’t a lot of talk of the Bible, except as a work of literature. And then growing up, I would cling to being Christian because it would make me, it made me a little bit more like other people that I knew. And it’s funny as I only identify as a Christian Arab when people assume that I'm Muslim; for some reason it makes me annoyed. And that's part of the whole struggle, which is part of the reason, probably, that Muslims insist that they’re Muslims, because they feel threatened.
So for me there’s been a lot caught up in, especially with the Palestinian struggle having been very clearly viewed as a Muslim thing or an Islamic thing; that makes me very frustrated. The way I was raised is with humanism, so all people all equal, and I was never taught that Jewish people were this and Christian people were that and Muslims were; it never occurred to me. No one in my family was anti-Semitic. We didn’t talk about people in terms of their religion. People were people. And so I think that’s great, it’s how I’ve been able to not say, you know, "Jewish people this, Jewish people that." I don’t make generalizations like that. I believe that every experience you have is an experience. So every human being gives you the opportunity to know them as a human being. And so, conversely, every person who knows me and likes me will know me and like me because of me, oh, and I happen to be Palestinian.
So, it’s hard, because also my father passed away and so when you really realize why religion is created. Because... I miss my dad and I want him to be up there on a cloud looking after me. So there are times where I feel like it’s so ingrained in me to believe in Christianity or heaven, but on the other hand, I think the essence of every single religion is to treat other people with respect and kindness and I think that it’s a shame that we’ve gotten so far from that, because I think no matter what you believe, I think some of the traditions and beliefs in Judaism are beautiful, same with Islam, same with Christianity. I mean, they’re all fascinating and of course, all the other millions of religions in the world. There are elements that I find beautiful. It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating, as everyone knows, to start pigeonholing everyone into little boxes.
So, while I feel like traditionally I was raised with a very Christian outlook, I really, really try to maintain a humanist perspective and just, each person who interacts with me is a human being and they are the sum of all of the things that they represent. You know, that their country, their religion, their... you know, their mother’s hair color, whatever it is, they represent many, many different things, not one. And I think the biggest mistake is when we start identifying by religion. So, it’s tricky, but I love to believe there is a God so I can have someone looking out for me, but at the same time, or that I can see my dad again in heaven when I die, but at the same time like, do I really believe? I don’t know.
Question: What perspective has your personal experience given you on the Israel/Palestine conflict?
Najla Said: The issue in Palestine and Israel is that there's a society that does not give equal rights to one group of the population. It is that simple, it's a human rights issue. And in the same way that we were outraged at the Apartheid government in South Africa, and any injustice that we see anywhere in the world, we need to look at this critically and see that the reality is... the only reason I’m even allowed to go to Israel is because I have an American passport. And I'm lucky enough to have an American passport because my grandfather came in 1911, or whatever year, and went back to Palestine and that’s how my father was able to come here. If I didn’t have an American passport, I don’t know if I would be allowed to travel to the country where my father was born and his ancestors come from. So that right there is strange.
I mean, without getting into the specific nitty-gritty of how they divide the land and how the laws work, the simple fact is, it’s not about Arabs hating Jews and Jews hating Arabs, and Muslims hating Jews and Jews hating Muslims, it’s about the struggle for equality in human rights, that’s it, that's what it’s about. What the solution is? I’m not really sure. I have a personal belief that people should be able to live in one secular state and believe what they believe and be who they want to be. That’s tricky, a lot of Israelis and Jewish people see that as a problem because then there’s no Jewish state. But... I don’t know the solution really, but I do know that the first step is acknowledging the inequality and focusing on that and approaching the issue as, "Okay, how can we make a government that gives equal rights? Whatever you call the country, whatever you’re going to do, how can we make sure that someone who is Palestinian, or... is allowed to travel from point A to point B without having to go through 3,000 checkpoints just because they happen to be born Muslim and Palestinian, or whatever the case."
But I’m also frustrated, as I said, that it’s become about religion... The other thing that I hate is, "It’s been going on for centuries," because it hasn’t. And I think it’s really important that, one of the most important things to me, and in this play, to do, was to, first of all, talk about the Middle East that my parents both grew up in, which was pre-1948, where, in Lebanon there were Lebanese Christians, there were Lebanese Muslims, and there were Lebanese Jews. Then, after World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel those people left, the Jewish Lebanese and a lot of them went to Israel, that’s totally understandable. But what happened was not that; a lot of what happened was in Europe. There was a World War II, there were Nazis, there was a lot going on, the English had a lot to do with why Palestine became Israel, and I think that the saddest thing that we can do is say, “It doesn’t have anything to do with me. I’m American, I’m not Jewish, I’m not Arab." same with Europeans. Europeans should not be like, “Oh, the Americans are responsible for fixing it, it’s not our problem." The Europeans are a large part of why there is a problem. So the first misunderstanding is just that... the Arabs were probably the only people at the time who were not cruel to Jews or Anti-Semitic... at the time of Hitler and World War II, Jews lived in Arab countries. And then the State of Israel was founded and then all of this trouble began. So the first thing that really gets me is that when people say "It's been going on for centuries, since the Bible"—this is not the reality, this is a modern political phenomenon that we need to all look at and see the realities of what is going on and why it’s going on.
