Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Najla Said is an award-winning actress, comedian, and writer. As an actress, she has appeared Off Broadway, regionally and internationally, as well as in film and television. She is a[…]

It’s emotionally intense for Najla Said to relive her childhood of cultural confusion and her eating disorder on stage.

Question: What challenges did you face growing up? 

Najlarn Said: When you come to this country, you become American and you’rern meant to assimilate and then Arab-American, for example, or rnItalian-American, becomes a new thing. There’s Italians, and then rnthere’s Italian Americans. And for me, having grown up largely in rnManhattan on the Upper West Side, but going to a private school, which rnwas mostly—as I say in the play—WASPs, as a young girl.  I, first of rnall, thought I was Jewish, because I didn’t, there were no other, there rnwere no Jewish people, and I looked different and had dark care and rnlived on the west side, so I thought I was Jewish. And also, I didn’t rnseem to understand how I fit in with the vision of an Arab that I saw onrn TV and in the news and in movies. And then again, I didn’t feel like I rnhad any identification with what was I was being told was an Arab rnAmerican. So let’s say there’s a large community in Detroit, in rnMichigan, of people whose families came here generations ago, that are rnoriginally Syrian or Lebanese or whatever, and I didn’t feel identified rnwith them. So I didn’t really understand what this idea of being either,rn I wasn’t Arab, and I wasn’t fully American, but I somehow didn’t feel rnlike I was Arab-American. 

It was confusing, and also, my father rnwas an English professor. So it didn’t make sense that, you know, rnnothing made sense and we were Christian. And not only Christian, we rnwere Quaker. So all of the things that I would hear about what an Arab rnwas, I didn’t fit any of them. And so it was difficult, but I find it rnwas funny because when I was at a school with mostly Christian people, rneven though I was Christian, I felt really different, and then I went rnand switched schools and I went into high school with mostly Jewish rnpeople and I felt more comfortable. And it’s sort of the funny thing of rnhow because they were Jewish and they knew about Israel and what was rngoing on in the Middle East, somehow I became able to know what it meantrn to be Arab in that way, in a more personal way. And so I suddenly beganrn exploring and finding out who I was. But it was really, really rnconfusing as a child. 

Question: In what ways was this rncultural confusion beneficial? 

Najla Said: I found a rnway in, because I started with the premise of "Everyone thinks I’m rnJewish." And so I, this has been misconstrued, because people haven’t rnseen the play and then they hear some sensational thing about how I talkrn about being Jewish and they get confused. But I wasn’t saying I’m rnJewish, I was saying, "I grew up in New York City, on the Upper West rnSide, people have called me a Woody Allen character." When people meet rnme, I tend to come off as an Upper West Side New York Jewish or Italian rngirl, and in that sense, I use that to my advantage because the first rnpart of the play, I talk about how I grew up and then, you know, kissingrn Jewish boys and, you know, saying, "Oy vey," and eating bagels and lox,rn and being neurotic, and going to the shrink when I was 10, and all of rnthat stuff which is very stereotypically like the Jewish cultural, rnJewish New Yorker. I use that as a way for people to listen. 

So rnonce I get the audience to listen, then I start saying, "Okay, but I'm rnreally Palestinian and Lebanese," and I never claim to know more than rnanyone else or, I mean, I think the struggle in and of itself of trying rnto figure out where I fit is what people relate to. And in the end, rnsomeone said to me, a friend of mine who’s Jewish, “It’s a Jewish rnstory,” which was the ultimate compliment in the sense that you couldn’trn offend anyone. So on one hand, I managed to say a lot of truths about rnwhat goes on in Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, rnbut on the other hand, I was able to do it in a disarming way, which I rnthink you can only get if you’re born of two cultures. 

Question:rn How were you able to achieve enough creative distance to tell the rnpainful aspects of your story? 

Najla Said: The first rnpart of the story is mainly about my youth, and I talk about this first rntrip I went on to Palestine, the only time I’ve ever been there, when I rnwas 18, in 1992. At the time, I was very sick, with an eating disorder. Irn was anorexic. That part was difficult, but it was less difficult than rnsome of the more recent stuff, because it was long ago and I’ve rnprocessed it and been through it and been in therapy, and I’m better. Sorn everyone thinks, “Oh, you’re so brave.” It was difficult on a daily rnbasis to rehearse this period of... who wants to be 18 again? Who wants rnto be an adolescent again? Everything was miserable and so dramatic and rnyou don’t want to go through that again. But on the other hand, it was rnnice to go back and just be like, “I’m not this person anymore, look howrn much I’ve grown.” 

But on the other hand, the more recent stuff,rn like, my father’s death, when we got to the part where my father died, Irn kept skipping the section and going on to the next one. And they were rnlike, “Uh, go back, you have to, your father has to die.” And it’s rnchronological, so it was just this mental block in my head and I found rnthat very, very challenging. But I think what happened ultimately was rnthat I began to feel like my father was on stage with me for the rnduration of the performance, so I tried to flip it so it was like a rnpositive thing that I was with him for the whole hour and 40 minutes, rnand I think that helped a little, but it was definitely difficult. 

