Guest Host: Steve Roberts

Najla Said with her father.

Najla Said with her father.

The daughter of noted Palestinian academic Edward Said begins her new book by saying, “I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman, but I grew up as a Jew in New York City. I began my life, however, as a WASP.” Najla Said talks with guest host Steve Roberts about the years she spent feeling conflicted about her identity and how she eventually grew to see herself and her passions more clearly.


  • Najla Said Performer and author

Read A Featured Excerpt

Excerpted from “Looking for Palestine:
Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family” by Najla Said. © 2014. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Random House. All Rights Reserved.

Looking for Palestine


  • 11:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment and will be back later this month. Najla Said opens her memoir by stating this, "I am a Palestinian-Lebanese American Christian woman, but I grew up as Jew in New York City. I began my life, however, as a WASP." The daughter of famed Palestinian academic Edward Said and a Lebanese mother talks about the challenges of navigating her Arab-American identity and why she denied her true roots until well into adulthood.

  • 11:07:30

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThe book is titled "Looking For Palestine," and Najla Said joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

  • 11:07:35

    MS. NAJLA SAIDThank you.

  • 11:07:36

    ROBERTSLovely to have you here on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:38

    SAIDThank you. It's great to be here.

  • 11:07:40

    ROBERTSYou can join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850. I'm sure many of you are familiar with Najla's book. It's been out about a year, but she's now released it in paperback, which is why we have a chance to talk to her. And many of you, of course, have -- also know her stage show, "Palestine," which ran in New York for -- when did it run?

  • 11:08:02

    SAID2010 in February.

  • 11:08:05

    ROBERTSSo we're delighted to have you join our conversation, share your story, share your own stories, particularly those of you who share her heritage of being a hyphenated American, as so many of us do. And our website is And Najla, let's start with the fact that your subtitle, okay, "Looking For Palestine," but the subtitle is "Growing Up Confused In An Arab-American Family." Confused about what?

  • 11:08:36

    SAIDOh, just about everything. Well, it's pretty much all there in the first sentence. Palestinian-Lebanese American Christian, grew up as a Jew, started out as a WASP. I grew up -- I was born in Boston, first of all. My dad was teaching at Harvard for a year and I was born there and then I was baptized as Episcopalian 'cause my dad was Anglican 'cause he had been born in Palestine under the British mandate and that was their family's religion.

  • 11:09:10

    SAIDHis mother was Baptist, even though she was from Nazareth, Palestine, because her father, my great grandfather, had come to America from Nazareth to pursue a business opportunity and that didn't work out so he went to Waco, Texas, and became a Baptist minister and then went back to Palestine, which, as we all know, Nazareth, where Jesus is from, founded a Baptist church in Nazareth.

  • 11:09:37

    SAIDSo I was Baptist and Anglican Episcopalian on one side and my mother's family was Lebanese, about as Lebanese as you can get, but her grandfather had converted to Quaker. So my mother was Lebanese and Quaker. And then, I lived on the upper west side of Manhattan, which, at the time, it still is, but at the time, it was very much liberal Jewish people land, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Philip Roth, that kind of thing, so.

  • 11:10:07

    SAIDAnd I had dark hair, not blond hair. Everyone in my school on the east side had blond hair so I thought I was Jewish, but I was Episcopalian so I don't know, yeah. So there was a lot of things. And then, I was Lebanese, but I was Palestinian and people would say, like, don't they hate each other? And I didn't understand that. And I wasn't Muslim and my skin's really white. I don't know. Everything was confusing.

  • 11:10:32

    ROBERTSSounds like you had to juggle a lot of different things. But, you know, it's also true that I've written a lot, as you have, on the immigrant experience and so many of the things you talk about, having strange foods at home, you know. You talk about having Arab bread, you know. You talk about your brother having a funny name, Wahdi (sp?). So many of the dimensions I recognized as common to all immigrants. I mean, in some ways, even though it had these differences, it was also a classic immigrant experience.

  • 11:11:15

    SAIDAbsolutely. And that's part of the reason that I wanted to write the book because I think that, especially in America, and this is a lot of what my dad's work was about, there's still this thing about Arabs or Middle Eastern people or Muslims and, you know, first of all, it's 22 different countries. A lot of Americans still don't know that Iran is not an Arab country, for example.

  • 11:11:37

    ROBERTSOr Turkey, to take another example.

  • 11:11:39

    SAIDRight, exactly. And there are just all these assumptions and just simply -- I mean, to this day, people are still -- they'll interview me and still assume I'm Muslim. And then, I'm like, my family's actually not Muslim. And they're like, how did that happen? And, you know, I have to say, well, Jesus was actually from the same town as my family, you know, things like that. And so it's frustrating, but it's also that this idea that we're some sort of different kind of immigrant when we're not.

  • 11:12:09

    SAIDAnd Arabs have been in this country -- I mean, hello, Diane Rehm. She was one of the first Arab-Americans I ever heard about, you know. Arabs are part of the immigrant culture and fabric of this country, as much as any other group of people.

