There are two things I can say for sure about Najla Saïd and her one-woman show Palestine: one, her perspective on the Middle East is ENTIRELY unique, and two, she speaks her complicated truth with courage and conviction. Anyone eager for a fresh point of view on the Arab/Israeli conflict will want to see this show. But don't go looking for political insight; Saïd isn't a militant, or even an activist. She is, by her own admission, an "Upper West Side princess" prone to thinking about Hello Kitty, iTunes and parties on the beach. She also happens to be a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman and the daughter of Edward Saïd, who, before his death in 2003 was described as the Palestinians' "most powerful political voice." Confused? Think how she must feel.
Saïd has had a personal experience of the Middle East that few of us could even imagine. Though born and raised in New York, she survived both the Lebanese civil war of 1983 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. She met Yasir Arafat and visited the Gaza Strip, which she describes simply as "Hell." She is anxious, guilty, conflicted about her identity, and was in her younger years anorexic. She is also funny, engaging and self-mocking.
The show is a personal account of the slow and erratic evolution of her cultural identity and political consciousness. At the age of 18, during a compulsory family trip to the Middle East, her father confided to her "It's my generation that messed it all - until we're gone, the Sharons and the Arafats and all of us, nothing's going to get done. It's up to your generation to fix it, really." "Great," she thinks to herself. "Now what do I do?"
What does she do? Not a heck of a lot, really. Not even after 9/11, when her "life changed forever" and she became "officially an Arab, bridging the gap between two worlds that don't understand each other."
Saïd doesn't preach, nor does she offer solutions. She does do some advocating for the beauty of Arab Culture, as well as articulating excellent points about possible causes for hatred and terrorism. Irony and paradox abound: in Lebanon she gets through the rage and helplessness of being bombed by "MOTHERFUCKING ISRAELI MOTHERFUCKERS" by talking daily with her Jewish therapist in New York. But for the accident of being born into an Arab family, she might have spent her entire life like so many of us, keeping the whole situation at a safe emotional distance. And who would blame her?
Director Sturgis Warner wisely keeps the focus on Saïd and her story. As an actress she is fully capable of holding our attention for an hour and a half. She does indelible imitations of her parents and brother among others, and is particularly funny portraying herself as a slouchy, sullen teenager. The production is simple and gorgeously designed: a raised square platform seems to float in midair, glowing like tile lit from within.
Ultimately what makes this piece compelling is the honesty of its author/performer as she continues to sort out her own - and the world's - contradictions. She is ambivalent, insecure, hesitant, and bravely human. Would that we could all claim as much.
(Palestine plays at the Fourth Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery. The show runs through March 21st. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 4pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at smarttix.com or by calling 212-260-6052.)