Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
“Beyond the Capacity of English to See”
0:00 / 27:50
June 20, 2024

In May 2021, Palestinian American poet, physician, translator, and essayist Fady Joudah wrote two poems engaged with the violence of Israeli apartheid. Reflecting on the conundrum of where and how to publish them, he explained: “I’ve long been aware of the crushing weight that reduces Palestine in English to a product with limited features . . . This sickening delimitation mimics physical entrapment. The silken compassion toward Palestinians in mainstream English thinks the language of the oppressed is brilliant mostly when it teaches us about surviving massacres and enduring the degradation of checkpoints.” His sixth collection of poetry, [...]written in the first three months of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and published in March—indicts precisely such forms of entrapment. In these lucid yet idiosyncratic poems, Joudah turns his attention to that which exceeds the narrow place of the Western gaze, spurning the market forces that reward the performance of perpetual Palestinian victimhood.

On this episode of On the Nose, culture editor Claire Schwartz speaks with Joudah about publishing [...] in this long moment of anti-Palestinian racism, the dangerous desires of denying our own not-knowing, and the generative capacities of silence.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Texts Mentioned, and Further Reading and Listening:

My Palestinian Poem that ‘The New Yorker’ Wouldn’t Publish,” Fady Joudah, Los Angeles Review of Books

A Palestinian Meditation in a Time of Annihilation,” Fady Joudah, Lit Hub

Fady Joudah: The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work,” Aria Aber, The Yale Review

‘Unspeakable’: Dr. Fady Joudah Grieves 50+ Family Members Killed in Gaza & Slams U.S. Media Coverage,” Democracy Now!

Aesthetics of Return: Palestinian Poetry with Fady Joudah,” Jadaliyya

Habibi Yamma,” Fady Joudah, Protean

Dear [...],” Fady Joudah, Prairie Schooner

[...],” Fady Joudah, Lit Hub

[...],” Fady Joudah, Jewish Currents

Maqam for a Green Silence,” Fady Joudah, Jewish Currents


Claire Schwartz: Welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. My name is Claire Schwartz, I’m the culture editor at Jewish Currents. I’m here today to talk with Palestinian American poet, essayist, translator, and physician Fady Joudah. His new collection of poems, [...], whose title is rendered as an ellipsis and brackets, was written between October and December of 2023. In a conversation with Aria Aber, published in the Yale Review, Fady says of the collection: “It kept me somewhat sane, hopeful to dive into a future where the words I would write would outlive the powers that wanted them dead. […] But it is worth remembering that Palestinians have been living for so long with a simple clarity in a self-blinding world.” In his new book, Fady at once speaks with that long-held forthright clarity and indicts the terms on which Palestinians become legible to audiences in English, who too often leverage our readings as enclosures, insisting Palestinians perform the role of perpetual victim in order to earn something like recognition or sympathy. A writer whose forthrightness cuts through the obfuscation of imperial configurations and whose idiosyncrasies refuse to see the vast terrain of the unknowable, Fady convenes a wide conversation, attentive to classical Arabic literature, the coercions of speech, the generative capacities of silence, and the wisdom of the nonhuman animal. In the wake of the book’s publication--that is also the ninth month of Israel’s genocide in Gaza--I am honored to be speaking today with Fady Joudah.

CS: I was wondering if we could start with a poem, thinking of the poem that begins “the fireflies you kept in a jar as a child,”

Fady Joudah: The fireflies you kept in a jar as a child / until their light went out. / It was only that one time. / Your light is not for jarring. / Your light is now for jarring. / Your captors translate / your anguish into a return / on investment. To be / good again. For all to see. / They house your voice in glass.