  • 11:12:22


  • 11:12:24

    SAIDAnd I wanted to make sure that that was -- especially, given what's been going on in the last sort of 15 years or so, I wanted to make sure that I contributed to that because I feel like I identify mostly as an American and I'm part of an America that is just like everyone else's America. I have parents from a different country who came here to make a certain kind of life for their kids. Their kids were raised with a foot in two cultures. We have the same, you know, like you said, the food that was embarrassing, although now, everyone eats hummus.

  • 11:12:59


  • 11:12:59

    SAIDIt's kind of -- it's such a rip-off. I'm like, what? I was so embarrassed.

  • 11:13:04

    ROBERTSThat used to be our food.

  • 11:13:06

    SAIDI know. And I was like, hiding it in my lunch bag, but...

  • 11:13:10

    ROBERTSI've heard this from Indian kids and so...

  • 11:13:12

    SAIDYeah, exactly.

  • 11:13:12

    ROBERTSChinese kids. That moment of what your mom packs in your lunch box is one of the most difficult of childhoods because all you want is Doritos or something American and they pack some leftover, you know, that smells differently, right?

  • 11:13:29

    SAIDAll I wanted was Wonder bread, mayonnaise, bologna and iceberg lettuce. That's what I wanted in my lunch box and I wanted like a Hostess cupcakes. And I had, like, maybe I had tuna fish, but it was always on Arabic bread and, like, and I don't know.

  • 11:13:48

    ROBERTSYou know, but at the same time, of course, as you -- you quote your mom as saying that at times, if you were having trouble, that people would resent you or even hate you as an Arab. Did you ever feel that kind of discrimination?

  • 11:14:03

    SAIDI don't think I felt -- a lot of what I realized in writing this is a lot of my insecurities came from -- and this is sort of the irony of it because my father had written, most famously, the book, "Orientalism," which is about uncovering Islam, about how we perceived a Middle Eastern and Arab and Islamic culture in the West in these very, like, one-dimensional ways. And I had actually internalized all of those stereotypes and believed them myself.

  • 11:14:33

    SAIDSo I thought that I was, like, a dirty horrible person that no one would want to talk to and I thought that, you know, we were from a weird culture. I didn't know anything about -- I couldn't reconcile any of the things and so I just felt completely lost a lot of the time and so I think that some of it was coming from inside of me, but based on what was being, I guess, indirectly fed to me through media and stuff.

  • 11:15:01

    ROBERTSThrough the culture.

  • 11:15:01

    SAIDYeah. But I don't think that -- I mean, I grew up around -- and this is a big part of the book. I grew up around a lot of Jewish New Yorkers and I learned in school about the Holocaust and it was during the civil war in Lebanon and I knew that Israel was in a war with Lebanon and Israel was where the Jewish people went after the Holocaust so I thought that the Jewish people would hate me for some reason. You know, there were things like that that I was trying to put together.

  • 11:15:26

    SAIDBut I don't think it was so much blatant racism. It was there, but it was much more underneath the surface.

  • 11:15:37

    ROBERTSUm-hum. I mean, yet you're -- now, of course, your dad taught at Columbia so it was obvious to live on the west side of Manhattan. But still, here was a man who not only wrote this extremely important book, but was on the Palestinian national council and perhaps, for a long time, the leading voice in America for Palestinian nationalists at a time when there were very few. So there was sort of an inherent juxtaposition, right?

  • 11:16:09

    SAIDExactly. Um-hum. Well, my dad also -- that was also part of the confusion is that my father was an English literature professor and his specialty was 19th century British literature. So I knew this man who encouraged me to read "Jane Eyre"...

  • 11:16:22

    ROBERTSAnd Jane Austen.

  • 11:16:23

    SAIDJane Austen and talked all the time about Shakespeare and, you know, got mad at me in college when I didn't want to, you know, when I wanted to take the post-modernism class and, like, you must read Virgil. He was so completely a little old English professor in so many ways and such a sort of Anglophile in so many ways, but at the same time was writing about empire and then he would -- and the other half of him was him on TV being pro-Palestinian.

  • 11:16:50

    SAIDAnd I remember very clearly one of the first times I was afraid to go to school was he had been on "The Phil Donahue Show" and I was in, I think, 4th or 5th grade and I was so scared that people's parents would see it. I mean, who was home at 4:00 in the afternoon. I don't think anyone saw. But I was so scared that they would see it and, like, they would hate us. And I don't even know why, I just didn't want him to be talking about Palestine.

  • 11:17:19

    SAIDAnd it's interesting in retrospect 'cause I mean, I've watched the clips since and it's amazing that he said what he said at the time that he said it on TV and I'm really proud of it, but I knew enough...

  • 11:17:28

    ROBERTSHe really was virtually the only voice at that time.

  • 11:17:30

    SAIDYeah. But I was mortified. I was so scared that everyone was gonna hate me. And I think it's just because I didn't enough information. And nobody was pro-Palestinian. I mean, just nobody was, except my dad and my mom and my family, it seemed. So...

  • 11:17:48

    ROBERTSAnd you weren't part of a community, a Palestinian community at all?

