MESC, SJP-sponsored speaker explores identity via theater

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Najla Said’s reading of her play and book on Feb. 24 and 25 explored the various dynamics of nationality and identity, as well as addressing different mediums for activism and solidarity. Courtesy of Facebook

During a late evening after class, the Palestin­ian flag made a controversial appearance in Rockefeller Hall. 18 Vassar orgs and pre-orgs lent public support to Najla Said’s solo-perfor­mance of her play “Palestine” and reading of her book “Looking for Palestine” on Feb. 24 and 25. Said’s message of peace came at a time when race relations in America, the U.S. presidential race and ongoing conflict in the Middle East are sources of great stress and conflict.

Said is a Palestinian Lebanese American Christian who grew up in Manhattan, N.Y., with a clash of politics, religion and kinship. Her fa­ther Edward Said grew up as an Arab Christian, a religious minority in the Arab population. He emigrated from Israel in 1951 when the Victoria College of Egypt expelled him and his parents sent him to boarding school in Massachusetts. Although a native-born American citizen, Said faced the same misunderstanding as her father had a generation earlier. She reflected, “Every­body said, ‘You must be Jewish.’ Then I said, ‘I must be.’”

She looked for artistic inspiration not from her father, a prominent literary critic and au­thor, but rather from major literary figures of the Black Arts Movement and its immediate intellectual successors, and particularly author Toni Morrison. Said noted, “When my father passed away, I became the person to carry the legacy. I wasn’t expecting it, but it happened to me. If you’re Palestinian-American, you’re al­ways politicized.” She remembered, “I grew up here and I felt alone because of the school that I went to, the people that I talked to, and the neighborhoods that I lived in. Then I realized that solidarity is the greatest form of love.”

At the turn of the millennium, Said quietly worked in theatre drama, but began to consider contemporary issues in the decade after Sept. 11, beginning with Arab-American issues and ex­tending her commentary to a broader spectrum of ethnic conflict in the U.S. She co-founded Nibras Theatre Collective and calls her artistic production a form of political activism for both Arab-Americans and American egalitarianism. She attested, “To be an activist, you don’t have to be an academic who writes papers, or a pun­dit on TV. I think you can be an activist through art. My story is not just for Arab-Americans. This is a country of immigrants, and our expe­riences overlap.”

Despite the power of artistic expression, Said remains doubtful about the immediate Amer­ican political climate. She acknowledged, “In terms of the U.S. presidential elections, no Ar­ab-American has ever wholeheartedly voted for a candidate. In that sense, I am not American at all. I will always be voting for the lesser of two evils. My friends tell me about Bernie Sand­ers and their hopes for his policy in the Middle East. I think that for the U.S. President, no mat­ter who is elected to office, it is not possible to be with the Palestinian people.”

However, Said takes heart in the growing concern and empathy of the general public for Arab-American issues and conflict in the Mid­dle East. She stated, “The struggle for Palestin­ians and Arabs and human rights is part of the struggle for all people. If you are not Palestin­ian, if you could come to understand the strug­gle of another people, then you have the power to help others understand the conflict by simply engaging in dialogue.”

Said also affirmed her deep appreciation for her background, despite struggling with iden­tity growing up. She said, “I loved my culture even when I was pretending not to be from it. It was my life, my friends, my family; it made me happy, and it made me feel safe.” An anon­ymous member of Middle Eastern Student Col­lective and Students for Justice in Palestine was grateful for Said’s decision to speak out. They affirmed, “As an Arab-American, there were many things that Said explained in her perfor­mance and talk that really struck a chord with me, particularly her desire as a teenager to be whitewashed and even to disappear, which is something many minorities in the U.S. inter­nalize, but especially, as she brought up, Arab and Muslim-Americans after 9/11, and currently after events such as Charlie Hebdo, the Paris Attacks and San Bernadino.”

Member of Jewish Voice for Peace Ethan Co­hen ’16 also identified with Said’s experiences, despite being an Arab Jew, while Said is an Arab Christian. Cohen clarified, “It is always import­ant to look for nuance. It is very dangerous to assume that, if you put Jews and Arabs in the same place, then they will fight.”

Students responded well to hearing about these issues from an artist-activist. Cohen ex­pounded, “Music, plays, art in general, are transnational. It has its own kind of language and people have been using it as a form of resis­tance since oppression was invented. You don’t combat destruction with destruction; you com­bat destruction with creation.”

Said’s observations on U.S. politics are mir­rored in current campus climate. Cohen reflect­ed, “As for Zionist alumni, I don’t expect them to change their beliefs. But I do expect them to be legal and respectful in their opposition to us. Some members of our group have been harassed on Facebook. Zionist alumni and reg­ular Zionists have posted students’ residential addresses and attempted to contact their future employees.”

The anonymous student agreed, “There is a clear power dynamic between Zionist students and Middle East and North African students on campus, in that Zionist students have clear ad­ministrative support, which is troubling to me given the erasure and discrimination against Arab and Muslim voices that is inextricably linked with the political ideology and colonial project of Zionism. The main problem in terms of administration, and even amongst the student body, is even having Arab voices heard when it comes to issues of racism against us, which is a privilege many students at this school already possess.” They summarized, “I just want my voice, and other Middle East and North African voices, to actually be heard, or even considered, at Vassar, and I hope that Najla’s powerful story was a step in that direction.”

One Comment

  1. “It is always import­ant to look for nuance. It is very dangerous to assume that, if you put Jews and Arabs in the same place, then they will fight”

    No one assumes that. The history of Jews in Arab countries is one of tolerance for Jews, but not equality.

    “As for Zionist alumni, I don’t expect them to change their beliefs. But I do expect them to be legal and respectful in their opposition to us. Some members of our group have been harassed on Facebook. Zionist alumni and reg­ular Zionists have posted students’ residential addresses and attempted to contact their future employees”

    I’m not aware of any Vassar alum who posted the address of a student or attempted to contact their future employer. Zionist students at Vassar are regularly harassed, both on social media and in person by SJP members, who tar them as bigots for opposing BDS.

    “There is a clear power dynamic between Zionist students and Middle East and North African students on campus, in that Zionist students have clear ad­ministrative support, which is troubling to me given the erasure and discrimination against Arab and Muslim voices that is inextricably linked with the political ideology and colonial project of Zionism”

    It’s hypocritical to complain about the erasure of Arab and Muslim voices when the fact of the matter is that the only attempt to erase voices at Vassar has been by SJP and JVP.

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