[7 October 2013]
For Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans and basically any brown people perceived as “the Other”, the 12 years since 9/11 have brought a perilous realization – the anonymity of the past has given way to a suspicious, intolerant present. As an American of Indian descent, I lived the first 22 years of my life aware of my skin tone, but was never seemingly challenged or questioned about it. That changed after September 11th, and the innocence was gone forever. As one of my students succinctly said in class recently, “Brown is the new black.”
But after reading Najla Said’s autobiography, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family, I realized that I’ve had it pretty easy. Imagine being the child of social and literary critic Edward Said and growing up in a fairly privileged home in New York City, but also growing up at a time when the very word “Arab” brought immediate connotations of the Munich Olympics, the Lebanese Civil War, extremism and violence.
Said’s nearly lifelong confusion over her identity is one that can easily be understood by other first- and second-generation Americans of immigrant descent. For example, a common acronym thrown around in the South Asian American community is ABCD – American Born Confused Desi (“desi” referring to someone from the Subcontinent). For many in my generation whose parents emigrated to the US from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the “ABCD” moniker brings with it emotions ranging from amusement to anger.
Of course the “confusion” of growing up Arab-American, Indian-American or whatever hyphenated American, is compounded by one’s parents’ choice – or lack thereof – of identity. In Looking for Palestine, Najla Said never really confronts her parents over their lack of desire in just choosing one identity; rather, she stumbles through life unsure of what she is because her parents don’t want her to be just “one thing” when in fact, it was all she craved. She writes, “My parents did not pretend not to be Arabs, they just weren’t at all like the ones I saw anywhere.”
I’m not sure if I’m the only reader who had this reaction, but more than once I felt overcome with fury – or what bell hooks called “killing rage” – over her parents’ lack of understanding to Najla’s confusion and its physical manifestation in the form of her anorexia. Were the problems of the Palestinian people so great they might overtake their own deluded perception that their daughter was just going through a “girl phase”? Najla writes that being sick would get her “an identity” – she could be something, anything, while her brother was everything.
What makes her own tale so unique, of course, is not just her father’s vaulted pedigree in academia - and his position in the canon of those who dared to break the accepted thinking of the hegemony of the Occident – but her family’s religious background. Not only were they Arab Christians, but she was a Quaker on her mother’s side and Anglican and Baptist on her father’s side. On top of that, no one really practiced Christianity. As Said puts it, her parents were “adamantly secular.”
Looking for Palestine is a heart-breaking read at times, because all the hardships of childhood come soaring back. That so much of Najla’s confusion stems from questions over her ethnicity only adds to the ache. She feels more Jewish than Christian; too dark and foreign to be as pretty as the other girls; wishes she had a more “normal” name; and doesn’t understand why her friends seem to enjoy Dannon “fruit on the bottom” yogurt so much, when she secretly craves labne and zaatar.
Her confusion over her father’s eminence eventually fades, but only after she becomes a teenager and realizes who he is and what he represents for many. By the time she arrives at Princeton, her celebrity status reaches a fever pitch; she recounts a heartwarming encounter with Cornel West, a one time student of her father’s, who hugs her in front of the entire class, which leaves them in awe.
While this autobiography does end on a happy, almost predictable note, it was a good read. Although I’m not Arab, I too have struggled with my identity as a child born of different cultures – American and Indian – that in my mind, could not be amalgamated into one. But as I have grown older, I’ve come to love the Indianness that provides me with my identity. I’m not ashamed of my name or my family’s cultural or religious beliefs; if anything, I am more Indian now than I ever have been. In that vein, many readers will come to really appreciate Najla’s Said’s story, and will probably let out a sign of relief that so much of the confusion of their childhoods has now been told in a cogent, clear manner.