CS: When I read this poem, I thought of your essay, “A Palestinian Meditation in a Time of Annihilation,” and I was thinking, in particular, where you wrote: “I was already aware of the price of the ticket for anyone who auditions for the cast of the longest running play in our times, the American dream. Even suffering in empire is a capitalist translation.” And I just wanted to start by talking about what it means for us to be here, in this conversation, at this juncture. In your writing, you often insist that we consider the terms of encounter, and thinking in particular about the terms on which Palestinians are encountered in English in the West. And so I was just wondering if you could speak to what it feels like to be here right now.

FJ: I don’t know, if we had this meeting few months ago, that I would begin by saying the same things I’m about to say now. But now, in the ninth month of genocide, I feel a beginning toward a healthy withdrawal, a retreat of sorts. I don’t think that in English, in the Western world, we really have any reasonable sense or understanding of the moment we’re living, of our engagement in genocide, of our abetting and aiding of it. And I think so much of our cultural self-mythos can’t accept that we ever don’t know. And, of course, some of that is just human nature, because when you don’t know, you hope and you try, or you dominate and erase. But I don’t think that America is close. I think it may be decades from understanding its relationship to the ongoing genocide. And so, what you asked me is also something I addressed in the opening poem of the book, about writing to the future. Or, as my dear friend Golan Haji said to me: Sometimes we end up writing to our dead selves. And without abandoning any form of resistance, some of my writing is my conversation with my future dead self. Because I think that what we do is necessary; what we do in form of intellectual, moral, aesthetic, political resistance is paramount. But at the same time, the artist in me always wants to have an eye on the future. Because I think I accept that as a Palestinian, I live in a moment where the blindness in English towards the Palestinian question is beyond the capacity of English to see. And that offends people, I think, more than they’re willing to admit. But I don’t think it’s intended to offend, and I don’t think it’s a visionary statement. I think it’s a very simple and common observation throughout human history about various scenarios.

CS: What you’re saying about English’s incapacity (or unwillingness,) to sit with its own not knowing brings me, also, just the title of the book, [...]. And I wonder, for readers who haven’t encountered it yet, if we could talk a little bit about it. I’ve heard that you’ve said you won’t pronounce it in public. It’s, I think, been rendered as bracketed ellipses, as a pictogram, as three dots in brackets. There’s an unease around the languages converging in relation to the title. And I’m wondering if you can talk about the encounter that you were trying to stage between the reader and the book before they even enter the poems.

FJ: I have to say, I really didn’t think that there would be this persistent conversation about the title of the book. And to me that became clarifying; that this is how stuck we are on naming. In poetry in particular, the idea of titles and a thematic progression in a book, to my mind, has become a problem of the art form itself and limits it. And I’ve been thinking about this notion of what it means to sit down to write a book of poems, always governed by the idea of titles--which is to say, an idea of progressive thematic reason.

FJ: And then the genocide began. And it became very clear to me that I was suddenly free of titles. The other way I can say this is that I’ve been thinking about, you know, the famous Shakespearean Hamlet line “to be or not to be.” And I’ve been thinking that we actually have always lived as linguistic animals with the question: “to name or not to name”--it is really not “to be or not to be.” And that monologue, that Shakespearean monologue, ends with “to lose the name of action.” And I think naming is about action, to the point that in a time of genocide, committed by the hegemonic language, it turns all naming and all action into inaction (or at least risks that kind of annihilation).

CS: I’m wondering if you could say a little more about that. There’s this refusal to name a genocide as a genocide. And then there’s this preoccupation with, I don’t know, finding the name of the book, or if there are certain ways where it feels like clarity is obscuring, and certain ways where it feels like clarity is revealing.

FJ: Yeah. In 2005, I was in Darfur with Doctors Without Borders. And I learned a lot about how we construct the catastrophes of other people here in the US. The question of genocide and Darfur was a question that was opened and closed shut. But I realized that even the claim that we are interested in naming genocide for political purposes of intervention is not only defunct, in a way (because we don’t intervene), but also false in the sense that it categorizes the unspeakable crimes against humanity, where the threshold has already been surpassed--the threshold for extreme suffering, for unspeakable suffering, has already been surpassed. And so the irrelevance of that I witnessed in Darfur, Sudan. When George W. Bush won the re-election in 2004, there were certain towns in Darfur that celebrated in the streets because they actually thought that there would be an intervention. When, of course, in America, the whole question about a catastrophe in Darfur had little to do with anything.

