Born in America to a Lebanese mother and Palestinian father – the late, great Edward Said – like other daughters of professors from nearby Columbia University, Said grew up on these streets. And has stayed ever since. A year and a half ago, she took the decision to move from her apartment of 12 years to another one – right across the street. ‘The deal was too good to pass up and after tons of paperwork and frayed nerves and interviews and nail biting, I got my wish,’ she explains.
Even to non-New Yorkers, the Upper West Side is a familiar place. Once a questionable neighbourhood on the periphery of crime-ridden Harlem, today’s Upper West Side is one of the city’s most desirable addresses, thanks to its proximity to Central Park and inevitable gentrification (the New York Post recently reported how the smell from a truffle store on West End Avenue is ‘causing home values to plummet’).
‘The apartment itself is exactly like the ones I grew up living and hanging out in. It’s spacious, pre-war and has all the details that a classic New York apartment should have – high ceilings, good light, plenty of space,’ she says with pride. The streets’ immaculate brownstones and leafy, thoughtful air feel fresh from the Nora Ephron movie screen, a place where ‘almost everyone feels like a character from an early Woody Allen film,’ Said muses. Literary, neurotic and predominantly Jewish? Surely not an easy neighbourhood for an Arab teenager who, as Said describes in her recently published memoir, was baptised as Episcopalian, raised as secularist and lived among the rising Islamophobia of 1980s and 1990s America.
‘I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman, but I grew up as a Jew in New York City,’ the book begins, in all its hyphenated glory, ‘I began my life, however, as a WASP.’ Titled ‘Looking For Palestine: Growing up Confused in an Arab-American Family’, the book lays bare the split-personality of her Manhattan-versus-the Middle East upbringing, in which she describes a ‘book-filled’ home life surrounded by the ‘strange houseguests’ of her increasingly famous parents (Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion), yet struggling to fit in with the other kids at notoriously blue-blood private girls’ school Chapin.
Devastatingly personal, the memoir’s prose is pure ‘Najla’: sensitive, self-effacing and recklessly funny. She flits between memories of her idyllic trips to Lebanon as a child (unaware of the violence of the civil war that would later embroil her) and her traumatic teenage years hiding her Arab identity from her WASP-y classmates, sneaking peanuts from her daddy’s Planters jar while he watched the daily news, the battle with anorexia that marked her Princeton years, and her ongoing struggle as a young actress with an ‘ethnic name’ yet ‘too white to be ethnic’ for casting. She is beautifully candid about her struggle to belong, as well as her lack of political engagement while growing up – a common misconception about her public role as ‘Edward Said’s daughter’. The pages are addictive in their honesty.
‘Just before the book came out, I panicked and wanted to stop it from being released. I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to know this much about me, but now that it is out there, I feel like I’m a million times more comfortable being myself,’ Said says, when asked how it feels to have her inner monologue on the public bookshelves. Now, she hopes ‘I never have to have small talk with anyone or explain my reasons for behaving the way I do.’
Said moved into her new apartment almost simultaneously with the release of the memoir. It’s from here that she’s seen the book – published by Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group that specialises in ‘bestselling literary fiction and quality nonfiction’ – celebrated by Vogue and NPR alike.
Her closeness to her father has naturally drawn a number of readers to the book, a relationship she describes as like two ‘temperamental soul mates: artistic, dramatic, needy, sensitive, and completely inept at mundane tasks such as paying bills or even opening them.’ But ‘Looking for Palestine’ also tackles the difficulty of having to love and mourn your father along with the rest of the world.
‘I suppose when you grow up with a famous parent, you’re constantly being judged and assumptions are constantly being made about you and your family, and it is hurtful and tiring to try to correct them,’ she says. ‘It’s maddening to have to constantly listen to other people tell you what your father was like. Nobody knows, and he was neither the God some believe him to be, nor the devil others do. He was my daddy, full stop.’
Today, the presence of her ‘daddy’ can be found throughout the apartment. Letters from her father are framed and displayed on the walls – her most cherished possession, ‘because they are beautiful works of art, and they are for and to me, and they are so incredible.’ Other photographs and letters from Said’s worldwide web of friends and family fill the frames, boxes and albums.
‘I thrive on human interaction and connection, and I keep kind words and images around me constantly.’ The love for pen and paper no doubt runs through her genes (‘In my family we all communicate best with a pen and paper, and we write to each other often, even when we are just five feet from one another) and the apartment’s bookshelves are equally as packed. ‘My books. I love my books.’
She sifted through the letters, diaries and memories for the memoir. But it was her mother, Mariam Said, who really filled in the gaps. ‘I would remember my outfit and buying bubblegum or going to my teta’s house, or walking in Hamra, and my mom would contextualise that exact day by telling me what moment in the civil war it was. That was incredibly odd.’
The book has helped her, to some extent, come to terms with both sides of her ‘officially franchised minority’ Arab-American identity. On the Upper West Side, she uses Arabic as a ‘secret language’ with a close Palestinian-American friend (it ‘expresses things in the most delicious way, the true essence of which cannot always be translated into English’) and her creature comforts list is the best of both worlds: ‘Anything that smells or tastes like zaatar, olive oil, rosewater or nuts – does that make me an Orientalist? Oops – socks, hoodies, baths, mid afternoon naps, cereal.’
Now approaching 40, getting older has also freed Said from the ‘FOMO’ of New York’s daily distractions. Her perfect New York day would be spent, ‘At home! With friends dropping by constantly,’ which she says is another ‘Arab’ quality. ‘I do love doing things in New York of course, but I have lived here for 39 years and seen and done most of everything, and it’s all rather expensive, so I gravitate towards the mundane, which I think is very Arab of me…’ With no plans to leave the Upper West Side anytime soon, her apartment is her forcefield, a place where the city falls away. From the comfort of her home, she smiles, ‘I am a New Yorker with an Arab heart, that is sometimes too big for the world in which I live.’
This article appears in the issue44Buy Now