Home > Reviews > Removing the Me from the We of Them: A Letter to Fady Joudah
Published: Mon Mar 18 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Accidente por Perros Curiosos / Accident Caused by Curious Dogs (detail), 2010–11, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2024 On Poetry Reading War
Removing the Me from the We of Them: A Letter to Fady Joudah

[…] by Fady Joudah. 100 pages. Milkweed Editions, 2024. $16.00.

Dear Fady,

[…] haunts me. It has haunted me since I first read it, bending over my desk near midnight, bathed in the amber glow of my lamp, and beside me, a cold, forgotten cup of cinnamon tea.

The collection’s title, […], sets the tone: this is a text designed to disarm and unsettle. To embody the erased, the unsayable. The reader is here to do the labor of listening: Listen to the Palestinian speak. Equally, listen to their silence. Listen when you understand; when you don’t—listen.

I enter your plethora of […] poems, and marvel at how you insist against comfort. The text moves like the dance of a boxer: dodges, feints, then lands square on the chin. You lure your reader, then implicate the self-proclaimed allies, those who showcase their illiteracy-paraded-as-nuance on our screens every day, stripping them down to their barest biases. The war you’re thinking of, I made / you think of, is a red herring. You dismantle the inclination to center this specific instance of a longstanding genocide, an instance that renders Palestinians more identifiable to their and our executioners. Executioners who, as you explain in one of your poems, love you more when you’re dead. And no, you don’t mean only the hands that launch the missiles and rubble the homes. I have watched vultures before, you note, Their committees on carcasses they did not kill.

Then, you strike: I am removing myself from the we of you.

I read the line, and it transforms into the prism through which I receive your words. How is each poem an act of extraction, a dislodging of the self from a collective spectacle, an expected We that thrives in the voyeuristic imagination of Them, the vultures?

Your penultimate poem, “Dedication,” slams like a train crash. What of the martyrs who did not speak English? The relatable and unrelatable, translatable and untranslatable Palestinian flesh?

As you said at your book launch, English does not yet know how to receive a Palestinian. Your words plunge me into the tension that has gripped my tongue and pen as an exophonic Arab writer since the occupation began its genocidal campaign against Palestinian kin in Gaza.

This empire, I tell myself, is a material, violent status quo. To organize within the status quo, even to disrupt it—especially to disrupt it—one must venture outside an echo chamber. To dismantle it, we must work collectively. To work collectively, we must communicate collectively, as in: the only path to exit the echo chamber becomes, paradoxically, the empire’s own language. The empire ensures that even if it cannot eradicate our efforts to connect across its borders, it at least keeps us decipherable to its ears.

Are we incapable of escaping the matrix of institutionalized linguistic systems the empire has fashioned to entrap our bodies and tongues, Fady?

Since October, I’ve found myself endlessly contemplating language. The language the world at large, and specifically the literary space in the United States and the West, employs to describe me; the language I reach for to describe it back; and the language I adopt about myself while situated within its imperial heart.

You say, Daily, my English is less identifiable to you, and I recall observing the shift in the way I articulate our Arab culture in English to American ears since I’ve arrived in this country. How I speak of things like Jinn or h’asad, and catch myself using air quotes or shrugging, as if to distance myself from these concepts. Yet this is not how I behave within Arabic. Despite the countless times I’ve rolled my eyes whenever Mama warned me since childhood not to pour hot water down the toilet—fearing a scorched Jinn might possess me—I still refrain from doing it, you know, just in case. I whisper Masha’Allah countless times when I praise a friend or seek to protect a baby from h’asad.

Tell me, Fady: when the surreality of one language is the reality of your own, how do you articulate your existence within the former?

Lately, when I ache to grieve, I rush to Arabic. I notice how my language follows the same arc you paint: slanting into Arabic, eschewing the footnotes, relishing the unidentifiability. I’ve recently written how in Arabic “we don’t need to articulate grief because the language itself, in all its dialects, grieves. Like an ill-sutured wound, it bursts open at the slightest tug, and the letters bleed tales, ballads, poems, hums, and defeats with every sabah el-kheir or keyfak?”