  • 11:17:51

    SAIDNot really. We had lots of family and friends who lived around and near us, people similar to my dad who had come here and were professors or intellectuals, but in terms of, like, first of all, the school I went to, it was a very -- I went to private school to it was very homogenous in a lot of ways and there was -- this is another thing is I was not the kind -- I kept seeing that to be an Arab I should probably be, like, very rich and maybe from Saudi Arabia and I wasn't that kind of Arab either. So I just didn't see any people like us who were sort of intellectual activists.

  • 11:18:33

    ROBERTSThat's Najla Said. Her book, "Looking For Palestine." We're gonna be back with your calls and your comments. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. Join our conversation. We have some lines open. We'll be right back.

  • 11:19:59

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And my guest is Najla Said. Her book, "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family." You can join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email, And, Najla, we were talking about all of these ways in which you were confused.

  • 11:20:24

    ROBERTSAnd you lived on the upper west side, which was sort of progressive politically, largely Jewish. I lived on the upper west side myself for a number of years. But your dad sent you across -- or dad and mom sent you across the park to like the ritziest…

  • 11:20:42

    SAIDI know.

  • 11:20:42

    ROBERTS…upper-class private school on the east side. Why did they do that?

  • 11:20:46

    SAIDThis is a question that everyone asks me. And I, you know, I think there were a couple -- there were a few reasons. One was the New York City that I grew up in in the '70s, when I was little -- we lived near Columbia, which was on the border of Harlem. And the schools -- the public schools weren't as -- I don't know. There weren't as many good public schools.

  • 11:21:09


  • 11:21:09

    SAIDThere was not a good one in our area. And education obviously, for very obvious reasons, was the most important thing to my parents. My grandmother, my mother's mother, in Lebanon had run an all-girls school. And it was the first secular national school for girls in the country. And she was quite an activist herself, my maternal grandmother. And my mother had attended and she'd had a wonderful experience because she'd gong to a school where we she learned to be a strong woman.

  • 11:21:36

    SAIDSo they thought, let's send her to a girls' school. Now, apparently, I learned in -- later on that -- actually recently -- that the nursery school teachers had said she plays better with boys. You probably shouldn't send her to -- but anyway, I went to this school. Oh, then I applied to three or four of these private schools for girls and I didn't get into them because I was too shy and I didn't talk. So I got into this one. And so my parents thought it would be a great experience for me.

  • 11:22:06

    SAIDAnd then I think a lot of the issues that I had at that school had much more to do with class than with, you know, racist -- racism. But even if you were -- I mean, it was almost impossible to be Jewish at that school. But you really had to fit a certain mold. You had to live on the upper east side to fit in. You should have gone to the Hamptons on the weekends.

  • 11:22:30

    SAIDYou -- everyone's parents seemed to know each -- I mean, I would -- my friend said to me once recently, "You -- your," she said something like, "Your father changed the course of human thought, and you were worried about not being in the social register." And that's kind of my childhood. I just didn't -- I just wanted to sort of -- so I think a lot of it was about class. I don't know that -- I think to them it was just this idea that I needed to get the best education possible, which I did get.

  • 11:22:56

    SAIDBut I don't think they realized what the environment would be like. And to be fair, I mean, that school, since I've grown up and written this book, they have embraced me and welcomed me back and asked me to come speak twice. And so, you know, they've actually been -- turned out to be much better than -- I mean they've been better to me than I've probably have to them I should say.

  • 11:23:21

    ROBERTSBut that, as you point out, Manhattan is -- from a racial/ethnic point of view, even though the Upper West Side is heavily…

  • 11:23:30


  • 11:23:30

    ROBERTS…Jewish, but the class thing is…

  • 11:23:33


  • 11:23:33

    ROBERTS…huge. And if, you know, all your classmates have, you know, country homes and flying off to ski vacations, and that sort to thing…

  • 11:23:42


  • 11:23:43

    ROBERTS…that can be -- for young kids, that can be a devastating difference, mark of difference.

  • 11:23:48

    SAIDYeah, and that was -- I mean, you know, to be fair, a lot of people then, when I say this, say, "Well, your family wasn't exactly poor." No. Both my parents came from relatively, you know, well-to-do backgrounds and, you know, they wore really nice clothes and I wasn't deprived in any way.

  • 11:24:04


  • 11:24:05

    SAIDBut I did have a father who was a professor, who was a complete leftist. And everyone in my class loved Ronald -- their parents loved Ronald Reagan and it was just very different. And it was just not -- I was not around people who were at all like my family. And it was also the Jewish girls -- the few Jewish girls in our class wouldn't -- did not want to seem Jewish, either. So it was not just me, it was just anyone who was from…

  • 11:24:33


  • 11:24:33

    SAID…anywhere you wanted to fit in to the mold that they created.

  • 11:24:37

    ROBERTSThat's what you, you know, what you're talking about, we talked about earlier how in many ways it's a classic immigrant experience. But often the classic immigrant experience includes a nurturing community of like-minded people.

