NEW YORK // Najla Said, daughter of Edward Said, the Palestinian academic who died in 2003, was exhausted. Speaking hours before the New York opening on February 17 of her one-woman play, Palestine, she was scared of losing her voice after performing the piece in preview for several nights.
She appears on stage for one hour and 40 minutes in Palestine, a personal memoir about growing up as a rich and pampered girl on the Upper West Side and her one and only visit to her father's homeland, where she was dragged against her will as an awkward teenager of 18 suffering from anorexia. Now 35, Said has had time to reflect on her complicated relationship with the Palestinian territories as well as to overcome her raw grief at losing her father, who died of leukaemia. In the play, she often recreates him, adopting his British accent when recounting his dry and acerbic wit.
"On the one hand, I bring my father to life so it's not sad. But it's hard when speaking about my father's death and in every rehearsal I kept skipping that part," she said. "I would tell myself it's just words and we've buried him, but then I see audiences pull back." Unlike many members of the rest of her family, Said shunned a more traditional job in business or academia to pursue a career in acting after studying literature at Princeton University in New Jersey. Palestine is a personal narrative born from diaries and she plans to turn the piece into a book.
"I need to take care of myself not just physically but also because the play has another layer of emotional depth," she said. "I've done a solo show before, but this is definitely more challenging because this is so personal." With a blend of humour and outrage, the play recounts her privileged New York upbringing, her awkwardness as an Arab-American Christian surrounded by Jewish schoolfriends, and summer holidays in Lebanon. On her first trip to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, she remembers her horror at the plight of the Palestinians but also how she just wanted to be a "normal" American teenager with a family that left her alone to go to the beach.
Before his death, Edward Said was a literature professor at Columbia University best known as an advocate for the Palestinian cause. He was also critically acclaimed for his 1979 book, Orientalism, which traces the history of western misrepresentation of the Muslim world. He was born in Jerusalem to a Protestant family which left the Middle East when he was young. Miriam Cortas, his wife, is Lebanese and Quaker by upbringing. Said was as outspoken about US foreign policy as about the failures of Palestinian leadership and he was in turn dismissed by some activists as a "salon Palestinian".
In her play, Said sheds light on an incident from 2000 when her father was photographed in south Lebanon throwing a stone near an abandoned Israeli guard tower, an act for which he received much criticism in the United States. She explained that he was simply indulging in a stone-throwing contest with his son and he was shattered by the subsequent criticism. It was "the beginning of the end of my father's spirit", she said.
Palestine was intended to convey to US audiences an alternative narrative played out behind the blaring headlines of Middle Eastern strife, said Sturgis Warner, who directed the show and helped Said to write it. "I'm no expert in the Middle East, like the average theatre-goer, and I would ask Najla a lot of questions and she would go away and write," he said. "We need to hear a lot more narratives from different perspectives. The title is a provocative title that attracts a lot of attention. People handing out postcards promoting the play have said they sometimes get a visceral reaction from people who jump back."
He said some "right-wing" Jews who had seen the play were at least touched by the narrative even if their politics had not changed. Said, meanwhile, said the Jewish mother of her best friend found the play moving. Warner said he had been determined to stage the play after controversy indefinitely delayed the performance in New York of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play about the US activist who was killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.
Palestine cost US$30,000 (Dh110,200) to stage and the money was raised from donations, including $15,000 from Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli conductor who was Said's best friend. In 1999, the two men founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young Israeli and Palestinian musicians. Although Said regularly holidays in Lebanon, she has put off revisiting the territories. "I was more timid than my brother, who's spent a lot of time there, as a woman with no family and I need people around me," she said. "It scares me, the environment is so tense. But if invited, I would love to go."