Fady Joudah

The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work

Aria Aber

Click here to read a poem from Fady Joudah’s […].

We are entering the sixth month of the most recent war on Gaza and I have been wondering about the role of poetry, and looking to poets to help me understand what is taking place. One of these is the Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah, who has reported that Israeli airstrikes have killed more than one hundred of his family members in Gaza. Over these last months, he has published new poems and essays animated by inscrutable grief and searing intelligence, while appearing on television and the radio to discuss the unfolding situation. His public appearances have exemplified to me the possibility of a world where a poet’s words are accorded the significance they merit.

Joudah’s startling and philosophical new book, […], comes out this March. The title, as Joudah explained to me, functions as a pictogram: a pictorial symbol that transports meaning by representing a physical object. It also evokes silence and erasure—I see an enclosed space, a ruined building with people inside, or even a book. Within its pages, the poet’s voice travels across centuries and continents, historicizing the fate of the Palestinian people while illuminating the bewilderment, eros, and spirituality of everyday life. Joudah’s integrity and craftsmanship elasticize the boundaries of the lyric and embrace a reckoning with colonial violence. But these glimmering, layered poems defy easy categorization, even as they brim with the wisdom we inherit from the dead: “From time to time, language dies. / It is dying now. / Who is alive to speak it?”

Joudah and I recently corresponded by email. Our conversation touched on lyric testimony, the material and spiritual dimensions of writing a book, and the limits of poetry in a time of war.

Aria Aber, contributing editor

Aria Aber I loved […] not just for its urgency and gravitas but for its quietude and beauty and, occasionally, playfulness. The book begins in medias res, the speaker claiming, “I am unfinished business.” I know that some of these poems were written “in real time” in response to the most recent war on Gaza. How long did it take you to write the poems, and when did you know it would be a book?

Fady Joudah I would say about ten weeks. Between October and December 2023. In November I knew I had a book. And surrendered to it. It kept me somewhat sane, hopeful to dive into a future where the words I write would outlive the powers that wanted them dead. Even after turning in the manuscript to my publisher, I wrote a handful of new […] poems. But it is worth remembering that Palestinians have been living for so long with a simple clarity in a self-blinding world. A world, particularly in America, that is certain it sees not only as well as but, in fact, far better than a Palestinian does.

In a manner of speaking, these poems came immediately to me because they had existed in me, on the Palestinian carousel, for years: the dehumanization, the complicity, the silence, the disdain, and the process of attritional extermination. But also beauty, music, and desire had been living in me just as fully. The survivance. Palestinians are much more than a repository of wounds; portraying us as such can’t lead to much more than pity.

The front and back cover of Fady Joudah's [...]. The poem "Suddenly I" appears on the back cover.

In all my books, I have worked in multiple registers, obsessed with the dance between clarity and idiosyncrasy; I think of my works as long musical scores. But in […], the world-historical event that is Gaza-Palestine in 2024 brings us into focus more sharply. My poem “Suddenly I” became more identifiable, recognizable. As if my voice is mostly legible when in a certain register in tune with the drum the world is beating for my annihilation. This is a conundrum of community for the poet, particularly the Palestinian or even Arab poet in English. Or let me put it in the words James Baldwin used to describe progress: “You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”

Does it have to take a genocide?

AA I cannot help but feel that poetry is especially important now. Many Palestinian poets have reportedly been killed during this war; others have allegedly been tortured. When Dr. Refaat Alareer was killed or when Mosab Abu Toha was abruptly detained, the distance between American poetry and Palestinian poetry momentarily collapsed. A lot of people were reminded of a truth that you and I, as writers in exile from war-torn countries, know intimately: that a poet’s job is not an apolitical position. Perhaps in response to the deliberate destruction of culture, there is a real hunger for poets right now to give voice to the violence that seems “unspeakable.” What do you think the responsibility of the poet is?

FJ The poet does not have a single kind of responsibility, nor is the poet’s responsibility defined by the magnitude of an event, private or public. In the long sequence poem in […], “I Seem as If I Am,” I travel back in time to converse with classical Arabic poetry as an archive of how ancient poets spoke of the passage of time. In a manner of speaking, […] is a formal conversation with time (hence its epigraph from al-Mutanabbi). The human and the nonhuman merge, which is to say human time and nonhuman time become indistinct. Disaster wipes itself out. Love is convinced that it is the source of life, and life is convinced that without it, love is nothing. And in fact, nonhuman life on Earth, which is most life, has no need for love. Love is necessary for humans, because without it we are destroyers of worlds, and with it, we still struggle not to be destroyers.

The responsibility of the poet? My medical mentor, a Jewish man from Waco, Texas, used to say that a plethora of ongoing research on a particular medical subject indicates that we still don’t know enough about that subject. And that’s how I feel about the responsibility of the poet. We keep talking about it because it is relentlessly mutable, pluripotent. We are never satisfied with our answers. I often think that the responsibility of the poet is to strive to become the memory that people may possess in the future about what it means to be human: an ever-changing constant. In poetry, the range of metaphors and topics is limited, predictable, but the styles are innumerable. Think how we read poetry from centuries ago and are no longer bothered by its outdated diction. All that remains of old poetry is the music of what it means to be human. And perhaps that’s all we want from poetry. A language of life.

I like this quote by J. M. Coetzee: “The masters of information have forgotten about poetry, where words may have a meaning quite different from what the lexicon says, where the metaphoric spark is always one jump ahead of the decoding function, where another, unforeseen reading is always possible.”

