TranscriptQuestion: 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