FJ: So those experiences, when seen by my particular Palestinianism, so to speak, made me understand that the grounds--the major shift in the Palestinian question in the West would have to be accompanied with an unspeakable disaster. And it was quite clear to me that the Palestinian question would be heading to a genocide sooner or later. And I’m not sure, unfortunately, that this genocide, when it ends, that there will not be other ones in the near future. I do not think that the Western world has an understanding. And I think it pisses off the majority of people in the Western world, too, especially those who consider themselves to have great liberal or liberated minds, that they had not seen this coming because they had refused to see it coming. And I think the poems speak to that.

CS: Yeah, I’m thinking of what you’re talking about, in terms of genocide being, really, a label that suggests an intervention--that’s a false premise in the first place. And I’m thinking about how, throughout the book, you’re reaching for a kind of extralinguistic space of a different quality; a generative silence, maybe. And this is something we talked a little bit about in relation to the poem that we published in Jewish Currents. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to read that.

FJ: “Maqam for a Green Silence.”

FJ: A 93-year-old woman in the throes of her final yet protracted delirium in a hospital bed turned to me and said, “Come here, what are you afraid of?” She was a Rumi and Shakespeare scholar. I had been visiting her daily, one of her children constantly in the room. I didn’t know the answer. All this time I had been busy fearing and not seeing what it is I feared, since what we fear changes with time, even if all fear can be reduced to one thing, a thing yoked to life. Perhaps she thought I was one of her children and she was encouraging me to let her go, which, as a doctor, I was working on. What did Rumi or Shakespeare say to her that morning? Over the next few days, I asked my friends her question. Two mothers said that outliving their kids was their biggest fear. Their answer was immediate, as if the speed of the reply reflected the clarity of the heart. One of them said it first—a breath before the other. According to legend, she who spoke it first will outlive the other by at least one exhalation. A father, I felt shame that this reply was not instant to me, though I had tasted the shadow of this incomprehensible grief, which, if survived is never cured. The mother who will live longer turned to me and asked, “What about you, what’s your biggest fear?” I said that silence was. “What do you mean by silence?” I shrugged. Then I asked another father. “This is the mother of all questions,” he said.

FJ: I thought of Moses’ mother. Her heart. And of Moses when, on God’s command, he sought a saint who lives beyond time and place, whose name derives from the color green. God wanted Moses to experience other obstacles of faith. Al-Khidr’s only condition for the prophet to join him on his journey was Moses’ unconditional silence. Moses said he was up for it, and the saint said, “You won’t be able to bear it.” Incapable of green silence, Moses broke his promise three times—as the saint sank a ship and its crew, demolished a crumbling wall he could have restored for a beleaguered people, and then killed a child. Fed up with the prophet’s objections, the saint sent Moses away. That he who knows more than another will also know less.

CS: I’d love to hear a little bit about this green silence and where you locat it in the world or in the poem?

FJ: I mean, I suppose there is a reference in the color to al-Khidr, a mystic figure in Islam; but also, it’s green in the generative sense. I think one of the difficulties we all face as human beings, as individuals, is: When do we trust that a temporary, unconditional silence is a generative silence? When does one trust in the unseen and unknown, to let it be seen and known at a later time? And these are obstacles of faith, whether I’m relating to the monotheistic or polytheistic or what have you, or just the idea of faith as in the way the limitations of human consciousness negotiate reason and the imagination. And, you know--what we know, what we think we can or will know. And then, the open-endedness of the unknown beyond our capacities in the present. Justice, I think, freedom, are always subject to this kind of green silence.

