In Orientalism, Edward Said's seminal 1978 work about how the West sees the East, Said declares that "the life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening".
By this point, Said had been living in the US for almost three decades, long enough to be chafed by his adoptive country's attitude towards the Middle Eastern émigré: "The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanising ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed," he said, "and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny."
Orientalism became a landmark academic text, its author soon crowned as the father of postcolonial studies. Said's eloquent ire and penetrating insight were instrumental in dismantling that sticky web and making the West realise its view of others was jaundiced and blinkered.
Said's daughter, Najla, has written a memoir, Looking for Palestine, in which she examines not so much how others perceive her as an Arab-American, but how she perceives herself. It cannot be said, though, that she is following in her father's intellectual footsteps. This is no academic treatise on cultural relations, rather a warm, heartfelt account of a young girl trying to fit in and adapt throughout an era in which the word "Arab" has the power to raise hackles and trigger fresh waves of derogatory and damaging clichés.
The book is a journey of sorts, one with a true beginning and end: at the outset, the younger Said is unclear, even ashamed, of her ethnic background, and in the closing pages she comes full circle and appreciates her identity. It is no real arduous trek, but the writer, racked regularly by self-doubt, is sufficiently put through her paces, and the reader is glad to have tagged along for the ride.
On the first page, Said reveals who she is, and in doing so impresses on us her dilemma: "I am a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian woman, but I grew up as a Jew in New York City."
No sooner have we tried to digest this when she hits us again, muddying the water even more: "I began my life, however, as a WASP."
Still reeling from this bewildering admission, she whisks us off and back into her childhood. Her Palestinian father (at this point a professor at Columbia) and equally erudite Lebanese mother send her to a wealthy private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she immediately and acutely feels different ("I was a dark-haired rat in a sea of blond perfection").
As she struggles to comprehend who she is and where she belongs, the book's subtitle comes into play: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family. That New York is a melting pot heightens, rather than diminishes, her confusion. Can she be an Arab-American hyphenate or must she choose only the latter and assimilate? It doesn't help that her parents are forever asserting their Arab-ness at a time, she feels, when they should be more discreet about it. What's more, she confesses to being unable to make the connection between "the fanatical Muslims on TV, the rich oil princes who showed up in movies, or the magic carpets and belly dancers in books and pictures and anyone I knew or had ever known in my life".
By the time the 1980s arrive, her confusion has soured into a more worrying schizophrenic identity crisis, one in which she shirks from any sense of kinship with Arabs. Beirut is now synonymous with war - "all that was uncivilised, evil, barbaric, violent, and foreign in the world" - and she believes she risks castigation and persecution in the playground by owning up to her Lebanese roots. The Palestinian thing is simply too incomprehensible to grasp, perhaps made more complicated by her father's proud pronouncement that he is both Palestinian and Arab.