He Said, She Said: Najla Said’s “Looking for Palestine”

By Nasia AnamMarch 31, 2014

He Said, She Said: Najla Said’s “Looking for Palestine”

Looking for Palestine by Najla Said

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to read Looking for Palestine, Najla Said’s memoir, without remembering her father. While Said is an accomplished playwright, actress, and comedian, she is also the daughter of the celebrated Edward Said, whose 1978 text Orientalism tore a rent in the musty fabric of British and French colonial history and literary study, letting in the fresh air and light of new critical practice. Edward Said read and analyzed canonical literary works against the grain to expose a history of subjugation, oppression, and hegemony therein, and his scholarship ushered in the possibility of a postcolonial perspective in the study of British and French literature and history. This past September marked the 10th anniversary of Said’s passing: for the academic world his legacy is the provocative and rigorous scholarship that was to influence legions of postcolonial literary critics, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and many other “ists” in the humanities and social sciences. But Edward Said’s influence was hardly locked up in the ivory tower — a true public intellectual, he brought his message of secular humanism and Palestinian rights into the sphere of public discourse, regularly appearing on talk shows, news programs, and in glossy periodicals. And in his daughter’s memoir we witness a more private kind of influence: that which permeates family life and informs through emotion and memory, rather than by publication and speech-making.

In his 1983, post-Orientalism volume, The World, the Text, and the Critic, Edward Said ruminates at length about the critic’s relationship to filiation and affiliation. Filiation, in his terms, is a relationship of nature — biological, natal, and organic ties to people and places. We have filial relationships with our families and our ancestral lands. These are deeply rooted connections, whereas affiliative relationships are acquired, rather than inherited. They are cultural and associative: political allegiances, institutional ties, social hierarchies, and class stratifications. For Edward Said, to inhabit a critical consciousness is to identify and investigate the frictions between filiative and affiliative associations. Therein lies his most forceful work. For him, and for those who continue to follow his example decades after his most important texts were published, the imperative is to constantly and diligently challenge conventional modes of thinking, of being, and of understanding the world.

I could not help but read Najla Said’s book, Looking for Palestine, in this context. The memoir traverses, in rich and playful anecdotal style, the space between filiation and affiliation and explores what exactly it means to live a life squarely within that tension. Much of Najla Said’s account takes place during her very early childhood. Her perspective in these chapters is wonder-filled and deeply sensitive, an affect that she never quite sheds as she takes us through her teenage and adult years. Indeed, as her story progresses and she faces increasingly difficult — and decidedly adult — hardships, we begin to sense that the retention of that innocence is purposeful. This is most strikingly evidenced in her decision to refer to her famous and respected father as “Daddy” and her mother, Mariam Said (a public figure in her own right), as “Mommy” throughout the text. What does it mean to dub one of the world’s foremost and influential literary scholars “Daddy”? At first, the convention can seem precious and even regressive. But if we are to see Najla Said’s persistent innocence as an act of resistance, understanding Edward Said as “Daddy” is to understand him not as a public — and publicly owned — figure, but instead as the affectionate father of a troubled daughter who means to claim him.

“Daddy” is a way of keeping Edward Said a private figure, a family man, the head of a household — a way to make once again filial that which has become overwhelmingly affiliative. The name “Edward Said,” in many ways, has become a placeholder for a certain radical moment in academic thinking. But in Looking for Palestine we rarely encounter that larger-than-life Edward Said. Instead, we see “Daddy” with the weird job that keeps the family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and whose weird politics make other parents of girls at the Chapin School bristle. “To very smart people who study a lot,” Najla writes, “Edward Said is the ‘father of postcolonial studies’ […]. To other people, he is the symbol of Palestinian self-determination […]. A ‘humanist’ who ‘spoke truth to power.’” She goes on to introduce us to her own Edward Said, the one who would shape her life in ways that only a father is able to do. “To me, he was my daddy, a dapper man in three-piece suits tailor-made in London,” she writes,

A cute old guy […] who brought me presents from all over the world […] and held me when I cried. He played tennis and squash, drove a Volvo, smoked a pipe, and collected pens. He was a professor. He was my father.

This is a story, then, of the private repercussions and ramifications of public personae. Najla Said’s fierce naïveté, her jaunty, conversational tone, her joking and seemingly flippant way of describing life with her father are ways of humanizing the humanist, of forcefully insisting on the importance of tenderness and innocence in a very worldly existence.

And often world-weary: her life is anything but carefree. Some of her earliest memories are of schooldays wracked with anxiety. She portrays her years at Chapin, a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side, as a harrowing time of confusion and nervousness. Compounding the normal traumas that confront school-age girls (the judgmental glances from other girls assessing, in a single swoop, body image, fashion choice, and socioeconomic status) are political issues too complicated for the girl she was to fully understand. Young Najla must field difficult questions from her all-American peers (Jews and WASPs), inquiring into her nationality and her religion. The answers — that Mariam is Lebanese and Edward is Palestinian, and that they are, as a family, nonpracticing Episcopalians — neither comfort nor satisfy her classmates, and it is in these moments that Looking for Palestine is most poignant. “For the most part,” Najla writes about herself at that age,

I was wholly unaware of the political realities of the Middle East. I didn’t know what Muslims were because as far as I knew I’d never met one. Preschool had introduced me to some Jewish friends, and the candles and the dreidels, but I certainly didn’t know what […] Zionism might be.

One particularly adorable-yet-horrifying anecdote features Najla mimicking her school friends in the reenactment of a scene from Saturday morning television:

I got on my knees as the little brown men in the cartoon had done and undulated my torso up and down, raising and lowering my arms from the sky to the floor, over and over again, while saying the phrase that the cartoon characters had said: “Ohhhhhh, salamiiiiiii.

It is at once funny and disquieting to imagine Edward Said’s offspring performing this bastardized, Looney Tunes version of an already offensive 19th-century Eugène Delacroix painting. But Najla provides moments like these to illustrate, with levity, just how hard it is to sort out one’s identity amid the infinite historical accidents, disasters, and fortunes that bring immigrant families to the United States — even if your father has quite literally written the book on how to parse that complex configuration.

On the Upper West Side, the traditionally Jewish neighborhood where Najla grows up, the issue of Israel and Palestine is of particular consequence. And yet, the uniqueness of a diverse New York jumbles these divisions, remixes and reconstitutes them, and allows Christian-Palestinian-Lebanese Najla Said to make such wondrous observations about her quotidian life as this one:

[T]hough my parents were fiercely proud of being Arabs, and very critical of Israel, there was something about being a native Upper West Side family that made us all seem partly Jewish. Most weekends, we went to Zabar’s for cheese and cold cuts and bread and even lox and cream cheese, and then we picked up bagels from H&H, across the street.

Along the western edge of Central Park and further north, between 72nd Street and 97th Street, everybody schleps, everybody kvetches, and everyone walks among mensches and meschuggenehs, no matter the origin of your last name or where your political allegiances lie. Here again we have Najla Said demonstrating, in the most conversational and anecdotal of terms, the tension between the filiative and affiliative modes of life that birth a critical perspective.

The complexities of her identity produce a trembling anxiety in the young Najla, despite her sense of humor. Relentlessly teased for all that sets her apart from her peers — her name, her appearance, her foreign-born parents — these anxieties begin to show themselves on her body. Body image issues and teenage alienation among young women may be universal, but their root causes are not always reducible to the evils of the fashion industry and the Hollywood machine. Najla Said’s personal battles remind us of the different — and often harmful — ways we attempt to answer the plaguing question of identity, and the near impossibility of that task when our entire subject formation is born of deep historical and political trauma.

Eventually Najla’s story takes her away from the hybrid space of the Upper West Side and straight into the geographical heart of these traumas. She visits both Lebanon and Palestine at various points in her life, more than once during times of war. Her descriptions of these trips are alternately joyful and devastating, encapsulating the extreme nature of day-to-day life under such volatile conditions. Describing battle-torn Beirut during her childhood, she illuminates the experience of war with the kind of wisdom that can only come from withstanding hardship at a tender age.

I cannot tell you who was fighting whom or what faction was clashing with what other faction that week. I could look it up, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. I can tell you there were bombs and gunshots downstairs, outside our building, around the corner. I can describe for you how we spent a week in the stairwell in the center of our building — the safest place — as the shells continued to fall. I can tell you about the lack of electricity in the entire building and therefore in the stairwell, and about the dark that was beyond any darkness I had ever known before. The experience was enough for me to understand that every war ever fought, every violent act ever committed, and every trauma any child has ever endured is utterly horrifying, and that’s all you need to know for now.

We are reminded, again and again, that when attack arrives at one’s doorstep, war is war, and violence is violence, regardless of the political and academic discourse, conferences, summits, and speeches surrounding these events.

In this way Looking for Palestine weaves the surreality of war into the somewhat normal life of a Princeton-educated Manhattanite. Somewhat, because Najla comes of age in the household of one of the world’s foremost experts on the battles and skirmishes of biblical lands, making them deeply personal. On a visit to Palestine with her family, teenage Najla feels connected to the children she sees on the streets.

They, like me […] were simply born into this history, and just like me, they had no memories of a Palestine other than the one in which they lived. […] And yet, I realized, they were the ones who would suffer on a daily basis in a way that I never would. They were victims of the circumstances of their birth in a way that I would never be.

Though she is able to leave Palestine at will, she nonetheless regularly confronts the extraordinary circumstances of her own birth. Upon matriculating to Princeton, she meets Dr. Cornel West issuing the orientation speech and approaches him not as an admiring young co-ed but instead a family friend. Her colleagues, RAs, and TAs build a mythos around her famous father’s reputation and her clomping, grungy attire. She takes on the air of the “exotic,” and in so doing, rehearses for us Orientalism in miniature — the microcosm of the university setting repeating, on a small scale, all the complex cultural dynamics that her father elucidates in his now-canonical volume.

Perhaps the most touching and tense episode in Looking for Palestine occurs after Edward Said’s death in 2003. Najla Said illustrates the truly unjust nature of public mourning, which denies the bereaved family a chance to process what has occurred. “Two thousand people came to the funeral,” she writes. “Susan Sontag was crying; people were staring at her, at Noam Chomsky, at Peter Jennings. Al Jazeera broadcast the funeral.” When mourning becomes a spectacle, there is inadequate space for private pain, the filiative crowded out by the affiliative. “Almost every time I said ‘I miss my dad,’ someone would say, ‘Oh, we all do,’ and begin to wax eloquent on how he had changed their life. […] I felt I couldn’t have my dad to myself.” The “father of postcolonial studies” played a more important role for Najla and her brother, Wadie, as “Daddy.”

It isn’t clear in the final chapters of her book whether or not Najla Said has discovered the homeland she seeks: certainly the region has found no peace. But this is a story about coming to peace with oneself, with one’s filiations and affiliations, with the fraught histories that determine us and shape our lives. One might argue that the book could have been titled Looking for Edward. Or, better yet, Looking for Najla for, by the end of Looking for Palestine, it is Najla Said who is found.


Nasia Anam is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Nasia Anam is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles.


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