TranscriptQuestion: 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.
Interviewed by Austin Allen