[...]: حوار مع فادي جودة
30 mars 2024

On March 1, Students for Justice in Palestine groups in Houston hosted a book launch event of renowned Palestinian poet Fady Joudah’s latest collection, titled, [...]. The book’s official launch followed on March 5. 

The event was sponsored by Rice University Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Houston, and Rice RADAAR (an Asian, diasporic academic collective). 

Joudah read from his book — “an urgent and essential collection of poems illuminating the visionary presence of Palestinians” — to an audience of hundreds in a packed auditorium at Rice University. 

Abed Takriti, a founding member of Scholars Against the War on Palestine and the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair in Arab Studies at Rice University, introduced Joudah at the event. He spoke on Joudah’s crucial role as a poet and mentor to young Palestinian poets and poets of transnational identities. 

Dozens of undergraduate students, Houston community members, and academics lined up for the opportunity to have their copies signed by Joudah. The books sold out before the end of the launch event. 

Cole Holladay, a junior at Rice University, was one of the attendees who got their book signed. 

“I really appreciated how [Fady Joudah] rejects iconization and prioritizes being seen as a person who is hurting,” Holladay said. “He was simply very candid, and I think it made it much easier to empathize with him and truly understand the gravity of his emotions and poetry.” 

Palestine Square sat down with Fady Joudah to discuss his latest book, a poet’s role during a genocide, and the question of Palestinian authenticity.

Sarah Aziza recently wrote a piece in Jewish Currents titled “The Work of the Witness” in which she says, “three months into a livestreamed genocide, we must ask—what does all this looking do?” You’ve been explicit that this work, though published in the wake of the ongoing genocide, is not the work of witnessing. Can you speak about that? Why isn’t this piece taking on the role of witness, and what is the role of this book, if not to witness?

When I say it is not the work of witness[ing], I am trying to say that Palestinian endurance has to remain separate from those who witness the horrors visited on the Palestinians. This separateness, this buffer zone, if you will, between the Palestinians and those who witness the Palestinian tragedy unfold, also—at least in my hopeful estimation—allows for the Palestinians to speak, and [allows] for those who witness to listen to what Palestinians have to say. Because, on the whole, Palestinians have not been listened to, especially in the West, and there is a risk in conflating what Palestinians endure with what others witness of what Palestinians endure, and this may lead to others speaking of and for Palestinians without awareness of the slippery slope that leads us back to the same place — which is that Palestinians are really not permitted to narrate their own Summud — survivance, endurance, resistance

So, for me, my witness of the Palestinian tragedy as a whole in Gaza and the Gaza genocide in particular is a process that I have been living with all my life — through my parents, and grandparents, through my friends, my own childhood… And it’s not the same as witnessing, in the sense of the humanitarian witnessing that is a Western concept born out of, for example, the NGO world. 

I am also trying to say that there is a problem with gauging the authenticity of the Palestinian in the West through this expression of witness. Which is to say, suddenly, Palestinians enter a classification system of who is more of a Palestinian witness than the other, which is yet another form of censoring Palestinian identity in continuity with itself.

Who is the audience you’d want [...]to reach, and what should they take from the collection?

When you ask me, as a Palestinian, about the audience, I have to consider many things, starting with the simple point that this is a book written in imperial English, and the audience of imperial English is the imperial world and its citizenry, including the disenfranchised among them.

I have written before about the differences between Palestine in Arabic and Palestine in English. I am certain that if I were writing this book in Arabic, it would take on different aesthetic trajectories, and different forms of address. There will be no doubt, some overlap between the two. But ultimately, I am excited to think that I am speaking with a generation that will grow up with the question of Palestine in America and engage the language I have created in this book, now and in the future.

I think that I explain who I wrote this book for very clearly in the opening poem of the book. It is for my children, and it is for the future, because the Palestinian present is not only persistently demolished, but [it] is a simple clarity that, at large, in Western civilization, we refuse to see — [it is] a truth we deny. 

In this sense, it’s like James Baldwin, really. James Baldwin [having written] so clearly about being Black in America and about American blindness and deafness to its racism. He was ahead of his time, but not because he could see what others could not, it was because he could see what others were intent on refusing to see.

 Many poems in this collection do the work of familial intimacy on the backdrop of Israel’s intentional breaking up of the Palestinian family — can you tell us about the role of familial relationships in this book, and how your family felt about the piece? 

They received it well, proudly, excitedly, and no there isn’t much difficulty in sharing some things because I’ve been doing it since the first book, the Earth and the Attic. It’s ironic for a Palestinian in English that the familial is political, but for so many others, it is an interiority.

You talked about the role of order at the book launch when you were deciding which poems to read next. Can you talk to us about the order of poems in this book, and how you decided, especially so expeditiously, how to frame the collection in terms of order? 

Multiple factors determine the sequencing of the book of poems; the way one might think of composing a piece of music is determined by the flow of emotions, or feelings, through the poems, which are further determined by the threads that the poems feed into each other. Sometimes these threads are through keywords or concepts that move or change between pieces, and other times it is about more abrupt departures and arrivals to other feeling states, when the crescendo or decrescendo in the sequence seems apt

I have to read it out to myself in the sequence, and I also have to concede that there is a moment of arbitrariness that one reaches in the sequence after one just lets go. 

I also think, for example, that the second section is more philosophical and so I imagine a contract with the reader that would allow them to engage those poems on their own terms after a lengthy prelude, so to speak. 

And the third section, and my hope for the third section, which is more intimate and leans on desire, love, and death, may ground the reader further toward the humanity of the speaker, the ordinariness of the speaker. Even in a time of genocide. 

But I do think the fourth section is the boldest. If only, of course, because of the long poem “Dedication,” because I wanted by the end of the book to leave no room for conflating my Palestinian authenticity with questions of proximity, distance, witnessing, etc.

Who are some of the poets you routinely come back to when you write, or during a time such as this? 

These days, I find myself — and for quite some time — returning to ancient Arabic poems because I love the freedom that conversation creates in my mind... Freedom in relation to time, space, or place. I am liberated from the present in ways that do not erase the present. 

This is evident in… my use of certain concepts like Kufic, [in the poem] “Barzakh”— even “Eid Mubarak” — to engage an ancient epistemology always in evolution in Arabic, but is and remains, foreign to English. 

And it is my prerogative to develop them as works of art, of creative imagination, and not as tools for culture edification.

What would your advice be to young poets, especially Palestinian poets, who are struggling to write in the midst of such horror?

There is no need for frustration. Being a writer has to always keep sight of being in love with writing. So, yes, love is hard work, but there is no need for frustration, just patience, integrity, and trust in time.  

Fady Joudah’s collection also virtually launched on March 6 in an event hosted by the Arab American National Museum, the Radius of Arab American Writers, and the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, featuring Palestinian poet George Abraham as the moderator. 

Joudah’s book has been the subject of podcasts, reviews, interviews and book lists. [...] is available for order in the U.S. from Milkweed Editions, and in the U.K. and Europe from Amazon.