September 22, 2014 By

Najla Edward Said: On the Otherness Where We Belong


The reason why most people read Najila Said’s memoir: Looking for Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family might be that she is Edward Said’s daughter. There are other reasons why she must be read. Her prose is riveting; she recounts more about the process by which she grapples with her many identities than about her larger than life father; and finally it recounts the tale of Palestine, which is now bleeding, in a passionate, urgent, and all the while objective language.

The celebrity value of the book and of Najila for that matter is something that she herself disapproves, if we go by her unwelcome responses to those guys who wanted to date Edward Said’s daughter.

She writes: “why is he in love with me? Has he met me? Or does he just see me around and think it would be superb to have an affair with Edward Said’s daughter? I had caught on to my father’s intellectual rock-star status by this point and was entirely aware that I myself was not the draw.”

The memoir is a print adaptation of a play Najla made about her life in 2009. The play was performed Off Broadway Theatre for two months with rousing reception. She ‘continued to perform the play all over the country, mainly at high schools and colleges.’

What motivated Najla to write about her life and perform it was not her father’s intellectual career (“I worried I did not know enough about my dad’s work, I was scared of making political statements of any kind, I was afraid of sounding like a whining spoiled brat), but the story “was sort of messy and embarrassing and atypical, yet also universal in its complexity; having a mixed-up identity actually makes it easier to relate to a larger and more varied group of people.”



Edward Said’s Orientalism was all about the identity of other constructed in euro-centric discourse as being alien, exotic, terrifying, uncouth, barbaric etc. Though Najla admits she has not read her father’s masterpiece, growing up as an Arab-American as a WASP-white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant-in an upper class province in the US bears many Orientlism moments. She feels alone as a dark-haired among the blonds and an Arab national among the “natives.”

This confusion is all but reflected in her identification with the varied meanings of her name. ‘Cow-eyed woman,’ her mother Maryam explained the meaning to her one day. The meaning added to her self-abnegating consciousness of her Arab identity till she was taught in class that being cow-eyed is elegant and sexy. She later sees the very meaning countered by other references and understands the varied nuances of words in a language. And that is all about life; we have to constantly construct and deconstruct identities that all play crucial parts in the very life we are all living.

Through realisations and questionings, Najla comes to identify with the Arab-American part of her identity and question the stereotypical assumptions about that identity bandied about around her. Once disappointed by the references about Muslims and Arabs, she openly faces racist and Islamophobic arguments head on. When 9/11 comes about, she was in a gym and one of the trainers quipped in: ‘This is clearly the work of Palestinians -it is an act that has Arafat written all over it.’  “If they could do something like this,” Najla retorted, “why wouldn’t they do it to Israel? Do you remember the Oklahoma City bombing? Everyone blamed us then too, but they were wrong, weren’t they?”

Daddy and Mummy


What appears as rather edifying is that Edward Said and Maryam play only a midwife’s role in Najla arriving at her own conclusions. Najla was not as greatly influenced by Said’s intellectual career as her brother Wadie was. She was surprised to see the weird people who occasionally assemble at her home-Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag etc. She was amazed with the depth and warmth of love people felt towards him. However, we see in the book, albeit here and there, Edward Said living a life away from the glare associated with him. We see the bonhomie he keeps to his children, his penchant for long-distance driving, his taste for dressing, manners his unsuccessful attempts to guide Wadie’s difficult-to-satisfy curiosities to any conclusion.

The book brings to us the picture of a more radical Maryam Said, when on the day of her wedding she gets even with a prudish register, who doubted the inadequacy of her clothing, by appearing sans pants.

We read the part where she narrates Edward Said’s last moments in such a painful agony that we empathize. The narrative after Said is diagnosed with leukaemia has in its background such bleakness that one may desire to see the play which was adapted into the book. But the book uses images, metaphors and tone in such a manner that you feel you are watching a play, not reading the book. If you are someone whose close relative has once fallen victim to cancer, you might easily transmigrate into Najla’s state of mind when she describes the night before Said’s death, when she with a fake stone-like stoicism listens to the call of her relative to bid him good bye. The following day, she realizes what “world famous” means.


They did not bury Said in Palestine. This is because they did not want to see him as “a human symbol of a geographical place.” “The world,” Najla says, “conflated Edward Said with Palestine, but I had not. I had only really ever known Daddy, but how could I explain that to the world.”

But Palestine is very much there in the book. And just as she comes to terms with the Arab-American and Lebanese identity and with many significations of her name, Najla realises and identifies with the Palestine whose cause her father embraced. The epiphanic moment comes in Gaza.

It was the family trip Saids made after Said’s diagnosis. She comes face to face with the occupation and lives under occupation-the Promised Land being nothing but a horrifically frightening place-the place which she later learns as ‘settlements’. Earlier, unable to come to terms with the diagnosis, Najla had stopped eating as anorexia being an option for suicide. She writes: ‘the trip to Palestine added yet another dimension to my anorexia: ‘I wanted to desperately suffer, not just for my daddy but for all Palestine as well.’

Palestine remains as pang in Najla’s mind. She asks: Why didn’t I have to live here? Why was I able to pass as a Jew if I wanted? Why did I go to the best schools in the word? And why, despite all this, did I still feel awful?

Reading the book at the time of another bloody moment in the history of Palestine (Is there a non-bloody moment in its history?), we feel the same sadness and desperation that we read Najla narrating her father’s last moments. The book is a must read for all who not only want to know more about Said, who not only want to have a sympathetic view of Palestine, but who want to come to terms with the otherness all around them, because the book celebrates, in the words of the girl who appreciates Najla’ play, the otherness where our stories truly begin, that otherness that makes us belong.

Posted in: Books