  • 11:24:48


  • 11:24:48

    ROBERTSEither they cluster in a certain neighborhood or they go to a certain church.

  • 11:24:52


  • 11:24:52

    ROBERTSAnd you can hear the language and, you know.

  • 11:24:55


  • 11:24:55

    ROBERTSAnd you -- there's a base of support that you have in your neighborhood or your church or your community. It was certainly true for me growing up across the river from where you did in Bayonne, N.J.

  • 11:25:07


  • 11:25:07

    ROBERTSIt was -- everybody I knew came from, you know, their parents and grandparents came from Poland and Russia and -- or Ireland or Italy. And it was a familiar and a comfortable setting.

  • 11:25:24

    SAIDRight. I think that -- I think what's interesting about the Arab-American experience -- and I've learned this more and more since I've been speaking and -- is that there's -- well, first of all, I was growing up during the 1980s and there was this war in Lebanon. So my mother was from Beirut. And every day on the cover of the New York Times there was pictures of Beirut was this sort of a symbol for like the most barbaric, horrible, evil, dangerous place on Earth.

  • 11:25:54

    SAIDSo there was that. That was just in the air. And so that made it difficult because you -- that made -- there was a little more shame about being from that particular culture, whether you were surrounded by people or not. But with -- and then within that culture there's so many -- and this is what that war was about -- there's so many divisions and so many -- there's not a lot of coherent, you know, there's just a lot of everyone's divided by religion and class and whatever. So even within that.

  • 11:26:22

    SAIDBut also, the Arab-American immigrant experience is different because there are, you know, for example, there have been a long history of immigrants. A city like Detroit has always had a great population of Arab-Americans. You think of like Ralph Nader and all of that. But those were -- and most of the people we've known, like, Danny Thomas or Casey Kasem, all of these famous Arab-Americans that have been around for a long time came in the, I guess, in the late 19th, early 20th century because they were Christian and they were not, you know, running from the Ottomans.

  • 11:27:03


  • 11:27:03

    SAIDIn fact, my grandfather, my dad's dad, came over.

  • 11:27:06

    ROBERTSSame way. My grandparents escaped the Cossacks.

  • 11:27:09

    SAIDRight. Exactly.

  • 11:27:09

    ROBERTSThe Ottomans and the Cossacks were not kind to either of our families.

  • 11:27:13

    SAIDRight. And so that older group of immigrants is largely Christian and have -- has been established for a long time, especially in the -- in Michigan, in the Detroit area. And then now there's a different crop of…

  • 11:27:25


  • 11:27:27

    SAID…Arab-Americans who are from Iraq and Syria or, you know, wherever they're from. And a lot of them are Muslims.

  • 11:27:33


  • 11:27:33

    SAIDSo it's very different and then there's, again, the class thing. So a lot of it -- I think a lot of the immigrants who came here a long time ago, who were the Christians, they've -- they came here and they lived out the American dream and they opened their businesses and, you know, perhaps being Christian made it easier for them because technically we're classified as Caucasian. And so they had established themselves in -- as Americans.

  • 11:27:58

    SAIDAnd so that's why that label of Arab-American, to me, has always been people in Michigan, like Danny Thomas. I don't know. I keep saying Danny Thomas, probably no one knows who he is anymore. But, you know…

  • 11:28:09

    ROBERTSThey know Marlo.

  • 11:28:10

    SAIDMarlo, right. "That Girl," that was so exciting to have that show on TV. But -- when I was little. But, yeah, so it was -- they were more American. And I didn't feel like my family was like -- like, even though we were Christian, we were -- my parents were all involved in politics.

  • 11:28:26


  • 11:28:26

    SAIDThey weren't, like, sort of trying to be American.

  • 11:28:28

    ROBERTSYeah, they weren't running a luncheonette around the corner.

  • 11:28:31

    SAIDYeah. So that was the difference.

  • 11:28:33

    ROBERTSBut you went off to Princeton. And focused on literature and acting. And one of the things that I found so interesting was that when you tried to make it as an actor -- and you write about this in the book -- that you kept getting typecast and that it was very hard for you to get cast as something other than Arab. Was it because of your name?

  • 11:29:00

    SAIDIt still is.

  • 11:29:01

    ROBERTSIt still is?

  • 11:29:02

    SAIDYeah, it still is. I can -- I wish I could show you the auditions I've been on in the last month, but I'm not. To be fair to the way that particular business works, you know, everyone knows there's hundreds and thousands of people who want to be actors. So if you're going out for an audition and they were looking for a young woman who's about your age, that's about -- I don't know -- 12 million people. You know there's a lot of actresses who want to -- who are cute and in a certain age range.2

  • 11:29:33

    SAIDWhen there's a character that should look Middle Eastern or maybe speaks a little bit of Arabic, well, then there's 15 people going to the audition. So just by pure numbers it's a good way to get yourself seen and to get a part. And I always point out, this is my favorite example, you know. We came to know Jennifer Lopez because she played Selena, who is a Latin pop star. But now Jennifer Lopez can play whoever she wants because she's famous.

  • 11:30:06

    SAIDSo it's like a good way in and it's a very practical way to go about being an actor. So I think because of my name, which is not, you know, it's not an easy-to-pronounce Arabic name. It's -- because my parents were really insistent on making everything difficult. It's not like Laila, you know, it's just…

  • 11:30:28


  • 11:30:28

    SAIDYeah, it's just a very difficult name. I still think that I -- just seeing my picture and my name makes people think something that -- this girl is exotic and is foreign. And so then I'll go to the auditions, but a lot of those I don't book because, even though I know the culture very well, I'm not what is considered Arab-looking. Meaning that I don't -- my skin is really white. I keep saying that. It's so strange, but it's a real thing. Like, I think there's this idea…

  • 11:31:08

    ROBERTSSo you don't fit any stereotypes.

  • 11:31:09

    SAIDRight. And that's part of the confusion. I don't "look Arab." In fact, I look supremely Arab, if you know what an Arab looks like, because we all look different. But, you know, Syrians and Lebanese, too, they have a lot blue eyes and green eyes and blond hair, naturally, not just because they dye it -- but they do dye it. But, like, I have white skin and black hair. But it seems that, like, in the Hollywood version, they would always want someone who looked more South Asian to be the Arab. And Indian or a Pakistani actor.

  • 11:31:40

    SAIDAnd so it's frustrating in that regard. And I found it very difficult because I kept constantly being -- and still this happens. You know, I keep being brought in for those parts -- which I can do. I know the culture very well. But at the same time, I'm fully American and most of the time when people see me I'm so New York-y they thing I'm Jewish. So there's the other irony, which is that everyone thinks I'm Jewish, all the time. And so that's been very difficult and frustrating.

  • 11:32:10

    ROBERTSHow's your Yiddish?

  • 11:32:11

    SAIDIt's really good, actually. It's pretty good. And my mom's is, too.

  • 11:32:17

    ROBERTSWell, it -- you can't live on the upper west side without absorbing some of it.

  • 11:32:19

    SAIDNo, I know.

  • 11:32:20

    ROBERTSBut, you know, I was struck, Najla, by the fact that you then did your one-woman show, as you say in the book. So that you created a part for yourself.

  • 11:32:32


  • 11:32:33

    ROBERTSYou created a role for yourself. That if someone wasn't going to give you one, you'd write it for yourself.

  • 11:32:36

    SAIDYeah, exactly.

  • 11:32:37

    ROBERTSThat was a pretty clever thing to do.

  • 11:32:39

    SAIDYeah, I thought, well, there's all these sides of my personality that people don't, you know, if -- it's like this idea was that I think people see me as, okay, well, you're the ethnic girl, so you have to grow your hair really long and be really sexy and exotic. And I'm sort of dorky and neurotic and weird and quirky and silly and very funny. And I wanted to show who I was. And I thought maybe if I did this people would see me performing and they would see who I am, because you're acting, but you're being yourself.

  • 11:33:12

    SAIDAnd the other thing I wanted to do was sort of clear up my background because I think that, yes, I'm from a very, very Arab family in certain ways. But I'm also really, really from New York. I mean, that's where I'm from. And I went to Princeton and I went to private school. So that's another aspect of my personality as well.

  • 11:33:33

    ROBERTSWith a Jewish therapist.

  • 11:33:34

    SAIDWith a -- I love it. My Jewish therapist is so proud because she's so famous now. But, yeah, since I was 10 I've been in therapy. You know, all these things, I wanted to make that clear. And I was also at this -- at the point where the play came into my career, my father had passed away and I was constantly being -- dealing with the fact that I was being called this person's daughter, which also brings a whole other level of stuff.

  • 11:33:59


  • 11:34:00


  • 11:34:01

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to go to some callers here.

  • 11:34:08


  • 11:34:08

    ROBERTSI know we have a lot of people who want to talk to you. And here's Mark, in Cincinnati. And, Mark, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:34:20

    MARKHi. Thank you for taking my call. And thank you so much for writing a book about Palestinians because you are a spitting image of my experience in America. I am a Palestinian Christian and I’m -- although I moved here when I was 13, I feel as if I've had very, very similar experiences, fears and worries and going through my teenage years and going through my life not knowing whether I am an Arab, I am a Christian, I am an American, how to deal with most situations.

  • 11:35:08

    MARKIn fact, my name is Marjuan (sp?). It's not Mark. And it's just because it's -- I explain that it's much easier to have -- not have to correct people all the time of how to pronounce my name. And just another short story I would like to tell, in high school when I started in a suburban all-white high school, I -- people didn't know where Palestine is. So I explained to them that -- it's -- I'm Lebanese. And they didn't know where Lebanon was. So I said, well, I'm from Cyprus. And they didn't know where Cyprus was.

  • 11:35:45

    MARKSo eventually I ended up being the new Italian Stallion in high school because it's the only country that they knew. And that's how it went. So I just want to thank you. I have no questions. And I'm glad that someone was -- is bringing the light out to a small, small group of Arabs like us. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

  • 11:36:10

    ROBERTSThank you, Marjuan. We appreciate it very much.

