And obviously, my Arab-American story is not typical in any way, but when I was growing up, I only had Toni Morrison to read, and that was it in terms of feeling like an outsider, so I think that part of the inspiration was to have a book out there for young people who are Arab-American and who are also not Arab-American, but who feel like outsiders.
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Something that could help them feel less alone, so they could have a book that felt like it was closer to their experience. Yeah, yeah. And also just simply because I felt like, even though I was born into this family where everyone expected I would know everything about the Middle East inherently, I had to discover all these things on my own. Arab is a person who speaks Arabic. Were there any specific jokes or moments in the stage show that you had trouble translating onto the page?
You also relate some really personal details in the book. Was it difficult writing about that? Why did you personally feel it was important to include in a narrative about Arab-American identity? I was not able to write about that, or even talk about that, for a long time. But I did feel it was important. I felt exiled from the Middle East completely. I was American and I was here, so it was in part this feeling of disconnection and not being held or feeling like I had a place.
So I found the connection between my eating disorder and my feelings of disconnection from my own culture to be a really important part of my own journey, and I wanted to write about it for that reason. Anorexia in general is rampant in the Middle East as well, but it was very much associated with my being totally an alien. Do you think there are any benefits or drawbacks to writing about something as complex and thorny as Arab identity and the conflict in the Middle East in this way?
They were my friends.
They came to my house and they knew my parents and they liked me. I realized when you tell people your experience, they listen. I know what happened to my family. Yeah, you know, you see a couple of different things.
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A lot of times I perform at colleges and high schools. One of the first times I did it, it was a private school in New York, so there were a lot of Jewish kids who were very defensive. I feel like when I was younger, the only people who followed this stuff were Arab-Americans and Jewish-Americans, because they cared about Israel and they cared about Palestine.
Does the feedback for your stage show sort of shift and change with developments in the Arab world, like the Arab Spring? After that performance, because of what was happening in Gaza at the time, I went back and rewrote that whole section. So when I did that piece of the play in and , when there was that war in Gaza, it became much more intense and powerful, and the audience reacted in a totally different way.
It was fascinating. Buy Now, Pay Later. So I just didn't see any people like us who were sort of intellectual activists. Her book, "Looking For Palestine. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. Join our conversation. We have some lines open.
We'll be right back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And my guest is Najla Said. Or send us an email, drshow wamu. And, Najla, we were talking about all of these ways in which you were confused. I lived on the upper west side myself for a number of years.
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- "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family" by Najla Said.
- Looking for Palestine.
But your dad sent you across -- or dad and mom sent you across the park to like the ritziest…. Why did they do that? SAID This 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.
SAID There 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.
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SAID So 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.
SAID And 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.
LOOKING FOR PALESTINE by Najla Said | Kirkus Reviews
You had to live on the upper east side to fit in. You should have gone to the Hamptons on the weekends. SAID You -- 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.
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. 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. And if, you know, all your classmates have, you know, country homes and flying off to ski vacations, and that sort to thing…. SAID Yeah, 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.
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. 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…. SAID …anywhere you wanted to fit in to the mold that they created. ROBERTS That'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. It was certainly true for me growing up across the river from where you did in Bayonne, N. And it was a familiar and a comfortable setting.
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SAID Right. 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 s 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. SAID So there was that.