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Najla Said is an award-winning actress, comedian, and writer. As an actress, she has appeared Off Broadway, regionally and internationally, as well as in film and television. She is a[…]

The playwright says the situation in the Mideast isn’t about Mulsims in conflict with Jews, or even about land—it’s a human rights issue.

Question: What perspective has your personal experience given rnyou on the Israel/Palestine conflict? 

Najla Said: Thern issue in Palestine and Israel is that there's a society that does not rngive equal rights to one group of the population. It is that simple, rnit's a human rights issue. And in the same way that we were outraged at rnthe Apartheid government in South Africa, and any injustice that we see rnanywhere in the world, we need to look at this critically and see that rnthe reality is... the only reason I’m even allowed to go to Israel is rnbecause I have an American passport. And I'm lucky enough to have an rnAmerican passport because my grandfather came in 1911, or whatever year,rn and went back to Palestine and that’s how my father was able to come rnhere. If I didn’t have an American passport, I don’t know if I would be rnallowed to travel to the country where my father was born and his rnancestors come from. So that right there is strange. 

I mean, rnwithout getting into the specific nitty-gritty of how they divide the rnland and how the laws work, the simple fact is, it’s not about Arabs rnhating Jews and Jews hating Arabs, and Muslims hating Jews and Jews rnhating Muslims, it’s about the struggle for equality in human rights, rnthat’s it, that's what it’s about. What the solution is? I’m not really rnsure. I have a personal belief that people should be able to live in onern secular state and believe what they believe and be who they want to be.rn That’s tricky, a lot of Israelis and Jewish people see that as a rnproblem because then there’s no Jewish state. But... I don’t know the rnsolution really, but I do know that the first step is acknowledging the rninequality and focusing on that and approaching the issue as, "Okay, howrn can we make a government that gives equal rights? Whatever you call thern country, whatever you’re going to do, how can we make sure that someonern who is Palestinian, or... is allowed to travel from point A to point B rnwithout having to go through 3,000 checkpoints just because they happen rnto be born Muslim and Palestinian, or whatever the case."
rnBut I’m also frustrated, as I said, that it’s become about religion... rnThe other thing that I hate is, "It’s been going on for centuries," rnbecause it hasn’t. And I think it’s really important that, one of the rnmost important things to me, and in this play, to do, was to, first of rnall, talk about the Middle East that my parents both grew up in, which rnwas pre-1948, where, in Lebanon there were Lebanese Christians, there rnwere Lebanese Muslims, and there were Lebanese Jews. Then, after World rnWar II and the establishment of the State of Israel those people left, rnthe Jewish Lebanese and a lot of them went to Israel, that’s totally rnunderstandable. But what happened was not that; a lot of what happened rnwas in Europe. There was a World War II, there were Nazis, there was a rnlot going on, the English had a lot to do with why Palestine became rnIsrael, and I think that the saddest thing that we can do is say, “It rndoesn’t have anything to do with me. I’m American, I’m not Jewish, I’m rnnot Arab." same with Europeans. Europeans should not be like, “Oh, the rnAmericans are responsible for fixing it, it’s not our problem." The rnEuropeans are a large part of why there is a problem. So the first rnmisunderstanding is just that... the Arabs were probably the only peoplern at the time who were not cruel to Jews or Anti-Semitic... at the time rnof Hitler and World War II, Jews lived in Arab countries. And then the rnState of Israel was founded and then all of this trouble began.  So the rnfirst thing that really gets me is that when people say "It's been goingrn on for centuries, since the Bible"—this is not the reality, this is a rnmodern political phenomenon that we need to all look at and see the rnrealities of what is going on and why it’s going on.
rnSo I think that for me, I find it really frustrating when people say rnthat, it’s not just an issue Palestinians and Lebanese and Syrians and rnIraqis care about, or even just American Jews. Everyone should care, rneveryone should know, because we’re all sort of complicit in it, and rnit’s not about, you know, liking one person better than the other. If rnyou support Palestinians, it doesn’t mean that you are denying the rnHolocaust or saying that Jewish people have not been persecuted. There’srn much more complexity in the issue and I think that I really wish that rnwe could all sort of get through the... I don’t know how it’s going to rnbe done, to be honest with you, and I think on both sides, I don’t know rnhow you stop. I do know that there are human interactions, one-on-one, rnor two-on-two, or like a small group of people, they come together. rnLet’s say, Palestinians, Israelis, they come together and they speak, rnand they don’t disagree on it, they don’t agree on everything, but they rnfind a human connection. But for some reason, on the larger level, we rncan’t recreate that and I find that overwhelming and frustrating. 

Question:rn You’ve said that Palestine is more an idea for you than a concrete rnplace. Why? 

Najla Said: When my dad passed away, a rnlot of people were like, “Why did you bury him in Lebanon in a Quaker rncemetery?” Because we buried him in my mom’s village, which is a rnChristian Lebanese village. So people who know enough about Middle East rnpolitics were like, "Oh, Lebanese Christians don’t like Palestinians. Sorn why was he buried there? He should have been buried in Palestine, your rnfather was the symbol of Palestine." The funny thing is, my father livedrn in Palestine until he was about 11, and even within that time, he was rnback and forth to Egypt and then after that, he was in Egypt, and then rnhe came to America at 14 and had been here ever since, until he died. Sorn 50 years in America... more than that. And he was born with an Americanrn passport, too. 

So, Palestine the place... it’s not that rnmy father was fighting, we went to visit his house, but he didn’t want rnto go inside. My father did not want to move into his house and get it rnback and say, "This is my house and my land." My father just felt that rnas a Palestinian in America... when he started speaking out about rnPalestinians, he had achieved some success in his field, which was rncomparative literature and literary criticism, and he felt that he had arn voice and that it was important that he say something about what he rnknew to be the reality of the situation. Which was: "These people are rnnot being treated fairly in any way, this is not a, you know, at the rntime, you know, Israel is not a democracy, these people are not given rnrights, and it’s my duty as a Palestinian to say that to you and be the rnvoice of people who can’t speak for themselves."

You can’t reallyrn help if people start to idolize you or start seeing you as the son of rnPalestine. And to this day, people say, "I didn’t realize you weren’t rnMuslim." And I'm like, "Why does it matter?" You know? I mean, Arabs sayrn that, because they want my father to represent something specific for rnthem, so people have given him this mantle, and my father did not walk rnaround with a keffiyah, an Arab scarf, on.  He wasn’t a revolutionary inrn that sense. He wrote and he was a professor and he wore western clothesrn and he wore very fancy clothes that he got in England. And he rnidentified more than anything, which I say as well, as my mom even says,rn even though she lived most of, a lot of her life in Lebanon... if rnthere’s any place we connect to, it’s New York. So my father didn’t rnreally feel like he belonged anywhere, or that Palestine was a place he rnwanted to be, but it was purely an example of what a human rights issue rnis. It’s a situation where people are, because of their ethnicity, not rngiven the same rights as someone else. And that's why, to him, the rnstruggle for Palestine was a struggle for human rights. It was not a rnstruggle for Muslims or Christians or Jews, and against Jews or for, it rnwas simple. And I think, although I still feel that my connection to rnPalestine is tenuous and difficult to figure out, because I really don’trn feel a connection to the place or the struggle at times, because it’s rnbecome so distorted... at the same time, I think it, it affects me rndeeply, not just because my ancestors are from there, but because as a rnhuman being who’s sensitive, it’s sad. And it’s not fair that people on rnboth sides are living in fear and sadness and hatred when it doesn’t rnhave to be that way, I think. 

And I think one of the things I rnalways say is my dad was a really sensitive person and I think a lot of rnhis reaction to what he saw and he knew was just from a purely human rnsensitive point of view, like, "That's not fair!" And so that’s how I rnfeel as well, I think. 

Question: How do you feel aboutrn the controversy surrounding your father’s work? 

Najla rnSaid: There were things that I definitely... I won't say I disagree rnwith, but I may not find as important or intellectually. I’m speaking ofrn literature and such, but what I tend to do is, one of the things about rnmy dad that was, and he said this a lot, he did not want disciples, he rndid not want people to just agree with him. There were stories of rnstudents in his class using jargon from comparative literature and him rnbeing like, "That’s not your word, that’s Foucault's word. Choose your rnown word." He wanted people to disagree with him, as long as they had rntheir own ideas and their own thoughts, and that was always what was rnmost important to him, it was never that people follow him. 

So rnthat’s been interesting also, in terms of what I said before about rnPalestinians and how they want him to be this, that. My father’s last rnwish, he did not ever want people to idolize him and take what he said rnas gospel. He wanted people to constantly challenge and constantly ask rnquestions and constantly... so that’s the only thing in terms of his rnwork and his intellectual legacy that frustrates me. Which is that when rnpeople dismiss his ideas and say, you know, I don’t agree with him, rnblah, blah, blah. He would've said, "Fine, but what do you believe?" andrn encourage you to argue, and I think that people are mistaken in rnthinking that he would've been like, "No, I'm right, I'm right, I'm rnright, I'm right," because he wouldn't. So that’s the only thing in thatrn realm that actually annoys me a little. 

I think his work speaksrn for itself, and I, I say very clearly, I may be his daughter, I may rnhave been influenced him, but I can’t defend someone’s body of work, rnespecially if it has nothing to do with me. And I'm, as I said, open to rnpeople, as he was, criticizing his work, what I'm not open to is nasty rnmisinterpretations of him as a human being, which I think is really rndifficult, especially in this day and age with the Internet and stuff. rnBecause people believe what they read and a lot of people have opinions rnand even when I did my play, they were like, "Oh, I thought your dad rnwas, da, da, da, da..." And It’s because they write it on Wikipedia. Butrn I don’t know who wrote that, someone’s opinion of who he was and what rnhe did. So, I think anyone, Michael Jackson's kids can say this, you rnknow, it’s hard when you have to see nasty stuff written all over the rnplace because everyone has access to the Internet now and everyone can rnvoice their opinion and it’s frustrating that people take what they readrn as fact. 
Recorded on May 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen