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6(+)Qs with Actress Najla Said //

byMarwa Helal

What do short skirts, Edward Said, and a Jewish therapist all have in common? You’ll have to see Najla Said’s play, Palestine to find out. The New York City-based actress is currently adapting the play, which is based on her life, into a memoir. Here, she answers FEN’s six questions and more:


coke or pepsi? Coke Zero
stripes or polka dots? Stripes
favorite food: Salt

1. When did you know you wanted to be an actress? And how did you get your start?
When I was little, I was really, really, really shy. My parents had this idea that sending me to a Saturday afternoon theatre class would help me get over my timidness and so that is how I started, when I was 7 or 8.

The doorman of my building thought my name was Yallah when I was very small, because my mom was always telling me to “yallah.” I was always daydreaming and talking to imaginary people.

When I started those classes and was put on the stage I immediately came to life. I always took acting classes from then on, in school and after school, right through college.

I was too shy to admit I really wanted to be an actress (I was also so insecure about my looks; I didn’t want people to say; you can’t be you’re not pretty or skinny enough and you’re too hairy!) because in my family academics is the main path that people take. But in my senior year of college I decided I had to try being an actress for a year. My parents humored me at first but then saw how seriously I took it and they supported me 100 percent which is how I was able to keep pursuing it.

2. What are the expectations people have of you because you’re the legendary Edward Said’s daughter? And how do you deal with them?
The most difficult thing has been being forced to defend his words, his thoughts, his ideas, without having the knowledge and insight he did. I don’t know how he would react to things that happen in Iran or Palestine or Lebanon, and I don’t know how he would analyze them but people always expect that I do.

What I have learned to do (the hard way) is say, that that best thing I have learned from my dad’s work is the main lesson of Orientalism: we (as Arabs) have to define ourselves, with all our complexities and contradictions.  We must not let others do it for us. I see my work as part of that legacy.

3. What have the challenges of transitioning from acting to writing been? What have you enjoyed about the transition?
I have ADHD. Full blown. Really bad. I can’t sit down to write until I’m like possessed by some great inspiration and I take some adderall.

I can’t say, “Okay, from 3-5 I will write,” because that will never happen. I will say that for 4 weeks every day, feel massively guilty, produce nothing and then one day sit down and right 45 pages in an hour or something. It makes me feel like a fraud.

In addition, and even though its sort of a cliché, it’s really hard to write when you are the daughter of someone who is known for his writing. My dad always wanted me to be a writer and so did everyone else. I think probably because it’s the most “accepted” art form in the very intellectual world in which I was raised.

But I enjoyed performing and really wanted to do that, so in a sense when my writing became popular and successful, I felt a bit like I had failed as an actress, and I still do. I would find it easier to run around on stage naked in front of a thousand people than actually share my thoughts with others, but somehow I have overcome that fear and found I do it very well on paper.

4. What’s your advice for aspiring artists?
Do not ever give up on doing what you love,

cultivate a really strong sense of yourself so you can withstand all the disappointments and rejections this career brings.

Remember that if you define success as fame and fortune rather than as doing work that excites and energizes you, you will always be disappointed. And just try to go with the flow! It’s always up and down.

5. You helped found Nibras, the first-ever Arab-American theatre collective, tell us about that.
Nibras was founded by several individuals: myself, Maha Chehlaoui, Leila Buck, Afaf Shawwa, Omar Koury, Omar Metwally, and James Asher. Our managing director was Elias El-Hage. We founded the company in 2001. We created an interview based play, entitled Sajjil: Record, that premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in the summer of 2002. 9/11–which occurred during our writing process– really propelled us to get the play out as soon as we could.

Since then, we were instrumental in co-producing a variety of things, including the first couple of New York Arab-American Comedy Festivals. It was like a magic collaboration that existed for one brief moment in history, that has led to some much good, good artistic product and such a better awareness of Arab-Americans in the arts at this very pivotal point in our  history.

6. Who are (or were) your mentors? And what is the most useful piece of advice they gave you?
Hmmm…I feel like everyone I meet is in some way a mentor, but I would single out some acting teachers such as Ron Van Lieu with whom I took classes in the years after college. He just had this way, and I cannot even begin to explain how effortless and effective he is as a teacher…

he told me that what I needed was not school, but life. I needed to have my heart broken, to be disappointed, to hurt, to struggle.He told me he knew I’d always excel in a school environment but what would really help my work would be living life. He was so right.

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