A Poet Without Borders

Houston's Fady Joudah makes his mark.


You can track Fady Joudah’s biographical trajectory along one of two appealing threads. The humanitarian strand goes like this: He’s a doctor who works in the ER of Houston’s Veterans Administration hospital, doing his best to heal patients who often have no place else to turn.

He’s also done two stints with Doctors Without Borders, one in Zambia and one in Sudan.

Then there’s the aesthetic strand. Joudah is a 37-year-old Palestinian-American poet whose first volume, The Earth in the Attic, won the 2007 Yale Younger Poet Prize, the most coveted first-book poetry prize in the country, leading to the book’s publication earlier this year. That fact, impressive as it is, doesn’t convey the full impression Joudah has made on the world of poetry. Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Glück chose him for the award and calls him, in her forward to his debut, “a deeply political artist” and a “luminous aesthete who thinks in nuance, in refinements.”

Marilyn Hacker, whose volume Presentation Piece won the National Book Award in 1975, is another of Joudah’s champions. In an e-mail she writes, “Fady Joudah is one of the most accomplished and interesting poets to appear in the United States for a long time.”

He’s also just been announced as the winner of the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for his translation, from the Arabic, of Mahmoud Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden.

There’s also Joudah’s personal life. To his delight, he has a recently born boy (he already has a 10-year-old stepdaughter), and he’s basking in the happy exhaustions of early parenthood.

Joudah’s accomplishments and recognition haven’t put him on easy street, not emotionally, anyway. “I’m not touring the country,” he says. “I’m still an anxious guy.”

Perhaps it’s that anxiety on display when he shows up for an interview at a Turkish restaurant in Houston’s Rice Village, a few minutes late because he’s accompanied his wife (also a doctor) on a postnatal care visit. He makes no time for small talk and launches into an impassioned discussion about the plight of the world’s dispossessed, and how he doesn’t really deserve a halo for his Doctors Without Borders work, because compared with the refugees, he had it easy in Sudan.

A few nights before, when I’d seen Joudah read at the Menil Collection, he had seemed relaxed and funny. This afternoon the facts of life in the human anthill seem to gnaw at him.

One of his main points is that truth is easily mocked, chiefly by what he sees as humanity’s obsession with “the classification of suffering.” The tragedy of Sudan is branded as genocide, and thus draws at least fitful notice. “But the conditions in the Congo might even be worse,” he says. “But no one notices at all because it’s not labeled ‘genocide.’

“But how can you choose between the suffering of mothers?” he asks. He appears almost to shrug, but his body language isn’t easily translated. “How can you say the mother’s suffering in the Sudan is worse because it’s ‘genocide?'”

No, the slight roll of his shoulders is not a shrug. Joudah is emphatically not beaten down by man-made horrors. His gesture, and the briefly faraway look in his eye, instead seem to indicate that he recognizes the human condition for what it was, is, and will be.

Joudah and his extended family are experts in the sorts of dispossession he observed working with Doctors Without Borders in Africa. His father was 14 when the family home was lost to the Israelis, and his mother was born in a refugee camp. Like so many Palestinians, his family has wandered the Earth for 60 years. “I have family-cousins and uncles-in 11 countries, including Gaza,” he says.

He is aware of Palestinian suffering, but refuses to elevate it above the rest of the world’s misfortunes. “The situation of the Palestinians is just one tragedy among others,” he says. “It’s the same tragedy of other millions of people, past and present.”

Still, the fact that he is a Palestinian-American, the son of two refugees, informs every aspect of his life.

“It’s hard to always have to explain yourself,” he says regarding his nationality. Sometimes he has to explain that, yes, as a Palestinian, he is appalled by the Holocaust. “Your identity gets assaulted on a daily basis.”

When Joudah finds himself pointing the finger at others, he is usually quick to turn it back on himself.

