A mural at the Cesar Chavez Center in tribute to Edward Said, at University of San Francisco.
When Edward Said returned home 45 years after the Nakba of 1948, he found that his family’s house in Jerusalem had been taken over “by a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and militantly pro-Zionist group”.
“To have found my family’s house now occupied, not by an Israeli Jewish family, but by a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and militantly pro-Zionist group (run by a South African Boer, no less, and with a record of unsavoury involvement with the Contras to boot), this was an abrupt blow for a child of Palestinian Christian parents,” the eminent Palestinian-American scholar wrote in a 1998 article he penned for Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language weekly broadsheet based in Cairo.
“The coincidence was too much for me at that point, suddenly vitalising my family’s history with this astonishing serene likeness of my young father as I really never knew him and, as I thought back to the silent Talbiya house, with its lamentably foreclosed destiny now in ‘Christian’ hands, that world seemed condemned to intermittent scraps and shards of memory and melancholy.”
Palestinians, for generations, have carried the trauma of what happened in 1948 with the establishment of Israel.
They call it the Nakba, which is Arabic for “catastrophe”, referring to the forced displacement of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands and the destruction of their society, culture and identity.
Today, after 75 years, many say they are facing the same tragedy again at the hands of the Israeli military, with more than 11,500 Palestinians killed and tens of thousands displaced from the northern Gaza Strip since 7 October.
Until his death in 2003, Said was a vocal advocate and one of the most influential voices for the rights of the Palestinian people.
If he were alive today, according to his daughter, Najla Said, he would constantly be pointing to the egregious violations of international law, as well as the humanity of the people of Gaza.
“I think … he would do is he would be writing and talking and pointing out exactly what everyone else is pointing out. That it is the matter of colonialism, imperialism, military occupation and that the original Nakba has never been addressed. It has to be addressed. We have to address and come to terms with the fact that this did happen to us in 1948,” Najla told Anadolu in a video interview.
She finds her father’s ideas still being used by “everyone who is supporting Palestine”.
“Like seeing it as a settler colonial situation as opposed to whatever other people think, that it’s about religion or whatever, and it’s about the land and it’s about colonisation,” she said.
“So, in reading what other people are saying and putting out there, I realise his ideas without even being cited. They’ve just penetrated to everyone’s consciousness who understands this struggle from at least our point of view.”
For Najla, the lack of awareness in the West about the Nakba is clear to see.
“It is insane. I live in New York, so I know that there is no narrative here other than that in 1948, Israel got its independence, and so there was a parade here every year for that. And so, it’s almost like it’s never been discussed that people were displaced so that Israel could be founded,” she said.
“If you bring it up, it makes people very uncomfortable because we are supposed to be happy that Israel was founded.”
The idea of the Nakba is always in the back of Palestinian people’s minds, Najla said, speaking about the current plight of the population of the Gaza Strip.
“There is nothing that I can understand from what’s happening that shows me that the people of Gaza deserve this misery and trauma,” she said.
Terming Israel’s deadly campaign attack “unconscionable”, she believes that Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his government are trying to eliminate all of the people of Gaza.
“So right from the beginning, this has been different in terms of the relationship between myself and the Jewish people that I know, because normally when Gaza is attacked, there isn’t an attack beforehand where 1,400 Israelis are killed and taken hostage and all of that,” she said.
“I understand the circumstances here are very different, but I still believe that the attack on Gaza is unconscionable, unfair, and I would also join the chorus of people calling it a genocide.”
Najla has Palestinian and Lebanese roots and grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood of New York.
During a significant part of her childhood, she frequently travelled to Lebanon and found herself entangled in the Civil War, having to escape as a child.
She has been an actor, playwright and author over the past 20 years.
In the current cycle of violence, Najla has experienced both animosity and empathy.
Najla is also a Pilates instructor and one of her regular clients, who she had trained three times a week for years, left her the day after the Hamas attacks.
The client sent her an email with an emoji of an Israeli flag.
“When I taught her on Friday, I was the best thing that ever happened to her but, by Monday, because of something I said on my Facebook page about not wanting to post an Israeli flag even though I stated that I was horrified at the Hamas attacks, my humanity was suddenly questioned by someone who knew me personally to be a very skilled and very nice person,” she said.
“I don’t know what I had to do with … Hamas. I’m not even Muslim.”
On the other hand, Najla has also seen immense support for Gazans and the Palestinian cause, particularly from the Black community and people of colour in the US.
“The amount of support we are getting from people who don’t have any attachment to it is overwhelming. And my father always said, solidarity is the greatest form of love. And so, I am feeling more empowered to speak up because I feel more supported,” she said.
“It is one of the most beautiful things because they saw that we stood with them for Black Lives Matter and they are not backing down. There’s something about that support that feels very precious and special because we feel like, I think, we’re finally being seen as an oppressed minority as opposed to religious ideologists or backward people or barbarians.”
She said another thing that they are seeing is that “this is global and the world is reacting in a way that makes us feel less alone.”
“Muslims are a huge part of population of the world. It’s only in America where you feel, as an Arab or a Muslim, that you’re a minority,” she said.
“So, I think that I feel more sort of buoyed by support from Muslims and Arabs and people of colour all over the world. But it’s also very scary, specifically in America. But I think because of what we’re able to see from all over the world, we realise that America looks really bad.”
Her father’s works strongly critiqued Western media’s portrayal of the Palestine-Israel issue, and Najla feels the experiences she and other Palestinians have had, back his assertions.
“I heard someone say they are surprised that they have buildings in Gaza. Aren’t they refugees? And I said, well, they’ve been refugees for 75 years. They are going to build it. They are not going to live in a tent for 75 years,” she said.
“I don’t think that it’s clear to a lot of people that Arabs don’t choose to live in abject poverty. We’re not backwards. We’re not barbarians. They destroyed everything that we had built or they had built in Gaza.”
She believes that there is no personality or figure like Edward Said to advocate for the Palestinian cause today, since he came from a different discipline compared to other political analysts or experts.
“He was a very specific and special person … I think what made my father more interesting in a way is that he came from a humanities and literature point of view and not a legal, political or historical point of view.
“So, he had an appeal to humanity … A lot of the people who are speaking out today are lawyers and international law experts and policy experts, because those are the people that are listened to.
“I think that it’s very difficult now to find someone like my father. He was a literature professor and a musician and all of these things, but he also was very passionate about this (Palestinian cause).”