Najla Said ’96 — a Palestinian-Lebanese American, culturally secular, nominally Christian — has wrestled with issues of identity her entire life. If she is a hyphenated American, an open question, which adjectives to choose? Who is she? Even if she’d prefer to stop turning those issues around in her mind for a while, her profession — acting — won’t let her.
An audition one scorching early afternoon this summer in midtown Manhattan illustrates her awkward spot in America’s race-ethnicity matrix. In a hot studio, she is trying out for the role of a light-skinned black woman who passes as Brazilian in the play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, set partly in 1930s Hollywood. Her hint-of-olive complexion and dark beauty made the role plausible, but when she emerges from the private audition space into a 12th-floor hallway, pulling back her long hair and wiping sweat from her temple, she comments on the awkwardness of the advice she received at one point in her performance: to bring a “blacker” sensibility to the role. “I feel like a white person acting black,” she complains, good-naturedly but seriously. She didn’t get the part.
The daughter of the late Columbia University literature scholar and Palestinian activist Edward Said ’57, Najla Said often falls between the cracks in this way. When she started out as an actor, she fully expected to be offered “sister of the terrorist” roles, and she has, but it’s been even more complicated than that. She often “reads,” to use the theater jargon, as too white and upper-class for the kinds of working-class street-Arab roles directors have in mind. Then again, if the director wants a mainstream white woman, she can come across as too “ethnic.”
One solution was to write her own path, which she did in the case of Palestine, a one-woman monologue that ran off-Broadway for nine weeks in 2010. It’s a far more personal play than the title suggests, and begins with the striking declaration that, despite her hybrid heritage, she effectively “grew up as a Jew in New York City,” adopting the Upper West Side’s prevailing self-deprecating and cosmopolitan ethos, complete with Yiddish interjections. Until 9/11, at least, anyone who spent 10 minutes with her would have guessed she was Jewish, she says. She now has expanded the material into a book called Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family, published in August.
Over the course of the play and book, she confronts anorexia, deals with the long-anticipated death (in 2003) of her father, who was diagnosed with chronic leukemia in 1991, takes shelter from Israeli bombs in Lebanon in 2006, and comes to embrace her Middle Eastern roots. “But none of that has made me less of an Upper West Side princess,” she writes toward the end of the book, with characteristic wryness. Said still performs the play about 10 times a year, usually at colleges and high schools.