  • 11:36:13

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:36:13

    ROBERTSDo you get this a lot, of people who, you know, there have been countless books written by Jewish immigrants and Italian immigrants and Irish immigrants. But not that many by Arab-Americans.

  • 11:36:23

    SAIDYeah, in fact, I think the first one I ever heard of was Diane Rehm's book. So -- because I didn't know she was Arab. And that's how I -- my mother was reading it and she said -- I said, "Why are you reading --" She's like, "She's a very important Arab-American. And this is her story." But I think, yeah, that's actually why I wrote it. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison, but that was kind of all I had, really.

  • 11:36:48

    SAIDThere wasn't -- and I don't completely relate to the story of a young black girl in the South who wants blue eyes, but I related to wanting blue eyes. And so I felt that that's what I had. And then over the years there's been so much more growth in this type of immigrant, second generation literature. And there really isn't anything in terms of -- I mean, there's a few great authors, but I wanted to contribute that.

  • 11:37:18

    SAIDSo actually, when I was offered the book contract, I wanted to do it because I wanted there to be a book for young people. If there's one thing I can give, it's, "You're not alone and I get it." And, plus, everybody gets it.

  • 11:37:32

    ROBERTSWe're gonna hold that thought. And we'll be right back with Najla Said in just a minute. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. Your calls are up next. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:57

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And my guest Najla Said. Her new book -- well, it's been out a year but it's just out in paperback so you get a chance to get a less expensive copy, "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab American Family." And Najla, we got a couple of emails. By the way, Najla mentioned that one of her favorite books as a child as Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye." And we are -- it happens -- she didn't even know this when she mentioned it, that here on "The Diane Rehm Show" we're doing a Readers' Review of Toni Morrison's "Bluest Eye" on September 24.

  • 11:40:30

    ROBERTSSo anyway, Maureen writes to us, "I read and enjoyed Najla's book. I wonder, if she doing her one-woman show now would it be different in any way? Has she found changes in her experience as an Arab American given that Palestine is so much in the news?" And this one-woman show ran in New York, we mentioned briefly, for a number of weeks in 2010. And this book -- grew out of that show.

  • 11:40:59


  • 11:41:00

    ROBERTSSo this is an interesting question. If you're doing it now four years later would it be different?

  • 11:41:05

    SAIDI do think -- well, what's interesting is I wrote the play and developed it over a period of three or four years, maybe even more than that. But -- and as I was writing it things kept changing. That's the beauty of the Middle East, it's the gift that keeps on giving. So...

  • 11:41:25

    ROBERTSSome things changed and some things did not change.

  • 11:41:26

    SAID...not change. Well, that's very profound and true. But, yeah, so at some point between what was almost the final version of the play and the actual final version of the play, it was 2008, 2009, there was an incursion in Gaza. And so I rewrote the section that I had written about Gaza to make it more powerful and more central to the play.

  • 11:41:52

    SAIDSince then I've continued to perform the play. I do it a lot at colleges and high schools so -- and I still do. And I love that experience. It's really great. And I stop at a certain point. I guess technically it's around 2007. But -- so I think in terms of like specific current events, I've shaped the show in a way that I don't have to deal with specific changes and things that are -- I mean, if there's a major -- I mean, I wrote it before the Arab Spring but I don't think that has -- will have an effect on the content of the play.

  • 11:42:35

    SAIDBecause it's really a personal story and what I try to do is educate by pointing out all the different things -- I try to just tell my story and sort of you go along with me as I learn, you know, what's the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni and why is my dad Palestinian and not allowed to come to Lebanon with us and things like that that people are afraid to ask because it seems to complicated. And so you go on the journey and you learn the basic facts with me. And what you're left with is more questions. So most people go away and want to learn more.

  • 11:43:09

    SAIDBut I think in terms of specific details, maybe here or there I might add a line or two to make things more powerful. But I think that what I wrote about Gaza, even though I went there in 1992, it just becomes more and more and more important to hear because I think people are now more curious about what Gaza is and what happens there.

  • 11:43:30

    SAIDAnd this is -- as I say in the play and I think in the book, this was -- it was one of the most horrific experiences or the most transformative experiences of my life going to Gaza and seeing what it was like there. And I say in the book and the play, this was way before Gaza got bad. So you can only imagine what it is like. Just from hearing my description you'll get a little taste of it but it's worse now.

  • 11:43:57

    SAIDAnd so there are things that I probably would -- there are lines, you know, here and there that I might cut because they seem less important. But for the most part I think it's all pretty much -- it's all pretty -- it becomes actually more important to me to do the play. I actually want to do the play more now since -- because...

  • 11:44:20

    ROBERTSAnd is there more of a market for it given the events of the summer and...

  • 11:44:24

    SAIDI think so. I mean, I kind of -- it's one of those things when you're in a position like this and you know you have a certain voice and you know you have a way of -- for me I wrote the play because I never -- I was never comfortable the way my father was and my brother are talking about history and politics and analyzing things. I get very confused and I can only talk about personal experiences. And I realize the effect that had on people and that I'm trained as a theater artist so I can engage with audiences.

  • 11:44:53

    SAIDAlso, as I said, people see me as a New Yorker. I appear very Jewish. I identify as Jewish in a certain way because that's part of my New York identity given where I grew up and how I was raised and how neurotic I am and all of those stereotypical things. But I think that because I have the ability and the voice and the vehicle and I know it's been well received -- in the past couple months I wanted desperately to do the play again.

  • 11:45:23

    ROBERTSInteresting. We've got a lot of other callers who want to talk to you Najla. And let's go to Camille in Winter, Conn. Camille, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:45:35

    CAMILLEYes, thank you for having me. I feel a very strong connection. I am from Guyana in South America. And I knew of Edward Said through a Palestinian friend of mine. We were both doing our doctorates at Columbia University. So I am -- I have this feeling in my heart, this love because my friend died shortly after she defended her dissertation. And Edward was at her funeral. I am so glad now to have this book that I can refer to.

  • 11:46:16

    CAMILLEI'm not -- I do not have a question. And I've listened to Edward Said on alternative radio. I have the old book "A Question of Palestine." So it is delightful to hear from Ms. Said...

  • 11:46:33

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:46:34

    CAMILLE...because I have this strong feeling. I really didn't know anything about Palestine. I knew where it was. I know where it is but the culture and everything -- as a matter of fact I was just looking through a book -- a recipe book that my friend gave me. I do use it. And my great niece is named after her. So people are just, you know, surprised that she has this Jewish -- this Arab name.

  • 11:47:08

    ROBERTSThank you so much for the call. We appreciate it, Camille.

  • 11:47:09

    CAMILLESo thank you very much.

  • 11:47:12

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:47:12

    CAMILLEI'll definitely get your book.

  • 11:47:13

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:47:14


  • 11:47:15

    ROBERTSYour father is such a huge figure in the book. He took up a lot of space and a lot of oxygen. And one of the things that I found touching was that you mentioned that after he died ten years ago that it was only then that you really got to know your mother as well as you did because he was such an overpowering figure and performer.

  • 11:47:39

    SAIDYeah, I was definitely a daddy's girl. I say that on the second page, I think. I was very close with my dad. We were just very similar temperamentally and, you know, artistic and neurotic. And my mom and brother are much more organized and, like, really good at science and math and not being late and stuff like that and less emotional. And so we were very, very close.

  • 11:48:07

    SAIDAnd then he passed away and I felt like I lost my advocate and my best friend in the family because I felt like that's how we were matched up. Me and my dad were similar and my mom and my brother were similar. But, you know, then I suddenly got to know my mother who -- I mean, I loved my mother. I didn't have major issues with her but I just thought she was there. I didn't really know much about her.

  • 11:48:32

    SAIDAnd in the last ten years, not only have I learned more about her as a person, I learned how much she -- you know, my dad was born with an American passport because, as I said, his father had come here and become a citizen and then moved back to the Middle East. My dad was born American and went to a British school in Cairo and in Jerusalem. And then he was sent here to go to boarding school in Massachusetts when he was 14. He went to summer camp in Maine. He went to Princeton and Harvard.

  • 11:49:00

    SAIDAnd he always felt like he was -- I mean, my dad was essentially American his whole live but he grew up partly in the Middle East and he spoke Arabic and he was very connected to me in Arab. But he was also very disconnected from the Middle East much of his life. And my mother is just very -- she's just Lebanese and proud to be Lebanese. And she came from this fascinating, intellectual family. I think I mentioned my maternal grandmother earlier. She was -- she actually wrote a memoir that we released a couple years ago, because she was incredibly -- she came to America to get a PhD in, like, 1930.

  • 11:49:39

    ROBERTSMy goodness.

  • 11:49:40

    SAIDShe came to Michigan and she ran this all-girl school. And it was, you know, a secular national school which I don't think you -- like, in Lebanon that's still kind of unprecedented to have a secular all-girl school. She raised these women to be strong. She was pro-Palestinian. She was an Arab nationalist. She was active. And so my grandmother, I didn't even know because my grandmother died when I was give. And she had had a stroke so I really -- she was this cute little old lady that I loved.

  • 11:50:07

    SAIDBut she was this incredible woman. And I think also my mom's Quakerism had -- all of these things had had effects on my father and had sort of shaped a lot of his ideas and his secular humanism and this being in this family. And then my mom was also just an incredible woman. She has a Masters in library science and an MBA. And she ran a bank and she is tough and -- really tough. And -- but she's also a wonderful mommy.

  • 11:50:35

    SAIDAnd so I just -- I felt completely -- it's definitely been the blessing of writing this book is getting to know my mom and learning that maybe I'm a great woman because of my mom too.

  • 11:50:48

    ROBERTSYou know, I had a very similar experience when I did a memoir. My dad had died and he'd always been the dominant figure in the family. And it gave me a chance to sit down with my mother and talk about life from her perspective and her memories. And I learned a lot of things that I never learned when my dad was a live and taking up all the oxygen in the room. I know exactly what you're talking about.

