Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family
The United States may be the last nation to imagine Palestine. We have so much more to untangle than the rest of the world.
So a memoir by an American woman raised in the heart of the New York City elite is a welcome addition to the newly emerging literature by and about this multidimensional people living in exile in diaspora or under occupation and siege.
That the author Najla Said is the daughter of the second best known Palestinian in the world (after Yassar Arafat) the late Columbia professor Edward Said, adds another level of urgency and fascination to her story.
After all, Said’s academic work, his popular work, and his role as an advocate for his people have changed the way universities teach, scholars think and write, and students learn to conceptualize. His book Orientalism transformed our understanding of point of view, trading in the falsely asserted “objective” eye of the west for the revelation of its deep subjectivity and offered a post-modern and post-colonial alternative that has now trickled down into the way many aware people think and feel.
As much as we need and want to understand what it was like to grow up as his daughter, Najla asserts from the beginning that her own story is paramount in this volume, and it takes the reader a while to accept that Said is going to be a minor character.
It’s a memoir of her own life not of his. The first hundred pages are a variation on a theme, but it’s a needed variation. As we follow young Najla through her years at an elite private girls’ school Chapin, we come to understand that she was put into a world in which “Arab” did not exist as a category.
That her parents had been born Christian and had her baptized Episcopalian even though they were not believers, made her own identity more elusive and confusing. Annual visits with her Lebanese mother’s upper-class family in Beirut, or Tunisia when the civil war made vacations impossible meant days at the swim club, speaking French, eating gorgeous food prepared by servants, and visits with her father’s friends. The iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish appears all too briefly in the background at a swimming pool.
Najla lives inside a contradiction that she makes tangible to the reader: that her New York life had very little Arab content or context at the same time that her father was evolving his Palestinian reality into an international discourse.
There are some moving and revealing moments when he seems to suddenly wake up and realize that his daughter is out of the loop of his own thinking. In response to a homework assignment to analyze one of Napoleon’s campaigns her father tells her “Napoleon blew off the Sphinx’s nose as a sign of French colonial power.”
But before Najla or the reader can find out more, he retreats into his office to work, leaving us all with an incomplete experience, both emotional and intellectual.
In 1988 at the same time she entered high school at equally exclusive Trinity her father was on Nightline explaining to America why Palestinian children were throwing rocks, trying to make the intifada articulate to viewers.
Yet. Najla was still not in an Arab milieu outside of her family. Instead she adhered to Yiddish culture that predominated in the New York academic/intellectual ambiance of the era and neighborhood. Her best friend was a Jewish leftist who supported the intifada while her parents manufactured macaroons for Passover. The Saids shopped for bagels, lox, and cream cheese at Zabar’s (the quintessential upper westside Jewish food emporium), and readers are treated to scenes of Miriam Said complaining about a neighbor “this shmuck is kvetching about nothing.”
Finally Najla comes to feel comfortable asserting herself as Lebanese and Palestinian and finds the voice and conviction to speak up for Palestine, learning that her liberal friends are not as advanced as she or they would like them to be.
The more she becomes herself, the more her “otherness” morphs from an elusive confusion to a self-aware and deliberate identity.
When Said is diagnosed with leukemia he decides to make a return visit to the place of his birth where he had not been for 40 years. Here is where the reader gets to spend more time with Said. The family stays in East Jerusalem but forays into Israel to find the family house now occupied by a right-wing Christian organization. And here is the strongest part of Looking for Palestine in which Najla experiences occupation, identification with other Palestinians, and the presence and threat of Israeli soldiers.
In seeing the reality on the ground, she comes to understand that Palestinians still living in their homeland would have to deal with the consequences of history that she, herself “might never fully understand.”
It is a powerful and poignant moment in which the author who was “looking for Palestine” found it not in herself but in the actual place: the streets, and the people who live, survive, struggle, fail, and dream.
They go to Gaza and cross the Allenby Bridge from the West Bank into Jordan. There the reader accompanies the family as they meet Arafat at King Hussein’s palace. Unfortunately this moment also becomes a background cameo and we long for more.
At this point the reader accepts that this book will never become an intimate profile of Said, nor a detailed historical account of key moments in his life or in Palestinian history. It is foremost a memoir of Najla’s life.
We move through her entry to Princeton, her battles with psychic pain, which she persuasively ties to outsiderness, body image, and other reactions to the racism that has surrounded her all her life. She finds a place in the theater, as a writer and performer, and there finally inhabits a world where she can integrate all the pieces of herself into a productive whole.
By the time Looking for Palestine is finished, one goes from wanting this book to do everything—a repeat of the demands Najla faced all her life—to understanding she was just fighting for the right to be herself against the odds of what everyone else wanted her to be.
And now in this memoir she has succeeded.