“I’m no different from anyone else,” he says. “I judge my patients when they come in. I’ll say to myself, ‘this guy’s fat,’ or ‘that woman is ugly,’ and then I catch myself. ‘What is this?’ I’ll say to myself, ‘You’re really a yucky guy.'”

Joudah’s sense of identity is necessarily fraught. He admits to feeling “in exile,” but he is an American by the simplest of definitions-he was born in Austin after his father took a position teaching history at the University of Texas.

His family didn’t really take to life in the U.S., and when Joudah was a year old, they moved to Libya, where his father took another teaching position. “My parents felt an attachment to the Middle East,” Joudah says.

When he was 8, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, and Joudah lived in Riyadh, which he says he hated, until he was 19.

The kingdom was not particularly welcoming to his family. Joudah says the U.S. presented the Saudis with a dossier the FBI had compiled on Joudah’s father, based on his pro-Palestinian activism back in the States. Joudah’s father lost his university job as a result and narrowly avoided deportation.

The family finally returned to the U.S., where, poignantly, Joudah’s parents found work teaching Arabic to U.S. soldiers. (They now live in Tennessee.)

Joudah was 19 when he returned to the U.S. and began premed classes at the University of Georgia. He describes his teenaged self as having been “excited about carving a future for myself, and hopeful.”

As a youngster, he had been torn between two visions of his future, one as a poet and one as a doctor. His father, who knew a thing or two about how hard it could be for a Palestinian to make his way in the world, taught him to love classical Arabic poetry, but cautioned him to be practical in pursuit of a literary life. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Joudah recalled his father saying, “Son, you can always be a writer or a poet after you become a doctor, but if you become a poet, you can’t become a man of science.”

As Joudah began his undergraduate studies, his excitement at beginning a new life clashed with the inevitable culture shock he felt at being back in the U.S. In response to his unease, he says, he began writing his earliest poems. “Mascara and lipstick poems,” he calls them now, sentimental poems without much aesthetic value, some written in English, others in Arabic.

He didn’t find his way forward in English until he came across the German poet Rilke. Either despite or because he was reading the poet in translation, he said to himself, “This voice is a window into English.”

He remembers reading Rilke aloud and learning to ride the poetry’s rhythms: “I had to read it aloud to understand it was poetry.”

“Poetry comes from a pre-evolutionary space,” he says when asked about the origins of his work. He looked back to the Arabic poetry he had shared with his father and began working at translating the cadence-the feel-of that language into English. “I told myself that if I could reproduce that childhood cadence in English, I could be a poet.”

Why didn’t he write poetry in his native Arabic? Joudah describes the decision to write in English as an embrace and a rebuke. Writing in English is “a way to embrace the world,” he says, and a riposte to the “Orientalist” view of Arabic culture that it is exotic and underdeveloped.

Joudah moved to Houston in 1996 to begin his residency at both LBJ and Hermann hospitals. He chose the city because of its cosmopolitan mix of cultures. “Houston had a soothing effect. You meet a wider variety of Americans here than you do in Athens [Georgia],” he says. Not to mention the city’s large Middle Eastern community.

He began writing steadily in Houston as a way of dealing with the pressures of his work. In 1998, he took his first writing workshop with Houston poet Cathy Stern and made a lasting impression on his teacher.

“He was obviously very talented,” Stern says. “And his subject matter was so different from everyone else’s. I think we helped him clarify some of his very unusual metaphors, which American readers didn’t really get, but he was already a poet when he started the class.”

Houston writer Anne Sloan was also a student in that workshop. She remembers Joudah’s humility and generosity. “He said about a line in one of my poems, ‘I wish I’d written that.’ And he said it very sincerely and probably really meant it, even though he was obviously far ahead of the rest of us.”

He published his first poem in 2002 while serving with Doctors Without Borders in a refugee camp in Zambia. (Not long afterward, two of his poems were published in the Observer.)

You get the sense that the Doctors Without Borders experience offered a way of addressing the broken circle of his own family’s life. One of his poems, “Landscape,” refers to his mother “cooing, next to a bomb that didn’t explode” in the camp where she was born. His family and his people remain displaced, just like the people he was called to treat.

