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Pathbreakers of Arab America—Najla Said

posted on: Jul 3, 2024

Photo Wikipedia

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the fifty-second of Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our fifty-second pathbreaker is Najla Said, a Palestinian American author, actress, playwright, and activist. Najla is the daughter of noted postcolonial scholar and public intellectual Palestinian American Edward Said and of writer and activist, Lebanese American Mariam C. Said. Najla Said’s literary and academic work addresses racism, stereotyping, and social and economic inequality, and focuses on the challenges that face immigrant and second-generation Americans.

Daughter of famous parents, Najla Said has a distinctive view of her Palestinian Lebanese American identity

Najla Said was born on April 4, 1974, in New York City, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As many know, her father was the noted postcolonial scholar and public intellectual Edward Said. He is best known as the author of ‘Orientalism,’ a foundational text that critiques the cultural representations by which the West perceives the Orient. Her mother is the writer and activist Mariam C. Said. Wikipedia reports that Najla graduated from Trinity School in 1992 and Princeton University and trained in acting at The Shakespeare Lab of the Public Theatre.

Not incidentally, Najla grew up in the context of Arab identity politics. In 2010, she wrote on the subject in a one-woman off-Broadway play, ‘Palestine’ and her 2013 book, ‘Looking for Palestine.’ Najla has appeared in films, including ‘My Love Affair with Marriage,’ and several US TV shows including ‘New Girl,’ ‘NCIS: New Orleans,’ and ‘New Amsterdam.’

Najla with her famous father, Edward Said — Photo Arab News

Najla Said grew up in New York City, confused and conflicted about her cultural background and identity. Said knew that her parents identified deeply with their homelands, but growing up in a Manhattan world that was defined largely by class and conformity, she felt unsure about who she was supposed to be and was often in denial of the differences she sensed between her family and those around her. The fact that her father was the famous intellectual and outspoken Palestinian advocate Edward Said only made things more complicated. She may have been born a Palestinian Lebanese American, but in Said’s mind, she grew up first as a WASP, having been baptized Episcopalian in Boston and attending the wealthy Upper East Side girls’ school Chapin.

As she grew older, making increased visits to Palestine and Beirut, Said’s worldview shifted. The attacks on the World Trade Center, and some of how Americans responded, finally made it impossible for Said to continue to pick and choose her identity, forcing her to see herself and her passions more clearly. Today, she has become an important voice for second-generation Arab Americans nationwide.

Najla’s ‘Letter of Love’ to Lebanese Columbian pop star Shakira calls out her cozying up to Israel

Najla’s ‘Letter of Love’ openly and harshly critiqued Shakira’s “goodwill” trip to Israel. Though a fan of the Columbian’s music and her love of talking about Lebanon, Najla was not pleased by Shakira’s UN-sponsored goodwill Israel visit, saying, “I don’t expect you to be political. I know you are an entertainer and it’s not your job to ‘be political.’ But you made yourself political from day one by showing off your Lebanese-ness.”

In her letter to Shakira,’ Najla continued, “Here is the thing about being Lebanese, you love us for our hummus and our belly dancing because for the first time in a long time, we are proud of where we are from and are able to speak out about injustices that have been committed against us and our loved ones for decades. And here you are, making us feel shitty and hurt. You weren’t an Orientalist before because you seemed to be one of us, but now, my love, you are.”

The letter to Shakira went on, “As a UN goodwill ambassador, you maybe should have thought about the hundred or so (give or take) UN resolutions that the State of Israel has defied before hugging their President, Shimon Peres. You might have thought of visiting Gaza instead of one of the rare schools in Israel proper, where Israeli and Arab children, who are fortunate enough to be allowed citizenship, learn together. In 2006, you spoke out against the Israeli war on Lebanon and called for an end to the fighting. In your statement, you said, “We do not need leaders who create dispute, anger, and hate, but rather leaders who care about the people and their needs.” Najla told Shakira, “Your lips lied.”

Photo — Vogue

Towards the end of Najla’s ‘love letter, she unloads her frustration with Shakira’s goodwill visit to Israel. “We are not all Israel, Shakira, and that’s the point. The modern State of Israel shares geography, but nothing more, with the ‘Abrahamic’ religions that may have originated there. Some of us are Palestinian and cannot be Israeli. Some of us are from Gaza and cannot even go to Israel. Some of us are Lebanese and have been bombed by Israel. Some of us are Jewish and don’t believe in what Israel says and does. That doesn’t mean it has no right to exist; it does, but so do we.”

During Najla’s father’s illness, she wrote a diary of his experience with leukemia and of his passing in 2003. It was then that she had difficulty in writing publicly about her Arab American identity and her father. But eventually, she did. Najla reflected on today’s war in Gaza, saying, “If [her father] were alive today, he would constantly be pointing to the egregious violations of international law, as well as the humanity of the people of Gaza.”

-–“Najla Said,” Wikipedia, 2024
–“Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family. Penguin Group US. August 1, 2013
–“From the Upper West Side to the Middle East: Najla Said on Her New Memoir, Looking for Palestine”. Vogue. July 31, 2013. Retrieved November 6, 2013
–“Najla Said: An Open Letter to Shakira: We Are Not All Israel”. Guernica. June 24, 2013
–“Najla Said: My Arab American story is not typical in any way”,, 7/28/2013
–“Nakba, identity and perceptions: Edward Said’s daughter reflects on Gaza crisis and Palestine cause,” Middle East Monitor 11/16/2023

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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