An Actress Reflects Upon Playing Herself

It's emotionally intense for Najla Said to relive her childhood of cultural confusion and her eating disorder on stage.
  • Transcript


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. 

Recorded on May 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen