I have to admit that I picked up Najla Said’s new memoir, Looking for Palestine (Riverhead, 2013) because she’s Edward Said’s daughter. But almost as soon as I opened the book, I found an open, heart-wrenching story of an Arab-American woman who could have written this book no matter who her parents were.
Najla Said was raised on New York’s Upper West Side and immediately upon enrolling at the upper crust Chapin school realized that she was different. Most girls at Chapin (Jackie O’s alma mater) came from the ritzy Upper East Side. And with the evening news focused on the war in Lebanon, where Najla’s mother was born and raised, her loneliness only intensified.
Still, her family spent their summers in Beirut, where Najla could reunite with her mother’s family. She never felt fully at home there, though. And when it became too dangerous to travel to Lebanon, she identified even less with her mother’s homeland.
As a Jewish girl who grew up in suburban Chicago, I felt like an outcast. So it was fascinating to read about Najla’s childhood, where it was fashionable to be Jewish, especially when she started high school. Najla writes about her teenage years steeped in Jewish culture at school, at her friends’ homes, and on the Upper West Side in general.
Although Edward Said was Christian and his wife Mariam a Quaker, the Said children grew up as secular humanists and were taught to accept everyone, no matter their religion. Edward Said was known for his support of co-existance in Israel and Palestine, which Najla only fully grasped in her teens. Before that, he was just Daddy.
And while Najla’s family is not Muslim, she writes about how difficult it’s been to be Muslim in the US over the last forty years, especially after 9/11. In fact, 9/11 marked the turning point in her acceptance of her family’s background and of herself.
Looking for Palestine is a quick yet solid story about identity, tolerance, and modern Middle Eastern history that speaks to all.