As I enter your poem “Barzakh,” I am reminded of Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, especially his concept of opacity. In Poetics of Relation, Glissant argues for this inherent right of individuals and cultures to resist full comprehension by others, to remain unknowable. He challenges the traditional Western insistence on transparency, which often demands conformity to its own modes of knowing, reducing nuance into easily digestible narratives. Celia Britton describes opacity as a “militant position,” a defense against the coercive imposition of understanding.

What fascinates me most about Glissant’s theory is his perception of opacity not as an obstacle to understanding, but rather as an essential element of it. He proposes that acknowledging our own opacity and respecting others’ right to opacity lays the groundwork for a world characterized by multiplicity rather than domination and subjugation. Engagement occurs on equal footing; all parties exert the necessary effort that the other’s opacity demands, recognizing that, at times, a word, an object, or a mode of being may simply not be intended for their eyes or ears.

Inside the barzakh you’ve constructed, the collection becomes a threshold—between the utterable and unutterable, the legible and illegible, between the predators who drain life and the vultures who sink their teeth into what remains. An in-betweenness our people simultaneously contain and inhabit. I find solace in witnessing how you manipulate the language of the empire to resonate at a frequency legible only to its intended audience, or to those willing to undertake the labor of discomfort to taste. To catch a glimpse beyond the wall, one must stretch. Only then, standing on tiptoe, might one see.

Then, your “Ten Maqams” halt me in my tracks. Nestled in the heart of the collection, they, like their namesake, hum like the strums of an oud, the caress of a nay, the melodies of a qanun, and the nasal lullaby of a rababa. As I read, I cannot help but think of the old Arabic literary genre, the maqamat, whose name shares the same root with maqam. The parallels whisk me back to my high school Arabic Literature class in Cairo, which first introduced me to the maqamat world where anecdotes weave prose and poetry, steeped in existential and ethical rumination. Like the maqamat of al-Hariri and Badi’ az-Zaman al-Hamadhani, your words transport me from Al-Buhturi, who grilled, devoured, and dispensed with the wolf that was and the one that wasn’t; to Al-Farazdaq, who out of kindness or fear broke bread with his wolf: a bite each; to the 93-year-old Rumi scholar in your hospital room, the meaning of silence, and the woman destined to outlive another by an exhalation; to Moses and Al-Khidr and how more knowledge can be less. I remember how the most striking feature of maqamat was their focus on trickster protagonists: a virtuoso poet navigating the echelons of the rich and the powerful, mesmerizing the audience with his rhetorical brilliance, often beguiling a member of this high society out of money by the tale’s end. Yet, despite being duped, the character remains enthralled by the protagonist, spellbound by their eloquence and verbal finesse.

I can’t help but marvel at how you’ve sculpted your collection, Fady—the meta-maqam you’ve created, if I may—enticing the fetishizing Western reader: the vulture circling our flesh. You crafted your text so that only your comrades and accomplices read alongside you, savoring, smirking at Them as they attempt to unearth the hidden wisdoms beneath the surface, because everything hangs in plain sight—for those with the eyes to see. The text exudes an elegance that makes Them rush to pick it up, laud it in a bid to perform allyship, oblivious to the dark humor concealed only from Them: those it pointedly ridicules—a most exquisite, well-deserved maqama swindle.

Fady, you teach us: “There is a solidarity whose horizon is assimilation, and there is a solidarity whose horizon is liberation. The former is hierarchical to those it is in solidarity with. The latter is in community with them. The former treats them as abstraction. The latter is citational. It names those it loves.”

I hunker down by your words, to study both the jaw-shattering jabs and the subtle sleights of hand, learning how to be as I navigate this world that was not built to receive us. To remove myself, too, from the we of Them. To unwrite and rewrite my way into the we of us, the we for us. The we that—as you impart in your collection, Fady—is not afraid of love from the river to the sea.

Abdelrahman ElGendy is an Egyptian writer and journalist. For six years—between 2013 and 2020—he was a political prisoner in Egypt. ElGendy’s writing engages with creative counter-narratives of history as a form of resistance to erasure and cultural genocide. His work appears in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, AGNI, TruthoutNew Lines Magazine, Mada Masr, and elsewhere. ElGendy is a Dietrich fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Nonfiction Writing MFA, a 2021 Logan Nonfiction fellow, a 2023 Tin House scholar, an awardee of the 2023 Katharine Bakeless Nason Award in Nonfiction by Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a finalist for the 2021 and 2023 Margolis Award for Social Justice Journalism. (updated 01/2024)

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