AA We are in a moment of severe censorship; language feels charged and flammable. In Germany, for example, protesters are forbidden to shout the slogan “From the river to the sea.” Some maps plainly erase the names of old Palestinian villages. Hence it’s not surprising that when I encountered the title [...] my mind immediately filled in the blank with the word “Palestine,” or its true Arabic name, “Falastin.” But reading the poems, I am less certain. [...] is elusive, shimmering, expansive. The ellipsis ruptures and silences but also allows for our imagination to take root. How did you arrive at this title?

FJ The book title refused to be written. It insisted on being wordless. I had been thinking about bookmaking. How did we come to believe that poetry collections must be constructed in a certain way? It’s too reductive to say that we live in an age where capitalism has dominated bookmaking, but it is not inaccurate to say it. Despite the variety and hybridity of poetry books today, a template for what constitutes a poetry collection still dominates our thinking. Historically, poetry just floated in the memory of people without titles, living on in fragments.

We tend to think that we inhabit the age of the irreversible archive. That, unlike in previous ages, everything we document will last forever. When the annihilation of Gaza began, titles were unimaginable to me. I was drawn to the notion of pictogram, however. I had no idea what it might open up in the book and for the reader, in time. Ironically, it turned out that the question of “How do you say it?” or “How shall people search for it online or in bookstores?” were questions I didn’t think of. Questions of capital, of audience, of culture industry. The same capital that drives the destruction of Palestine, among other places.

Mysticism sees human existence through the stages of love. All our failures, wickedness, desires, and liberations are stages of love.

Yet I was not thinking of all these things. Spiritually, no title spoke to me, and I wanted to listen to that silence. But then I was surprised, for example, by the table of contents. Another ghost appeared, as my friend Deema Shehabi pointed out to me. The table of contents resembles a Palestinian landscape, whether in 1948 or in 2024: the former a depopulated landscape of nearly five hundred villages and towns, the latter a carnage of rubble. I also did not anticipate the way the cover becomes the first poem in the book: My name in Arabic adds to the weight of the unsayable in English. And then more echoes appear. My sister, the scholar, jokingly tells me that she has “citational anxiety” when she looks at the table of contents. The poems that do have titles, however, are either echoes of earlier poems of mine with similar titles or are of Arabic-Islamic concepts such as “Kufic,” “Maqam,” or “Barzakh.” Concepts that are not represented for edification in English but as objects of art. But here I am talking of the aftermath of the pictogram, not its inception. So many resist calling a genocide a genocide, but questions about what to call […] are on repeat.

AA I was startled by the poignancy of these lines: “Hope left me / but it isn’t true.” or: “In Arabic, pain is an anagram of hope.” To me, a return to poetry is a return to hope, to make space for the belief in a better world, even if the poem only diagnoses the wounds of our time. What role does hope play in […]?

FJ The role hope plays in […] is from the river to the sea. The second quote you refer to is in a poem addressing Joseph in the Quran. The Surah of Joseph was my favorite as a child. It is the only Surah with a sustained single narrative thread. Joseph in Arabic becomes the figure of universal beauty, divine beauty. In the Quranic telling, the story has a happy ending. There is no punishment, only forgiveness, inclusivity, and reunion. Later, in Arabic and Farsi literature, Joseph reaches certain heights wherein gender is lost. “You are the Joseph of beauty” goes a famous verse by the Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi, for example: the speaker, a man, addressing a woman beloved. Or not. In beauty, we are all Joseph and the story of Joseph, beyond the interpretation of dreams. There is no love worth its name that isn’t plural, porous. During a recent fundraiser for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), I read “Dedication,” the longest poem in […]. The imam was the fundraiser and came on after me. He spoke of hope. The story he used to illustrate hope was another Quranic narrative, about Ezra, who could not believe that a destroyed city and people could be revived. But God showed Ezra that they could be. Whether the holy man in the Quran is the same Ezra in other scripture or a chimera of human and angel is irrelevant to me. Civilizations come and go. Hope has no ethnicity, no nationalism, no identitarian limitations, no monopoly on time. We can make that choice about hope.

AA Reading these poems, I was reminded of this line by the poet Aimé Césaire: "Life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear.” Your poems refuse the spectacle; they illuminate the man as man. Some of the most devastating moments in the book speak of intimacy and desire. The speaker yearns for “a blackness to kiss” or to “lick . . . ears against revenge.” The speaker wants “endless love” and reaches out to who and what cannot be held. Can you talk a little about the eros in this book?

FJ There is eros that is subordinate to psychology, and there is eros that is beyond the reach of psychology. I want to aim for the latter possibility. Mysticism sees human existence through the stages of love. All our failures, wickedness, desires, and liberations are stages of love. Eros is a marker of life, against alienation, against death as a tool that imposes subordination. I am a Palestinian man. An Arab man. A Muslim man. My desires are ordinary. My fragilities, too. In these poems of longing, I reclaim my body from the culture that wants to hear and read me only as a voice in the aftermath of disaster and as a wound at that, not much more.

Sometimes what we call poetry of witness, which is different from the witness of poetry, binds the poet to stereotype. And the market nurtures a stereotype, nurtures pity more than active empathy, until, of course, active empathy proves profitable, and the right thing to do. The Palestinian tragedy is still in the math being calculated to finish it off, a math of a hundred years on. Eros triumphs over that math. It matters to me to imagine a time in which […] is experienced as a celebration of life, a triumph over history. This is not possible without the intimacy of longing, of a transient, sensual journey into the body and back. “Even cells / touch each other to say goodbye.”

Aria Aber was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Good Girl, and the poetry collection Hard Damage, which won a Whiting Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.
Originally published:
February 28, 2024


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