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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[…]

The monologue from her one-woman show reflects a point in her life when the playwright began feeling more connected with Middle Eastern culture.

Question: Share a section from your play with us. 

Najlarn Said: Actually, I don’t totally mind being Lebanese. It has a rncertain cache and none of the connotations of being Palestinian. While Irn am dragged there a few more times against my will, I do start to love rnLebanon again. Family vacations become fun, my cousins turn back into rnbrothers and sisters, new and improved versions of the old restaurants rnand beach clubs spring up like a lot of the other young, exiled rnLebanese, I find a home there. I return frequently and as the country rncontinues to flourish, I find myself flourishing, too. It takes some rnyears, but I slowly begin to nourish myself, not only on the food with rnwhich my relatives stuff me, watermelon, apricots, rice, chicken, rnvegetables, hummus, but on the love that they give me and the rnopportunity to be part of a culture that embraces me fully. 

I rnwish I could explain this, how the Middle East works. I want to be able rnto explain the culture and what is so incredibly addictive and rncaptivating about it, but I can’t do this without self-consciously rnfeeling like an orientalist. Ah! Okay, well, I’ll try. So, yes, there isrn the muezzin, the call to prayer so amazing at twilight. And there is rnthe mysterious, deeply spiritual feel of the air and water, it’s like rnyou’re constantly aware that all of the "Bible stuff" happened here. rnAnd there are the smells and sounds and spices and flavors and carpets rnand hookahs, I suppose, if you’re looking at it that way. But what rnreally grabs you about this very electric, vibrant culture is that rnanyone who is talking to you, is talking to you. And looking at you and rnthinking about you and trying to make you, another person, feel good andrn comfortable and full and content. 

The Arabic language is a rnperfect example of how this works. Let’s say you order something in a rnrestaurant or you take a taxi or something else that requires saying rn"thank you" to someone, okay? Well, you don’t. You don’t say "thank rnyou," you say "God bless your hands," or "God give you strength," or rnanother equally lovely phrase, I mean, "God bless your hands!" Think rnabout that! Wait, before you do, remember that you would say that to rnanyone, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or atheist, it’s an rnexpression. And while I’m here, let me just say that the word "Allah" inrn Arabic means God. It does not mean some other special fundamentalist rnMuslim deity who hates infidels! It is a word whose denotation is "The rnSupreme Being." Okay? So basically in the same way that Spanish-speakingrn people call him Dios and the French call him Dieu, "Allah" is just God.rn Sorry to get pedantic or doubt your knowledge, but I just had to say rnthat, because, you know, in English we say, “Oh, my God,” and “God rest rnhis soul,” and all of the same stuff, but somehow I feel like we’re rntaught here that if it is an Arab saying it, they are a fundamentalist rnMuslim urging all believers to destroy the infidels! No. Not even rnclose. 

Oh, and everyone calls you by a nickname, they just rnmultiply the nicknames. They’re often diminutives of your actual name, rnlike Muna becomes Mun-mun; Sana, "San-Sun"; Tala "Tal-tul." My name, rnNajla, "Najuli", "Najulti," "Najnuni." Or by pet names, oh, my goodness, the pet names rnare so delightful. "Habibi" or its feminine, "habiti," is the most well rnknown, it means "the one I love." But there is also "hayaty," my life; "oyooni," my eyes; "roohi" my soul; "alby," my heart; "amourra," which is "like the moon." I think rnthat it’s kind of from the language and the way that people use it that rnlife becomes this lovely thing! You share it with other people, you rndelight in their delight! You want to feed them, love them, laugh with rnthem, make them feel good! It’s nice! 

Also, people just stop by rnto visit you and it’s not weird, it’s lovely and on cell phones, no one rnhas voice mail, if you get a missed call, you call the person back. It’srn like the whole idea is to connect with other people, not avoid them. rnIt’s delicious, really it is, and so I think from all of that comes thisrn need to go out and touch and love and dance and eat, it’s like you’re rnon a constant quest to meet everyone. 

The other thing about Arabrn culture, and well, maybe I should say, I don’t know all 22 Arab rncountries well enough to make such generalizations, but anyway... all ofrn that stuff that people love about Greece or Italy, you know, the way rnthat people drive wherever they want, whatever they want, in whatever rndirection they want... the way that people get insanely angry at you andrn then five seconds later they’re kissing you? All of those Mediterraneanrn things, they're true of all of the Mediterranean peoples, Mediterraneanrn Arabs, too. I mean, we're not that different from the rest of the rnworld. Arabs, that's all I'm trying to say.
Recordedrn on May 11, 2010
rnInterviewed by Austin Allen