nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
February 13, 2010
Najla Said, the writer and performer of Palestine, is a culturally complicated woman. Born in America, she is the Episcopalian daughter of a Christian, Palestinian-born, Oxford-educated father and Lebanese-born, Quaker mother. Her first words in the show describe her privileged New York City upbringing where she started out a WASP and grew up as a Jew ("To this day, I've been called 'a real life Woody Allen character' more times than I'd care to mention.") The description is apt: she's smart, she's self-deprecating, she's funny, and she's conflicted. Her background and these qualities make her the perfect center of this charming and understated work.
In Palestine, Said confronts the issue of cultural identity in the face of two transforming events. The first is a vacation she took to the Middle East with her family the summer before her first year of college, a journey she never wanted to take ("All I wanted to do was go to Paris"). This trip is meant to represent a homecoming for her father, the influential author, cultural critic and Palestine advocate, Edward Said, "the most famous Palestinian-American that ever was." In this story, she, her father, her brother, and her mother make their way through the region—East Arab Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nazareth, Gaza, and Jordan. This trip ends in West Beirut, Lebanon, where they visit with the mother's side of the family.
The second event is the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Said mentions these at the beginning of the show but they only resonate when she completes her description of that family vacation. Aside from the obvious political significance, the attacks unwillingly thrust her into a cultural spotlight from which she would have much rather shied. ("A good portion of my childhood was spent avoiding the fact that I might be ARAB.") While she avoids concrete realizations about what this day meant to Americans, Arabs, Israelis, etc., it forces her to confront her own connection to those affected by conflict in the Middle East.
These two parts fit together nicely. The family vacation gives the play a nice handle on which to contextualize both the girl and the family. Even though her father is a controversial figure, Said presents them as a typical American family. She fights with her brother, laughs with her parents, frets over boys, and obsesses about where she'll go to college. And while her concerns may seem trivial and self-obsessed, her family's political history and notoriety make the trip, and their lives, unique. In Jordan, they visit with Yassir Arafat in the Palace of King Hussein. And a British photographer from the London Observer follows them to document her father's emotional journey, which, to her, makes the trip seem like a farce. "Can you notice that old tree for the first time again?" She says, imitating the man's British accent. "So I can get a shot?"
Said and director Sturgis Warner use this light touch to great effect when recounting what she loves—the vibrant culture, her loving family, the desire of people to connect with one another, the wealth of endearing nicknames—as well as some of the more chilling, serious moments, like the debate she has with her extended family in 2006 over whether or not the Israelis will bomb their neighborhood. It's moments like these where her sweetness turns to incredulity and you begin to understand the madness endured in war-torn countries.
It is on that last point that Palestine is most effective. Said provides the audience with a culturally familiar viewpoint that serves as a window into that seemingly far-away conflict. Her access and perspective connect us to the conflict, making it more immediate and human. At one point in the show, she recounts her father's opinion on the Middle East Conflict:
Naj, you know, it's my generation that's messed it all up; we are too connected to the events of '48 and '67. We were there. We participated...and until we're all gone, my generation—the Sharons and Arafats and all of us—nothing's going to get done. It's up to your generation to fix it, really.
Said never condescends to offer solutions; she never points fingers or assigns outright blame. Her show points to the absurdities of the situation, makes the frustration human. She lends her perspective in hopes of starting a conversation that will, hopefully, begin to "fix it." It's a tall order.