FJ: But I also think that there is something in the piece for me that is about the crisis of antecedents and originality in Western culture, which has affected the way one may perceive our relationship to divinity as well. As if somehow even the idea of origin and originality reach into God, which is to say, reach into omniscience and omnipresence. And we pretend that these things do not affect the way we think of others. In this particular case of, say, Arabs or Muslims, I don’t think there’s an honest conversation in Western culture about its relationship to an adherence or hold over originality and antecedents, vis a vis Islam, which also allows almost, for some, the idea of erasure. Because, you want to erase the heretic; you permit the erasure of the heretic, whereas growing up in Islam, you understand that Islam does not claim itself as a thing that negates what came before it. So Islam negotiates the problematic of antecedents by going to a further origin point--which is the Abrahamic point--and say: There is a point that includes all of us. I think that even the question of Palestine is subjugated in the West in English, to this desire to dominate with the question of origin antecedents: Who’s the greatest victim, who’s the greatest morality, who’s the eternally exceptional, etc, etc.

FJ: And I sometimes feel that recent Western culture, especially since World War II and the realization or coming to terms with the Holocaust, has not really accepted (and I don’t think it will accept any time soon) that it has erroneously tied its own identity--tragically tied its own idea of self--to the question of Palestine (which is to say, the Jewish question). It’s as if the freedom and justice and liberation of Palestine and Palestinians means the dissolution of the Western self, which is completely a false construct. But the behavior about the Palestinian question surely affirms what I have put forth: That there is this kind of psychotic obsession with the generalized idea of the Western self vis a vis the Western Jewish question and is projected onto whether Palestine and Palestinians are free and equal or not. And there’s also a crisis of time in the West--the idea that we keep dilating our present into eternity so that the future is always present in the palm of our hand, and the past is always present also, in the palm of our hand. We just have to keep sort of like concentric circles, expand and expand, so that we claim we look to the future or we study the past, but in the end, everything is in the realm of this kind of present that refuses to be what it is: a passing fleeting thing.

CS: The question of time feels very present in the book. It seems also related to how you’re talking about origin, and the refusal of at least Western configurations of Christianity and Judaism to negotiate the question of origin in the way that Islam, as you’re figuring, it is. And it strikes me that one way in the book that this takes shape is through this practice of rereading and entering the archive. You, of course, have the epigraph. You also have the conversations with the Quran, you have questions about return and parenting, but also questions about non-human time.

FJ: I mean, I’d be pretentious to assume I know what non-human time is, but I know that at least I can believe in it. I can believe in its existence parallel to mine, and I think that the closest we get to understanding it is by imagining other organisms, living organisms, or animals. And of we perform a lot of projective anthropomorphism onto trees and wolves and whatnot. And again, I don’t think that much of what we talk about in 2024, in the concept of language, silence, and time, is something that our ancestors--that they understood it just as well, and we turn to them and converse with them still. I think that there is a refusal in the English world to accept an engagement with Islamic thought, aesthetically. So I get to reconverse with Islamic tradition or classical Arabic tradition. The whole idea is I want to write that this is how you converse with a culture that is not that separate from ours, the so-called Western construct of Judaism and Christianity; that there is an overlap zone, and that this is a history of 1500 years that has developed so much intellectual and aesthetic conversation with itself, and with all the cultures that it had come in contact with. And so for example, when in the book, I use the titles of, like, Maqam or Kufic or Barzakh, I am not doing what English is asking me to do--either to perform the mystic Muslim (because that puts me in some kind of safety zone for English), nor am I explaining these concepts through the text, but I am actually conversing with them in a developed stage, beyond having to explain to English what they are. It’s really fascinating to me to see how the culture industry sets certain people in the mode of the explainer; your role is to let us accept who you are, by you introducing the terms that define you on our terms of understanding. And I feel like it’s really not that difficult to go past that point. It just requires a little bit of willingness--a willingness that actually prevents genocide. If you actually see those you converse with as equal human beings, even if you don’t understand them, you back off from the moment of you annihilating them. More often than not, on a good day.

