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The Palestinian Cassandra

An Interview with Fady Joudah

May 1, 2024

A conversation about [ . . . ], Fady Joudah’s sixth book of poetry.

Your new collection of poems opens with the line, “I am unfinished business.” How might that line assist us in reading through this collection? I am asking not for an “explanation” of these works—whatever that might mean—but rather about the sensibility with which you hope we might approach these poems?

Of the several possible answers I can offer, I will lean on what I term the Palestinian Cassandra. The Palestinian question in English is dominated by denial of believability. What the Palestinian sees as a simple truth in the present, English erases as a slur, a madness to cure, to institutionalize, and, if all else fails, eliminate. Thus, the Palestinian in English is visionary, not because they possess supernatural senses that allow them to see into the future, but simply because, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.

Living in the present becomes one mode of liberation for a Palestinian artist or intellectual. This way, ironically, a Palestinian is always ahead of their time and place. The clarity of being “unfinished business” is as ominous or tragic as it is revolutionary, resistant. It is ominous because of a scarcely believed catastrophic past that Palestinians have endured and are still enduring.

A past that persists as a present and is, consequently, easy to see as a future—deductively, algorithmically, spiritually. From ethnic cleansing as a lower-ranked officer in the army of erasure in 1948 to a fully decorated genocide in 2024. But I am not only the object of this unfinished business.

I am also the subject of it, the maker of its alternate possibilities. [ . . . ], which refuses to be named, insists on linking the politics of climate change to extinction of species, the brutalization of the planet to the brutalization of its inhabitants. [ . . . ] also insists on Eros. There is a whole section on bodily longing.

______________

Your poetry often seems intertwined with your practice as a medical doctor. The body, organs, skin, disease, mortality, the fragility of life—all of these seem inextricable to your poetic reflections on our world. At this moment of genocide in Palestine, thinking and feeling about our world through the body seems devastating. Perhaps, therefore, it is all the more necessary?

We cannot come into this world without a body, and out of the body we leave it. The body is inescapable. I am not sure whether the world body or the body politic are any more or less devastating than they used to be. Perhaps it is interesting how most of the poetry fragments that remain in our minds throughout the ages relate, in one way or another, to the one constant we all have: the human body and its myriad relations to other bodies.

Anywhere a Palestinian is, there is a Palestine in them. Anywhere Palestine is, a Palestinian resides.

But we know that modern civilization uses biopolitics to achieve necropolitics. Those on whom the state confers the rights to life come to believe what the state says about others it condemns to death or to a life swamped in dying. I choose Eros in [ . . . ] as a vehicle to celebrate life as expressed by my Palestinian sensibility. Anywhere a Palestinian is, there is a Palestine in them. Anywhere Palestine is, a Palestinian resides.

______________

In gifting Sue Ferguson and me with your volume of poems, Alight, you wrote an inscription drawing our attention to “Mimesis,” which we reproduce below. Could you say a few words about that poem in relation to this moment of brutality and horror.

 

Mimesis

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?

“Mimesis,” from the collection, Alight
(Copper Canyon Press, 2013), reproduced
here by permission of the author.

When does empathy masquerade as pity so that its profit in the market is greater? How much of empathy has become politically neutralized, no different than philanthropy, as it were, which is a “humane” byproduct of rampant capital? What has become of mimesis in our age of the mirror neuron?

Empathy is no longer a revolutionary way of being. Consciously or otherwise, we assign Palestinian presence to victimhood status, as if it has nothing else to teach us beyond sighing. Moreover, few people who read the above “Mimesis” are aware that it celebrates a well known story at the beginning of the Islamic tradition, a story that involves the Prophet’s escape from Mecca at the beginning of his Message.

And so, I return this great, active compassion to a source of my choosing. In the new book, I wrote another “Mimesis.” A similar short poem that addresses the violence we commit against other creatures in the world, but this one features my son instead of my daughter, a baby frog in lieu of a spider, and our living room TV in place of a bicycle. It is still a tender poem.

I do not want to be misunderstood as standing against kindness in its softest forms. But this new “Mimesis” is asking the same question differently, because it names extermination and “human animals.” The new “Mimesis” is in conversation with the old one, the way Cassandra’s mundane, but clear visions are in conversation with her life. Who can remain in solidarity with Palestinians as Palestinians insist on their right to name their oppressor? ×

 

Mimesis

This morning, I don’t know how,
an inch-long baby frog

entered my house
during the extermination

of human animals live on TV.
I recognized the baby’s dread.

It leapt into shadows,
under the couch, into my shoe.

My son was watching.
Gently, patiently
I followed it
on my knees

with shattered heart
and plastic bag.

Coaxed it, caught it,
released it
into the yard,
and started to cry.

 


 

Fady Joudah has received a PEN award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is also a translator of several collections of poetry from Arabic, including The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish. His new collection, [ . . . ], can be ordered from Milkweed.  

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