  • 11:51:12

    SAIDYeah, and to this day people are still like, oh, your dad, your dad. I'm like, no, it's also my mom. It's also my mom.

  • 11:51:18

    ROBERTSYeah, I found out that my dad had been a writer and he had trained me as a writer. And then I found some letters that my parents had exchanged as young people when they first met. It turns out my mom was a better writer. She was cleaner and sharper and crisper.

  • 11:51:35


  • 11:51:36

    ROBERTSAnd he was -- and she never wrote a word for publication her entire life but she was a better writer.

  • 11:51:40

    SAIDWell, and my mom is smart. My god, I never knew that. I mean, I knew it but I didn't get it.

  • 11:51:45

    ROBERTSYeah, until you almost come back as an adult.

  • 11:51:48


  • 11:51:48

    ROBERTSLet's -- we've got time for a couple more callers here. And before I do that, let me say that I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And Najla, let's turn to Omar. And Omar is -- I don't know what his hometown is but you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Omar. Welcome.

  • 11:52:10

    OMARThank you. My wife is from Iran and because of which I'm -- I have a very, very different view of the Middle East then most Americans do. And it's very neat that she wrote this book and it's out. People can get another view of the Middle East. American have a very limited view and do not understand any of the culture. And I think it's really refreshing.

  • 11:52:52

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:52:53

    OMARAnd I applaud this young lady for doing that.

  • 11:52:57

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:52:57

    ROBERTSThank you very much. We appreciate it. Let's see, Joe in Nantucket, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Joe.

  • 11:53:11


  • 11:53:11


  • 11:53:12


  • 11:53:12

    JOECan you hear me?

  • 11:53:13

    ROBERTSYes, go ahead, please.

  • 11:53:14

    JOEYeah, I've been interested in listening to this show. I'm a big fan of your father's work. I've read a lot of (unintelligible) couldn't remember them. But I wanted to say, growing up in the '80s in Brooklyn, New York, and like yourself -- I'm 42 now, but my father was a Palestinian sympathizer and very much in the minority. But he -- I can remember in coming to a PTA meeting, a parent teacher night and opening up the textbook and saying to one of my teachers that there's four pages on Golda Meir and a paragraph on the 1967 war. Like, he was very much involved in this.

  • 11:53:57

    JOEAnd since I feel that New York City, in particular, the politics of New York City, with, like, Ed Koch or even (word?) it was very -- not to say anti-Palestinian, but very pro-Israel.

  • 11:54:12

    SAIDYeah, it still is, definitely.

  • 11:54:14

    JOEYeah, it still is. And it's unfortunate that for a citizen or for a writer or anything to be against the Israeli government is -- people walk a thin line being described as anti-Semitic. And that's -- it's unfortunate. It's just -- the truth I think in New York that there's a lot of Israeli citizens or half Israeli are very proud of their heritage. And they take that back to the states with them. And they kind of develop a culture because they're more prominent in their culture. So I just -- I could just keep on going and going and going, but I wanted to say...

  • 11:54:54

    ROBERTSNo, but that's...

  • 11:54:56 were not alone.

  • 11:54:57

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:54:58

    ROBERTSThank you very much, Joe. I want to ask you a final question, Najla Said. You say this has been a lifelong search for an identity.

  • 11:55:09


  • 11:55:10

    ROBERTSAnd fair enough. I mean, this is...

  • 11:55:13

    SAIDAnd it's not necessarily over.

  • 11:55:15

    ROBERTSAnd not necessarily over, but how would you define yourself today after all of this thought, all of this therapy, all of these conversations? If I say, okay, define yourself, go ahead.

  • 11:55:31

    SAIDWell, the -- it's been a long journey and, I mean, I think that the only conclusion that I have come to -- I mean, when people say, where do you think you really belong, where is home, I -- New York. I mean, New -- I was just in North Carolina and I'm just like, what do people do here? I just -- I'm such a New Yorker I can't -- I just -- I -- that's home. But in terms of my identity, I'm a human being. That's really all I can say because in the end of the day is like my father was a humanist and that's what he believed in.

  • 11:56:11

    SAIDAnd so, you know, I am Palestinian, American, Lebanese, Christian, New York Jewish, WASP, upper west side or actress, comedian, writer, Pilates instructor. I'm all of these things equally. I don't think I'm any one more than the other. So what is my identity? I'm a human being. I think also -- I just turned 40 -- so I think as you start to get older, I'm noticing this a lot, I mean, I turned 40 this year so it was during the time of doing all these interviews and the publicity for this book.

  • 11:56:46

    SAIDAnd I think that there -- one of the things that my dad was sort of famous for was don't define us. Let us define ourselves. And then I wrote this book and then I've been getting more and more confident going on interviews and just saying who I am. So I am all of these things and more.

  • 11:57:05

    ROBERTSGood way to end. Najla Said. Her book is "Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab American Family." Thank you so much for joining us this morning on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:57:14

    SAIDThank you.

  • 11:57:15

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. She's getting a voice treatment but she'll be back later this month in this chair. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.

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