CS: I love the idea that conversation is something that’s happening at these different temporalities simultaneously. I mean, I’m still thinking of the idea of what you were saying about writing to your future afterlife.

FJ: I think that there is truth to--someone like Borges, for example, struggled with his fascination with the idea of the one book, and what constitutes that one book. And it is not one book, in particular; it’s not going to be the Bible, or the Torah, or the Quran, or a Buddhist or Hinduist book or mythology, but it is an idea of understanding that there is one book that is the human consciousness, in a way, and has written itself in multiple books and multiple alphabets. And then you get to reproduce that, that we are in a sense living in the great library of Babylon. Even in the Quran, for example, with the first verse of the Quran is: “Read!” and Muhammad responds to the archangel by saying, “But I am not a reader.” And he says, “Read in the name of God, who is the Creator.” And that, that mystic moment, is really not about who was literate and illiterate, who is of the chosen people (or not of the chosen people) to be a reader. But it is actually that beautiful poem that Rilke wrote called “Muhammad’s Summoning” where Rilke describes the moment of revelation arriving to Muhammad, this idea that the language of God is the one book, but it begins to proliferate and fragment in different human alphabets (and also fail). And so this is the lot of our human consciousness; that we will spend the rest of our existence trying to figure out the various books that we need to continue to write to constitute the one book, which is the language of God in us. And I know that some people will say, “Wait a minute, this is too religious a conversation,” but I’m not advocating for an institutional religion of any kind.

CS: I’m really moved by the idea of the fractured book and the way that attending to our own position among the fractures, or at least a kind of awareness of that, might keep us facing our own not knowing, or at least renew a commitment to keeping our own not knowing in the frame. It feels related, to me, to some of the ways that you’ve spoken about being a doctor and this enduring kinship in a pretty immediate and active sense with life and death. Also, some of the ways you’ve spoken about being a poet. I would love to hear you talk about what that feels like right now.

FJ: Having come off the hospital shift, I can tell you that I think sadly, sometimes, of how we live in a society where we cannot talk about coping with illness, or with pain, or also with accepting that one is more insignificant than they tend to think, than any of us tend to think of ourselves--because, of course, of our sweet desire to hold on to life. We live in a society that doesn’t teach us a kind acceptance of death, because, in a way, this civilization brutalizes so many of us on a daily basis, you already feel insignificant, and you already feel lonely. And you already feel a sense of insatiable hunger toward your lack of achievement, and you can’t find much satisfaction, or solace, in what you are, in who you are, and who you’ve been on Earth. For many of us, we hold on to our sense of trauma and our sense of grievance at the I, the level of the I. And so we don’t know how to die, and we don’t know how to live. And so it’s ironic that you fragment the idea of the self, the integrity of the self, into this illusion of sovereignty, so that the self is so bewildered that all it does is belong to a larger collective and becomes an ultra-nationalistic American self (for example)--and then pretend that this is not the case, this is only the problem of others. And so, I wonder about that kind of abstraction as a physician while walking the halls--as a poet as well--the hospital halls, and how is it that we can’t talk about dying or about extending care to others. I mean, I have a poem in the book, “Bonsai Weeping Willow,” about my dog having better access to diabetic care than some of the patients I try to take care of. Everybody wants to walk around saying that they are great, kind, human beings because they can be kind to their own dog, but they don’t know how to be kind to others who don’t have access to health care. I don’t think that it bestows on anyone any degree of great compassion that they are willing to spend thousands of dollars on their pet, not a penny of which they’re willing to extend to other people whose suffering they’re directly or indirectly engaged in.

CS: Thank you so much for joining me today, Fady, and thank you to our producer, Jesse Brenneman, and to our listeners. Please rate, review, and subscribe to On the Nose and to Jewish Currents and find us online at JewishCurrents.org. See you next time.

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