Below is a brief exchange that I’ve taken from an interview with Najla Said (it was on NPR, on the Diane Rehm Show). I have edited the text somewhat (it was the spoken word and needed editing) but have, I hope, not changed the meaning.
I happened to hear it the other day while in the car and was interested, at least by the little I heard. The name Said also caught my eye (ear, as I was listening) and I realized that she was the daughter of Edward Said, the Palestinian writer, for a long time Columbia English professor, and the author of Orientalism a book that I had tried to read several times but never finished.
What I did hear in the car was only the final exchange with the interviewer, Steve Roberts. Here it is:
ROBERTS: I want to ask you a final question… You say this life has been a lifelong search for an identity.
SAID: And it’s not necessarily over.
ROBERTS:… but how would you define yourself today after all [these years] of thinking, therapy, these conversations, discussions?
SAID: Well, it’s been a long journey and I think the only conclusion I’ve reached when people ask me where do I think I really belong, where is my home. To that I always say New York. …I’m such a New Yorker … that’s home.
But in terms of my identity, … I’m a human being. That’s really all I can say because at the end of the day I’m probably like my father, who was a humanist. …Yes I am Palestinian, American, Lebanese, Christian, New York Jewish, WASP, upper west side or actress, comedian, writer, Pilates instructor. I’m all of these things equally. I don’t think, however, I’m any one more than the other. So what is my identity? Again, I’m a human being.
Well that’s what struck me while listening in the car, “my identity, I’m a human being.”
Now if I said that no one would take notice, most of all, or rather least of all my own family. “Yeah, sure Dad (Grandpa).” And why is that so remarkable if during an interview with Steve Roberts on the Diane Rehm Show the daughter of Eduard Said says she’s a human being?
It’s not of course so remarkable, and Josée wondered why I even mentioned it, let alone decided to write a blog about it. Well I do have my reasons.
People are terribly mixed up. The separations between peoples are no longer holding, no longer holding us apart from one another, and today people find themselves in close proximity, next door, in the same room even with people who don’t look and talk like them.
Is that what they mean by multi-cultural? Many cultures all together? Well if you don’t believe that’s what our world is coming to go to New York where some 150, or was it 180 I heard just recently, different languages are spoken daily by people, people wearing many more than 180 different skin colors.
The multi-cultures, and not only as in different languages and skin colors, but evidenced by different behaviors, religions, beliefs and much else, are already here, at least in the developed world. Where they’re not, as in some undeveloped regions, the Middle East, for example, and in Russia, you have people in these and other places trying desperately to keep it from happening. Desperate to keep the walls between peoples from tumbling down.
Well there are two ways of responding to our more and more all mixed up world. One can fight it and try, as the Taliban, ISIS, the Saudis, and Putin, to remain whole in one’s own culture and belief system, separate from everyone else.
Or one can decide not to fight it, but instead revel in it, as do many New York and Brooklyn neighborhoods, that have decided that the future is made up of Happy Hours and hold block parties to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is the same, no special status. Although I don’t suppose they ever say it aren’t they all assuming they’re all human beings? In any case they are.
So why was I struck by Najla saying the obvious, that she was a human being? Well, perhaps it was the fact that I rarely hear this from any public figure. The rich and famous all talk about all these things they are, that separate them from others, but never about what they have in common, what they share with others, with all of us, their humanity.
And there you have it, the single biggest problem we confront today: that our leaders are so hung up by their personal histories etc., their own national aspirations, their particular beliefs and customs etc., that they never put them all aside in order to become along with everyone else, just human.
As I say this I think of not only Putin, and all the autocrats of today’s world, all the religious fanatics who are still determinedly almost everywhere doing harm to others, but no less of our own petty elected representatives, whose lives are all about getting elected to office, never about what they could maybe do if elected to improve the lives of all peoples, all peoples who are really no different from them.
So it does need to be said, and that’s why what Najla said during the interview is so important. How many times have you heard a public figure of some note and importance, one of our elected representatives, one of our billionaires, one of our sports and entertainment stars say that? I can’t remember a time.
Wouldn’t it make a difference if instead of saying the obligatory “God bless” at the end of their talk public figures began to say instead, something about our being human beings, all of us, about our being together and having to work together. Not God, who doesn’t need us, but our fellow man, who does need us, should be our concern.
When Najla said, “I am a human being,” meaning that none of the other designations, —Palestinian, American, Lebanese, Christian, New York Jewish, WASP, upper west side or actress, comedian, writer, Pilates instructor, —were more than small parts of what she was, isn’t that true of all of us? All the ways we would describe and define ourselves are as nothing at all compared to our all being human beings together.