So I think that for me, I find it really frustrating when people say that, it’s not just an issue Palestinians and Lebanese and Syrians and Iraqis care about, or even just American Jews. Everyone should care, everyone should know, because we’re all sort of complicit in it, and it’s not about, you know, liking one person better than the other. If you support Palestinians, it doesn’t mean that you are denying the Holocaust or saying that Jewish people have not been persecuted. There’s much more complexity in the issue and I think that I really wish that we could all sort of get through the... I don’t know how it’s going to be done, to be honest with you, and I think on both sides, I don’t know how you stop. I do know that there are human interactions, one-on-one, or two-on-two, or like a small group of people, they come together. Let’s say, Palestinians, Israelis, they come together and they speak, and they don’t disagree on it, they don’t agree on everything, but they find a human connection. But for some reason, on the larger level, we can’t recreate that and I find that overwhelming and frustrating.
Question: You’ve said that Palestine is more an idea for you than a concrete place. Why?
Najla Said: When my dad passed away, a lot of people were like, “Why did you bury him in Lebanon in a Quaker cemetery?” Because we buried him in my mom’s village, which is a Christian Lebanese village. So people who know enough about Middle East politics were like, "Oh, Lebanese Christians don’t like Palestinians. So why was he buried there? He should have been buried in Palestine, your father was the symbol of Palestine." The funny thing is, my father lived in Palestine until he was about 11, and even within that time, he was back and forth to Egypt and then after that, he was in Egypt, and then he came to America at 14 and had been here ever since, until he died. So 50 years in America... more than that. And he was born with an American passport, too.
So, Palestine the place... it’s not that my father was fighting, we went to visit his house, but he didn’t want to go inside. My father did not want to move into his house and get it back and say, "This is my house and my land." My father just felt that as a Palestinian in America... when he started speaking out about Palestinians, he had achieved some success in his field, which was comparative literature and literary criticism, and he felt that he had a voice and that it was important that he say something about what he knew to be the reality of the situation. Which was: "These people are not being treated fairly in any way, this is not a, you know, at the time, you know, Israel is not a democracy, these people are not given rights, and it’s my duty as a Palestinian to say that to you and be the voice of people who can’t speak for themselves."
You can’t really help if people start to idolize you or start seeing you as the son of Palestine. And to this day, people say, "I didn’t realize you weren’t Muslim." And I'm like, "Why does it matter?" You know? I mean, Arabs say that, because they want my father to represent something specific for them, so people have given him this mantle, and my father did not walk around with a keffiyah, an Arab scarf, on. He wasn’t a revolutionary in that sense. He wrote and he was a professor and he wore western clothes and he wore very fancy clothes that he got in England. And he identified more than anything, which I say as well, as my mom even says, even though she lived most of, a lot of her life in Lebanon... if there’s any place we connect to, it’s New York. So my father didn’t really feel like he belonged anywhere, or that Palestine was a place he wanted to be, but it was purely an example of what a human rights issue is. It’s a situation where people are, because of their ethnicity, not given the same rights as someone else. And that's why, to him, the struggle for Palestine was a struggle for human rights. It was not a struggle for Muslims or Christians or Jews, and against Jews or for, it was simple. And I think, although I still feel that my connection to Palestine is tenuous and difficult to figure out, because I really don’t feel a connection to the place or the struggle at times, because it’s become so distorted... at the same time, I think it, it affects me deeply, not just because my ancestors are from there, but because as a human being who’s sensitive, it’s sad. And it’s not fair that people on both sides are living in fear and sadness and hatred when it doesn’t have to be that way, I think.
And I think one of the things I always say is my dad was a really sensitive person and I think a lot of his reaction to what he saw and he knew was just from a purely human sensitive point of view, like, "That's not fair!" And so that’s how I feel as well, I think.
Question: How do you feel about the controversy surrounding your father’s work?
Najla Said: There were things that I definitely... I won't say I disagree with, but I may not find as important or intellectually. I’m speaking of literature and such, but what I tend to do is, one of the things about my dad that was, and he said this a lot, he did not want disciples, he did not want people to just agree with him. There were stories of students in his class using jargon from comparative literature and him being like, "That’s not your word, that’s Foucault's word. Choose your own word." He wanted people to disagree with him, as long as they had their own ideas and their own thoughts, and that was always what was most important to him, it was never that people follow him.
So that’s been interesting also, in terms of what I said before about Palestinians and how they want him to be this, that. My father’s last wish, he did not ever want people to idolize him and take what he said as gospel. He wanted people to constantly challenge and constantly ask questions and constantly... so that’s the only thing in terms of his work and his intellectual legacy that frustrates me. Which is that when people dismiss his ideas and say, you know, I don’t agree with him, blah, blah, blah. He would've said, "Fine, but what do you believe?" and encourage you to argue, and I think that people are mistaken in thinking that he would've been like, "No, I'm right, I'm right, I'm right, I'm right," because he wouldn't. So that’s the only thing in that realm that actually annoys me a little.
I think his work speaks for itself, and I, I say very clearly, I may be his daughter, I may have been influenced him, but I can’t defend someone’s body of work, especially if it has nothing to do with me. And I'm, as I said, open to people, as he was, criticizing his work, what I'm not open to is nasty misinterpretations of him as a human being, which I think is really difficult, especially in this day and age with the Internet and stuff. Because people believe what they read and a lot of people have opinions and even when I did my play, they were like, "Oh, I thought your dad was, da, da, da, da..." And It’s because they write it on Wikipedia. But I don’t know who wrote that, someone’s opinion of who he was and what he did. So, I think anyone, Michael Jackson's kids can say this, you know, it’s hard when you have to see nasty stuff written all over the place because everyone has access to the Internet now and everyone can voice their opinion and it’s frustrating that people take what they read as fact.
Question: Share a section from your play with us.
Najla Said: Actually, I don’t totally mind being Lebanese. It has a certain cache and none of the connotations of being Palestinian. While I am dragged there a few more times against my will, I do start to love Lebanon again. Family vacations become fun, my cousins turn back into brothers and sisters, new and improved versions of the old restaurants and beach clubs spring up like a lot of the other young, exiled Lebanese, I find a home there. I return frequently and as the country continues to flourish, I find myself flourishing, too. It takes some years, but I slowly begin to nourish myself, not only on the food with which my relatives stuff me, watermelon, apricots, rice, chicken, vegetables, hummus, but on the love that they give me and the opportunity to be part of a culture that embraces me fully.
I wish I could explain this, how the Middle East works. I want to be able to explain the culture and what is so incredibly addictive and captivating about it, but I can’t do this without self-consciously feeling like an orientalist. Ah! Okay, well, I’ll try. So, yes, there is the muezzin, the call to prayer so amazing at twilight. And there is the mysterious, deeply spiritual feel of the air and water, it’s like you’re constantly aware that all of the "Bible stuff" happened here. And there are the smells and sounds and spices and flavors and carpets and hookahs, I suppose, if you’re looking at it that way. But what really grabs you about this very electric, vibrant culture is that anyone who is talking to you, is talking to you. And looking at you and thinking about you and trying to make you, another person, feel good and comfortable and full and content.
The Arabic language is a perfect example of how this works. Let’s say you order something in a restaurant or you take a taxi or something else that requires saying "thank you" to someone, okay? Well, you don’t. You don’t say "thank you," you say "God bless your hands," or "God give you strength," or another equally lovely phrase, I mean, "God bless your hands!" Think about that! Wait, before you do, remember that you would say that to anyone, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or atheist, it’s an expression. And while I’m here, let me just say that the word "Allah" in Arabic means God. It does not mean some other special fundamentalist Muslim deity who hates infidels! It is a word whose denotation is "The Supreme Being." Okay? So basically in the same way that Spanish-speaking people call him Dios and the French call him Dieu, "Allah" is just God. Sorry to get pedantic or doubt your knowledge, but I just had to say that, because, you know, in English we say, “Oh, my God,” and “God rest his soul,” and all of the same stuff, but somehow I feel like we’re taught here that if it is an Arab saying it, they are a fundamentalist Muslim urging all believers to destroy the infidels! No. Not even close.
Oh, and everyone calls you by a nickname, they just multiply the nicknames. They’re often diminutives of your actual name, like Muna becomes Mun-mun; Sana, "San-Sun"; Tala "Tal-tul." My name, Najla, "Najuli", "Najulti," "Najnuni." Or by pet names, oh, my goodness, the pet names are so delightful. "Habibi" or its feminine, "habiti," is the most well known, it means "the one I love." But there is also "hayaty," my life; "oyooni," my eyes; "roohi" my soul; "alby," my heart; "amourra," which is "like the moon." I think that it’s kind of from the language and the way that people use it that life becomes this lovely thing! You share it with other people, you delight in their delight! You want to feed them, love them, laugh with them, make them feel good! It’s nice!
Also, people just stop by to visit you and it’s not weird, it’s lovely and on cell phones, no one has voice mail, if you get a missed call, you call the person back. It’s like the whole idea is to connect with other people, not avoid them. It’s delicious, really it is, and so I think from all of that comes this need to go out and touch and love and dance and eat, it’s like you’re on a constant quest to meet everyone.
The other thing about Arab culture, and well, maybe I should say, I don’t know all 22 Arab countries well enough to make such generalizations, but anyway... all of that stuff that people love about Greece or Italy, you know, the way that people drive wherever they want, whatever they want, in whatever direction they want... the way that people get insanely angry at you and then five seconds later they’re kissing you? All of those Mediterranean things, they're true of all of the Mediterranean peoples, Mediterranean Arabs, too. I mean, we're not that different from the rest of the world. Arabs, that's all I'm trying to say.
Interviewed by Austin Allen