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Looking for Palestine, by Najla Said.

July 28, 2013

Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family, by Najla Said.  Riverhead Books, 2013.  258 pages.


In her insightful memoir, the daughter of a Palestinian intellectual and activist tells how she rejected her identity as an Arab as a child and how she came to claim it as she matured.

Najla Said is the daughter of Edward Said, the professor at Columbia University who helped shape post-colonial scholarship, and his Lebanese wife.  She describes her home and family as warm and loving.   Famous scholars and activists dropped in regularly and the family took regular trips to her mother’s family in Beirut even when the city was engulfed in civil war.   Although Said had been baptized because of her grandmother’s demand, her parents were secular humanists, and she was not raised in any religious tradition.  She grew up knowing nothing of Islam or of the strife between Arabs and Jews.

From kindergarten through junior high, Said attended a prestigious private school for girls where she felt herself to be different and inferior; darker, larger, and tainted by the constant talk of “Arab terrorists” in New York in the 1980s.  Being caught in the fighting in Beirut when she was in grade school was particularly traumatic.  As a high school student, she attended a coed school where she made Jewish friends.   After graduation, her family visited Israel and Palestine where she first began to identify with the suffering of Palestinians.  College was a positive experience as she started to learn more about her own legacy.  She went on to become an actor, finding a new “family” among other Arab Americans in the theater.

Looking for Palestine is a firsthand account of how hard it was to be an Arab child growing up in the hate-filled USA in the late twentieth century, especially one outside the community of a mosque.  This is an important contribution.  But I felt a lack of connection between Said’s stories of loving and brilliant parents and her stories of a school where she was never good enough.  Both were well described, but a chasm seemed to divide them as if she wasn’t really present in both or as if her parents had no role in her attendance at the school.  The book itself grew out of a play that Najla wrote and produced, and perhaps the account worked better on stage.  Or perhaps neither she nor I want to fault the school rather than her parents.

How Said grew up in the household with so little knowledge of the Middle East is also hard to understand, but later in the book she provides a clue. Her brother was the one who was always interested in Arabic history and their father’s work.  As a boy that was his role, not hers.

Sure, my Daddy adored me, but I was kind of like his little doll.  Little girls like me didn’t need to know about serious things; that was the message I received. And it was one of the reasons I hadn’t felt more motivated to learn about my culture… Why should “little Naj” be burdened with the knowledge of her history?

I could identify with Said better in the later part of the book when she was moved by what she belatedly learns about Palestine.

 I recommend this book to those interested in immigrants or in the Middle East or in Arabs in the United States.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2013 9:57 am

    Great review, Marilyn. I should love to read this as I am becoming more interested in Arab literature.


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