Questioning Religion as Identity

The playwright says she tries to maintain a humanist perspective: "Each person who interacts with me is a human being and they are the sum of all of the things that they represent."
  • Transcript


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. 

Recorded on May 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen