Being a Palestinian intellectual’s daughter in post-9/11 New York -
Haaretz 7th of August 2013
Najla Said, daughter of the late Palestinian intellectual and leading post-Modernist Edward Said, tried to ignore the Palestinian culture and heritage handed down to her by her parents in their Manhattan home when she was young. But the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent souring of attitudes towards Arab-Americans, caused her to think again. A
fter staging a one-woman show called Palestine in New York in 2003, Said decided to describe her childhood in her debut memoir, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family.
Excerpts from the book were published on Sunday on the Salon cultural affairs website.
“I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman, but I began my life as a WASP,” writes Said in her new book. “I was baptized into the Episcopal Church and sent to an all-girls private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one that boasts among its alumnae such well-groomed American blue bloods as the legendary Jacqueline Onassis. It was at that point that I realized that something was seriously wrong — with me.”
She tells of the differences between her and the other pupils. “I was proud of my new green blazer with its fancy school emblem and my elegant shoes from France. But even the most elaborate uniform could not protect against my instant awareness of my differences. I was a dark-haired rat in a sea of blond perfection. I did not have a canopy bed, an uncluttered bedroom, and a perfectly decorated living room the way my classmates did. I had books piled high on shelves and tables, pipes, pens, Oriental rugs, painted walls, and strange houseguests. I was surrounded at home not only by some of the Western world’s greatest scholars and writers — Noam Chomsky, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Jacques Derrida, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion — but by the crème de la crème of the Palestinian Resistance.”
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem to an Arab Christian family in 1935 and raised in Jerusalem and Cairo, where his father ran extensive business ventures. In 1951, Said went to study in the United States and later became a professor of literature at Columbia University in New York. Following the Six-Day War, Said began to take an interest in the Palestinian issue, and became close to the leaders of the PLO. His book, Orientalism, reached a wide audience, placing him in the center of controversy among intellectual circles worldwide. Orientalism, published in 1978, is a brilliant and eloquent critique of the West — of academia, scholars and artists who investigated the Eastern way of life, not necessarily in the interests of knowledge but to perpetuate the West’s conquest and domination of the East. Thus, according to Najla Said, the Arab world was seen as stagnant, submissive and backward — as opposed to the supposedly superior Western world.
Najla writes that when she pressed her father to explain the concept of orientalism in simple words, he said: “’Historically, through literature and art, the ‘East’, as seen through a Western lens, becomes distorted and degraded, so that anything ‘other’ than what we Westerners recognize as familiar is not just exotic, mysterious, and sensual, but also inherently inferior.” She adds: “You know, like Aladdin.”
In the book, Najla recalls that, like many children of immigrants, she grew up confused by the conflicting values to which she was exposed. “Growing up the daughter of a Lebanese mother and a prominent Palestinian thinker in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s was confusing and unsettling. I struggled desperately to find a way to reconcile the beautiful, comforting, loving world of my home, culture and family with the supposed ’barbaric’ and ’backward’ place and society others perceived it to be.” In an interview with Boise State Public Radio, Najla said that, after the September 11 attacks, she felt terrified and feared dying, but at the same time she feared the Americans who suddenly began to call her Arab-American.
Najla also tackles father’s political legacy in the autobiography. Edward Said’s struggle for Palestinian independence made him a controversial figure in Israel and in the American Jewish world. In 2000, a photograph of Said throwing a stone toward Israel from the Lebanese border earned him widespread publicity. For some people, writes Najla, “he is the symbol of Palestinian self-determination; a champion of human rights, equality, and social justice. And then still other people insist he was a terrorist, though anyone who knew him knows that’s kind of like calling Gandhi a terrorist.”