Andrn also, one last thing was I spoke about being in Lebanon as a rnnine-year-old, being bombed, and then again in 2006 as a grown up, beingrn bombed. And what’s interesting about that is that I didn’t really rnrealize that I was traumatized as a little girl until I was there in rn2006 and I heard the bombs again and I had a very sort of overwhelming, rnseemingly melodramatic reaction, which I guess is trauma, or rnpost-traumatic stress. So when we recreated both of those events, both rnbeing bombed in Lebanon as an eight-year-old, a nine-year-old, and as a,rn however old I was in 2006—I’m really bad at math—my reactions were rnreal. And so, they made it very clear, because I say in the play, rnthere’s no way you can replicate the sound of a bomb when it’s real rnbecause part of it is the psychological knowledge that it’s a bomb and rnthe other thing is that it’s just louder and scarier than anything rnyou’ve ever heard. So they very consciously used a sound key that was rnlike a drum. You can tell it’s a drum, but the loud noise really, rnreally, really scared me. But then again, that was an advantage because Irn was really scared every night. So on the one hand, when you’re rnretelling a story, it can be very emotionally intense in a negative way,rn but it also serves you, because you’re really able to relive it in a rnvery pure way for the audience. So I think that was kind of great. 

Question:rn How did you overcome your eating disorder? 

Najla Said:rn I think one of the things that was important to me was that it not be rndismissed as a shallow, you know, young girl just wanting to be skinny rnso she can be a model. I think eating disorders are often misunderstood,rn as mine was by my parents, very much; they thought it was very selfish.rn But I think that it was, for me, at least, and after many years of rntherapy I’ve been able to put this together, for me it was a combinationrn of things. Yes, you want to be thin, but there’s a reason you want to rnbe thin. Part of it is to fit in and I didn’t look like other people, I rnhad an Arab body, which was, I had curves, and I didn’t want them, rnbecause no one else looked like me. 

So there was that, and then rnon another level, on a deeper level, I didn’t want to grow up... which rnis another part of general anorexia, you literally don’t want to grow rnup, so you make your body like an adolescent’s body, and I was just rngraduating from college. And the other was my father had been diagnosed rnwith leukemia and I think, whether we get migraines or ulcers or rnwhatever it is, we take whatever stresses us out, we put it into our rnbody, and for me, at the time, I didn’t know how to express my fear and rnmy just incredible sadness at my father’s diagnosis. 

So I think rnpart of me, even though he would get mad and say, you know, "I'm dying, rnyou’re killing yourself," part of me wanted to take on the sickness and rnshare it with him, because I didn’t know to express my sadness. And so rnthere was, there was a great deal of wanting to suffer with him. 

Whenrn I went on this trip and I saw people suffering in Gaza... there were rntwo elements of the trip that I use the anorexia. One was, it was such arn Western thing to not eat. It’s a very Western. There are definitely rnwomen in the Middle East who have eating disorders, but the idea of not rneating or not enjoying life or partaking in life was in many ways a rnrejection of that culture, which is so much about... food is love and rn"Eat, eat, eat." And me going there and being like, I’m not eating, was arn very, a very vivid example of me rejecting the culture. And then the rnother thing was just going there and then feeling all the feelings that Irn felt about seeing people without food or without water, living in huts rnin the mud, and feeling guilty. So there was that element, which I sort rnof joke about being sort of, I only wanted to be a Christ figure in the rnMiddle East. 

But all of that stuff came to me years, years laterrn after much therapy. I did not know any of that at the time. It’s not rnlike when I’m writing about myself as an 18-year-old wanting to suffer, Irn had any consciousness of that, that was all years of therapy and rngrowth. But for me, personally, the journey out of the anorexia was... Irn started seeing doctors right then when I was about to go to college. rnThey had said I shouldn’t go to college, I had to go to the hospital, rnand I refused, so I did an outpatient treatment. And physically, I wouldrn gain enough weight to get my period, which is what they want you to do rnwhen you’re a girl, and then I would go on a diet again and lose it. 

Sorn that went on for a few years and it wasn’t until I was studying acting rnseriously that I began to actually physically, and mentally, get rnbetter... because I was taught to breathe and fill up with air and let rnmyself experience. And my teachers were like, "You're too skinny, you rnneed energy," so there was that. 

And then the other, the last rncomponent of it was, I went to the Middle East as a little kid, I went rnwhen I was nine to Lebanon and we left under bombs and I didn’t go back rnagain until I was 18. When I went back when I was 18, I was like, "Wherern is my country?" Like, where is my grandfather? And they were all dead rnand everything was bombed. I had spent my formative years, from the age rnof, basically nine-and-a-half until 18, with no connection to the Middlern East, and that’s when sort of the anorexia formed. And as I began to gorn back to Lebanon and become more and more comfortable there and felt rnmore a part of something. As I say in the play, I was able to "nourish rnmyself."

So yeah, it took a long time, but I started to feel likern I was part of something. And so, I felt the love of my family and rnliterally they nourished me with love and food and I felt connected. So,rn I mean, obviously there are a lot of things, but I think for me that rnwas really important because it was like I was able to find an identity,rn even if it was slightly confused and off. I belonged somewhere, to rnsomeone, and I remember Lebanon. Sometimes I walk down the street in rnBeirut and people know who my parents are because I look like them, and rnthat’s the kind of place it is, it’s like a village. You know? This is rnthe neighborhood that this family is from, so this must be their rndaughter. And I never had that before and it was just so nice to feel rnconnected and rooted to somewhere. 
Recorded on May 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen