5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Najla Said

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The mid-’00s in New York theater will be remembered, in part, for the bizarre political fracas that met the transfer of Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman’s play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie — based on the diary of an American girl who goes to Palestine, joins the International Solidarity Movement, and is martyred by an Israeli bulldozer during the Second Intifada — to New York.

In essence, New York Theatre Workshop announced the transfer and then, bowing to the objections of Jewish groups unsympathetic to Corrie’s narrative, pressured the group to reverse course. The mess said something disturbing about the parlous state of Arab-Jewish relations in New York — and something sad, too, about our nonprofit system and the power funders can wield over programming choices.

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It is also why, for the peace-minded among us, Najla Said’s new one-person play Palestine, co-produced by Twilight Theatre Company in association with New York Theatre Workshop, is being viewed with more than a passing interest.

An actress, writer and daughter of Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American activist and scholar, the younger Said was raised in “privilege” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — well removed, so to speak, from the multi-generational vise-grip of war, resentment, sickness and poverty that has gripped Palestine and its people, and fomented the terrorism of Israelis, for more than 60 years.

Yet, Said was not left unexposed to her heritage — or to the uninterrupted cycle of anger, fear and resentment befalling her ethnic brothers and sisters. As a teenager, she was sent to her father’s homeland, at which point she fell into a cycle of personal terror that included anorexia and depression. Her journey, outlined in a good deal of Palestine, is one that considers what it means, and maybe what it could mean, to be both Arab and American at the same time.

Palestine runs through March 21 at the Fourth Street Theatre (83 E. 4th St.). The director is Sturgis Warner, who also provided dramaturgical assistance. (Said has given readings of Palestine across the U.S., including at Harvard and Brown, the Arab-American National Museum in Michigan, and Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.)

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For tickets, visit www.smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.

And now, 5 questions Najla Said has never been asked — and a bonus question:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
When I performed at UC Berkeley last year, one of the professors asked me if I knew that, in writing and performing Palestine, I had essentially done a postmodern reading of my dad’s work. My response was “Uh…no.” After she explained to me what her statement actually meant (if you see the play you’ll learn about why I have very little knowledge of what exactly “postmodern” means), I realized that her interpretation actually exposed my play in a more clever and interesting way than I had ever thought possible. I mean that very sincerely, because when you write something like this, something that starts out as a journal entry and is extremely personal, it can start to feel superficial or shallow — self-indulgent in a way that, in my opinion, good theater should never be. As a playwright and actor, I want to feel as though I am being generous with my story — not just telling it to tell it, but to actually make the audience think and ask questions for a long time after they leave the theater. This professor had taken the experience of seeing my work and analyzed it critically, and that made me very excited about it as a potentially worthy piece of theater. Having studied literature pretty seriously for years and having had an intense love of analysis and criticism as a student, I was not only thrilled to hear that my own work might be worthy of analysis, but I also felt that my own perceptions of the work were widened. That was pretty amazing.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The same idiotic question all actors get asked: “How do you memorize all those lines?!” I kind of feel bad pointing out that that question is idiotic but, I mean, if you go to rehearsal day after day and say the same thing over and over, you’re going to learn your lines. Also, it’s your job! I mean, it is really quite funny that doctors and lawyers and financial wizards and people who have to memorize a lot of really boring information always, always ask me that question.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
After one performance, this guy asked me if I knew Palestinians were really Greek. That was kind of weird.

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4) Of all the events, revelations and personal observations in the Palestine narrative, is there one that is especially painful to retell or perform? How much of your personal story remains emotionally unresolved for you?
There are a few, actually. Retelling the story of my father’s death is just awful, for obvious reasons, but also because it really wasn’t that long ago. I have barely learned to come to terms with that truth in my real life. You know, just saying the word “Daddy” breaks my heart a little each time. And when I talk of the very private but real pain of having a very serious eating disorder, I get really sad for myself as a young woman. It’s hard to go back to a time and place when you just felt broken. And, of course, the section about Gaza just haunts me. I hate even rehearsing that part. Gaza was just a horrible, unlivable, sad place, and, as I say in the play, “This was way before Gaza got bad, like it is today.”

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5) Palestine is being produced by the Twilight Theatre Company in association with New York Theatre Workshop — still infamous for the My Name Is Rachel Corrie matter. As a woman, an actor and writer of Arab descent, what should theatergoing Jews in New York discover in Palestine?
A large section of the play is about my upbringing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the different ways in which people who meet me for the first time always, always seem to assume I’m Jewish, even after I say I’m Palestinian-Lebanese and Christian! I fit a certain stereotype of what people imagine a “New York Jew” to be like, or look like, in manner, speech, dress and looks. I think that gives me a rare and special chance to bring people in, especially “theatergoing New York Jews.” It’s much easier (and the same would be true if a Jewish person who really seemed to be organically part of an Arab society tried to tell her own story) for anyone to listen to your story when you exist in the same world that they do, if that makes any sense. Also, I don’t have any answers and I’m the first person to make fun of myself for being shallow and silly at times, so do not criticize others without very, very openly criticizing myself as well. One last thing I want to say: I’ve discovered, in preparing for this show, that many, many people seem to have a violent reaction to the word Palestine. I’m not so sure why it offends people so much — more than the word “Palestinian,” for example. It’s what the country was called when my dad was born! And there are plenty of Jewish people who still say they were born in “Palestine” or “British-Mandate Palestine.” Just because I use the word, please don’t assume my play is subtitled “Israel is lame.” Just listen and watch. You probably won’t be offended!

Bonus Question:

6) If, God forbid, there was an all-out Middle East war, what do you think the aftermath would be, and how would the region’s culture change? What can and should theater — and your play — specifically do to prevent this from happening? Is war inevitable?
First of all, I think that if people see my play, there will absolutely never be an “all-out Middle East war”!!! I think that one of the biggest problems surrounding discussions of this issue is an inability for all parties involved to really listen to each other’s stories. I think that this is the case on both sides of the argument. I also think that, for the most part, people who are not directly affected by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — that is to say, “plain old Americans” — do not think they have any reason or need to understand what is going on “over there,” but they do. The same is true for Europeans, by the way. I can’t tell you how many Brits I know who have told me that Americans are, by and large, “ignorant of their support for Israel,” thereby absolving their own government’s part in the story. The whole world, especially Western Europe and America, should pay attention to the stories of the people from the region, acknowledge that we are all connected and somehow complicit in the mess, and work to find a way out of it. So, I guess, theater and literature give us the rare opportunity to engage with the stories without getting caught up in a war over historical details and facts. As my father and Daniel Barenboim said, our narratives are parallel and will never meet but they are equally valid — so let’s listen to one another and try to move forward from a place of hearing, rather than drowning each other out.

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