Introduction to Najla Said’s “Palestine” at the Sabeel Conference in Washington, DC, October 2, Shiloh Baptist Church
Thank you for inviting me to this important conference and for the privilege of introducing a dynamic new voice, an exciting theatrical talent, a lively internet personality; the formidable Najla Said and her play PALESTINE.
I’ve been asked to give this brief preamble, perhaps because of my position at Theater J, the professional resident company of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center; a theater that invites a multiplicity of voices onto its stages to lend authentic perspective to the huge variety of portraits of life in the Middle East, be they set in religious Israel, secular Israel, Christian Palestine, Islamic Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Afhganistan, Pakistain, Iraq or Iran, all areas which have been depicted on our stages (in mainstage productions or in developmental readings) and discussed in post show panels.
As a producer, I can admire Najla’s Said’s play for its extensive developmental pedigree, having been workshopped at both New York Theatre Workshop where Najla is an esteemed Usual Suspect and at New York’s Public Theatre, where the piece premiered in their New Works Now Festival. I can admire Najla’s extensive experience as an actress on stage and screen.
Or perhaps I was asked to introduce Najla in my capacity as co-founder of the Peace Café – a forum bringing together Muslims, Christians and Jews to reflect on the nexus of art and politics in candid but-always-civil discourse, as participants feed on both Middle Eastern food and personal narrative fare in the form of poetry, theatrical presentations, first hand reporting, film clips, or outreach programs for young people. As a Peace Café programmer, I can admire Najla’s play for its ecumenism; its insistence on seeing people as complicated beings and not merely talking position papers or symbolic political placards. Najla’s M.O. is humanistic; her impulse is to be unflaggingly candid, revealing, self-deprecating, self-questioning, life-celebrating
Or perhaps I was invited to introduce a fellow playwright, a colleague, and as such I admire Najla for having succeeded in FINISHING a full-length play with an amazingly rounded journey; with a beginning middle and end, infused with impish humor, a high dose of politically incorrect candor, ideological irreverence; sensual insouciance, shrewdly seducing us and then provocatively thrusting the sharp dagger of insight – even when that insight is provocative and disarming; discomforting; even when the play stops seducing and instead confronts; the reversal of strategy, like the character’s own reversal of mindset; the moment of peripety — the technical term we Aristotelian playwrights use to describe a sudden transformation informed by intellect and logic. There are such moments in this journey and they are arresting.
In the end, I feel most welcome here not as a theater producer, programmer or playwright, but as a Second Generation American, a child of displaced refugees, immigrants who lost their homes (and large parts of their respective families) in Hitler’s Germany and came to an American Diaspora with dreams of someday returning to an Israel that had welcomed them after WWII, both before and after Israel became a state; where my father worked on Kibbutz Ma-Aleh Hamisha for a year after law school, and where my mother, after hiding in the South of France, in the Alps of Valideri, in a convent in Rome, was given shelter in the Ben Shemen Youth Village after arriving by boat on Youth Aliyah and was given a new lease on life as a Jew. She lived there as a child, became a young woman, and then she left, always hoping to return.
To be Second Generation (or 2G) in this country is to be American first, eager to join the dominant culture of a safe haven country; eager not to dwell in the past but to assimilate and show No Damage Done.
The 2G sees selectively – through the rose colored classes of fortunate survival, as well as the darker prism of nightmare and dispossession.
To be 2G means we are born into a dialectic; of history and the present.
we suckle at the breast of our mother’s milk; our family’s past; our people’s Thesis, infants hardly understanding what it all really means.
And we learn to crawl, walk and then run in the fields of Antithesis; in a shopping mall America that seeks to negate our history; render it distant; if not absent.
In adulthood, we seek Synthesis, as we strive to see more clearly.
Who were our parents? For Najla, Edward Said was more than a towering intellect, adored and idolized by students and readers. And he was certainly more than the controversial lightening rod, caricaturized, feared, despised, misunderstood. He is one thing in Najla’s youth, quite another as she matures, and never more poignant than during his painful, physical decline.
To be 2G is to be both cursed and blessed. Our journey in life is to integrate these polarities and find a new tolerable normal; to view life as fluid, dynamic, transformational. The Second Generation, one step removed from the frontlines of history, sees improvement as possible.
Najla is a voice for the New Century, connected to history and its roots, wired to the new world and ready for the next revolution. In that new era, culture will save us.
It’s my pleasure to present a fellow traveler and a wonderful artist, Najla Said.