Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1382, (22 - 28 February 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1382, (22 - 28 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A man for all seasons

Ferial Ghazoul explores a remarkable English-speaking Arab voice

I sing, in a tongue not my own.

Fady Joudah


Fady Joudah, an uprooted Palestinian, turned his diasporic identity into world citizenship, and found redemption in universalizing suffering. A medical doctor who traveled to Africa to provide medical aid to refugees, an Award winning translator and poet, he seems to feel at home in both science and literature. Born in Austin, Texas where his father—a Palestinian who became a refugee during the Nakba—taught at the University of Texas. He grew up there until his parents moved to Libya then to Saudi Arabia. As a teenager he went to middle school and high school in the Arab world and spent summers in the US. He became perfectly bilingual and we can glimpse his code switching between the two languages even in his own poetry where Arabic words appear in English-language poems and where citations by classical and modern Arab poets are interwoven in his poetry.

Joudah studied medicine in Georgia Medical College and did internship and residency in the University of Texas at Houston. He joined Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)—a nonprofit, French association that won the Nobel Prize for its humanitarian work—in the early 2000 where he cared for patients in the field in Meheba refugee settlement (Zambia) and in Darfur (Sudan). He presently works as a physician specialized in internal medicine in St. Lukes Hospital in Houston Texas, while continuing to write poetry of his own as well as translate contemporary Arab poets. He has five published volumes of translations of contemporary Arabic poetry that includes Mahmoud Darwish, Amjad Nasser, and Ghassan Zaqtan. His translation of Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden (2007), received Banipal translation prize and was a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. For his own poetry he won the Yale Series for Young Poets, Griffin International Prize, Pushcart Prize, Guggenheim Poetry Fellowship, Lannan Residency Fellowship, among other awards and recognitions.

As a poet, Joudah’s first collection, The Earth in the Attic (Yale University Press, 2007), was published in the Yale Series for Younger Poets. This is a prestigious annual and competitive award given for the best poetic collection by a poet under forty for his/her first published book; it is a century-old competition and the oldest annual literary award in the US. Among its awardees are such iconic figures as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, John Hollander and W.S. Merwin. Joudah went on to publish three more collections, Alight (2013) and Textu (2014). His most recent collection is entitled Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (2018).

The poetry of Joudah is marked by the deliberate tension and surprising juxtapositions of the classical, mythical, and sacred on one hand and on the other, with the quotidian, the familiar, and even the mundane. His allusions and subtexts have to be grasped before one can fully appreciate how he interweaves the high tradition into everyday language. Like W.B. Yeats, he brings the sacred down to earth.  In “The Mother of God” by Yeats where the annunciation takes place, we do not find virgin Mary exalted but worried, even wishing to be an ordinary woman doing house work rather than being entrusted with such an elevated responsibility--the mother of the Son of God. Likewise, Joudah in his poem, “Along Came a Spider,” from his first collection, we are poetically introduced to an episode from the sira, biography, of the Prophet. Muhammad with Abu Bakr were running away from the scheming tribe of Quraysh in Mecca who were hunting down the Prophet. They left for Medinah incognito and hid in a cave. A spider spun a web on the opening of the cave so when the persecutors came to the cave they did not think the Prophet and his Companion could be there since the elaborate spider web covering the entrance of the cave would have been smashed if they entered into the cave. Thus the Prophet was saved from his enemies. Joudah links poetically the hijra, migration, of the Prophet from Mecca seeking Medinah, to that of the Palestinian exodus and refuge:


On mornings of this refugee settlement,

 After the rain falls in stalks,

Of mushroom clouds,

The spiders bloom anywhere there’s a web-hold

And the Earth is like an attic.


Spiders spinning their webs in the refugee camps recall first attics and unused rooms where spiders construct their webs. The earth becomes a sort of attic by similarity and substitution. The very title of this collection picks up this last verse, and drops the simile becoming The Earth in the Attic. The very thought of spiders and attics moves the poem into the second stanza and the Islamic tradition:


And I wonder, how did it really end

Between the prophet

And the holy spider,

The one who had webbed

The cave-mouth shut, quick-

Silver to hide him inside? I wonder


The wondering of the poetic persona goes on while unfolding the story of the men who were after the Prophet but did not suspect him of hiding in the cave given the massive spider web that takes months to be constituted. The poet wonders in a more realistic way on the finale:


How did the prophet walk out of that cave?