In conversation and in his poetry, Joudah emphasizes how unremarkable the Palestinian tragedy is, how the injustices and deprivations suffered by his people are well within the mainstream of human history. That perspective gives Joudah a sense of relief, along with the notion that truth is far too complicated a concept to be pinned down. That a writer can make specific political arguments only by doing violence to truth.

“If I write an op-ed,” Joudah says by way of example, “then I join the power structure.”

Instead, Joudah approaches his subjects obliquely, and himself ironically, looking to tell a story rather than to trumpet a self-evident point. He’s not trying to change the facts on the ground, no matter now much he wishes they were different. He knows that the consolations of art-including well-told stories-are about as much as we can hope for. “Immigrant Song” begins: “In the kitchen in the afternoon, peeling oranges and cantaloupe gut/All that’s left is story-telling.”

The stories Joudah tells in The Earth in the Attic are mostly drawn from his African experiences with Doctors Without Borders, and from the stories his family has told since the 1948 Palestinian Nakba, or disaster. In a section of the long poem “Pulse,” he manages to tell, in 67 simple words, the story of a 14-year-old African girl’s rape by a soldier, and how her mother teaches her to both deny that the rape took place and to live with the knowledge of her violation, because she has no other choice.

And in no timeShe was up in the mango tree.

HeOnly demanded that she

Descend take offHer dress

And walk home down the orchard pathNaked.

A girl of fourteenClimbed down

Stepped outOf her body and gazed at

Her mother the first to reach herWith a shawl:

Whatever they askSay he never

Touched youWhatever happens

He never touched you.

He writes in compressed language about the time his father took him and his brother back to the father’s native village. But it was “No longer his village he found his tree amputated/between one falling and the next.”

Talking about that trip, Joudah says now, “I thought [my father] would be more devastated. But I was taken aback by his energy. ‘Here was the mosque. Here was the school. Here was the tree.’ The stone buildings were still there as ruins, but the village was very clear to him. He had a reconstructed image of absence. You could spend a lifetime mulling that experience over.”

Joudah is already deep into the writing of a second volume. When I ask how it will differ from The Earth in the Attic, he says it won’t include the Doctors Without Borders experiences. He says he’s still trying “to achieve timelessness without disregarding now.”

We’ve continued our conversation in his Montrose-area apartment, which doesn’t exactly shout “poet at work.” It’s simply furnished, and he uses the dining room table as a work space.

He’s sitting at that table when he makes a statement that takes me back to the “pure poetry vs. political poetry” distinction Louise Glück raises in her introduction. She describes Joudah as “that strange animal, the lyric poet in whom circumstance and profession (as distinct from will and fashion) have compelled obsession with large social contexts … under other conditions, one could imagine … this dreamy inwardness absorbed entirely in the natural world.” In other words, Joudah might prefer to create beauty if reality didn’t keep getting in his way.

When I ask him about Glück’s assessment, Joudah says, “You write what you’ve lived. I couldn’t have ignored Doctors Without Borders.”

Then he makes a statement about Walt Whitman that seems to suggest that beauty is in fact blemished to the extent that it fails to deal with reality, whether unhappy or otherwise.

Joudah loves Whitman and says that reading his rhythms helped him learn to write American poetry. But he thinks that Whitman missed an enormous opportunity by “disregarding” his “now.”

“He could’ve told us about the Indians. But he never mentions them,” thus missing a chance to make beauty out of cruelty and injustice, Joudah says. Baudelaire, on the other hand, “turned a decaying carcass [of French industrial society] into a beautiful poem. Whitman missed that.”

Maybe I looked confused, because Joudah explained himself one last time: “Beauty is found in addressing the strange other.”

Is that an aesthetic statement, a political one, or is it simply poetry?

David Theis is the author of the novel Rio Ganges. He lives in Houston.