I want to think he negotiated

With the spider first,

Before tearing its home with his camel-stick—

Or did he sit and wait

And watch the spider

Spool its web back inside its belly,

Then ride on camelback

A refugee to Medinah?


The poem shifts again from the legacy of the prophet to the actual spider’s conduct, reeling back the threads of the web into its guts. The scientific observation of the spider’s action is associated with the miraculous event commonly known in the life narrative of of the Prophet.

As a practicing physician, Joudah’s profession informs his poetry. His poetic diction is replete with medical terminology, “ulcerated skin,” “anesthetic,” “anemic,” “arthritis,” “iron pills,” “post-traumatic stress disorder,” “lip sores,” “pulse,” “Aspirin,” Benadryl,” etc. His similes also come from the operating room: “The view is angular like a fracture,” and “A sparkling trail like a cauterized incision.” In some poems, he narrates medical episodes:


Halimah’s mother did not seem aware Halimah was dying.


You should have seen Halimah fight her airlessness

Twisting around for a comfortable spot in the world.


She would gather all the air she could

In an Olympic snatch and curl

Then turn toward her mother’s breast to suckle,

But nothing changed,


Neither smell nor taste

Of mother’s milk was proof of life. Halimah

Died of a failing heart

Early this dawn, her mother, with tears now,


Was on the road, twenty steps past me

Before I turned and found her waiting.


We walked back toward each other, we met, we

Read verses from the Quran,

Our palms open,

Elbows upright like surgeons


Ready to gown up after scrubbing, the slap

Of rubber gloves before we went our separate ways


In this moving poem, the grief is not articulated. But the silence of the poem shows no lack of emotion; instead it holds back the pain. Doctors with or without borders have to grin and bear it, then move to the next patient.

 In Joudah’s collection, Alight, the poet comes back to the spider but with a different perspective. In his poem “Mimesis,” the very idea of home and homelessness is enunciated from the viewpoint of a child:


My daughter

                         Wouldn’t hurt a spider

That had nested

Between her bicycle handles

For two weeks

She waited

Until it left of its own accord


If you tear down the web I said

It will simply know

This isn’t a place to call home

And you’d get to go biking


She said that’s how others

Become refugees isn’t it?


In Joudah’s small, pocket-size collection called Textu, his readers are informed from the outset that “all the poems are composed on a cellular phone’s text-message screen. The Textu poem has only one hard rule: that it be exactly 160 characters long, specific to text-message parameters.” This is a playful collection that one can read in a bus or in the metro. Humor and turbulence reign in this portable and light divan. Here are two of these short poems. The first interweaves Penelope with Scheherazade in the poem entitled “A Thousand and One Nights”:


Surely Penelope had sex

In her husband’s absence


With slave men & women

the undocumented


Folks in other words

the blind could not see


The second pits the Persians against the Arabs in a poem entitled “Rubaiyat FitzGerland”:


Do you know why I like Persians?

an older veteran I was caring for


in the emergency room asked me

Why? I asked


Because the are not



In Joudah’s more recent collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearances, the title gives away the content—the poems are comments, footnotes to something else. This does not belittle the footnotes. After all, we are reminded of Whitehead saying that European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, without denigrating the long history of western philosophy. In Joudah’s collection, footnotes are the footprints of the lived experience--whether viewing a painting or listening to a song or encountering a friend—that have left their impact on the poet and produced a verbalized memory before the disappearance of the acts themselves.

If medicine informs the poetry of Joudah as he admits, how does his poetry informs not so much his own medical practice of restoring health, but our own health as we read him? In other words, what is the value of poetry in our life? Could Joudah be engaged also in therapy when writing poetry as he does in his role as a hospitalist? How does poetry help heal the rifts within and without? How does poetry bring us back what we have lost and what has disappeared? In a recent interview, Joudah defines medicine as an “eternal dance with mortality.” Poetry captures this eternal dance in words—words without borders.

Fady Joudah is visiting Cairo for a week. He is giving three talks: one related to literary translation, “Psychology of Fragments: Translating Mahmoud Darwish”; another on his own poetry and poetics, “Science and Desire”; and the keynote address, “Revolution ‘til Triumph” in an all-day Conference dedicated to the memory of Barbara Harlow--a renowned academic and activist (AUC Tahrir Campus, Feb. 24, 2018).

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