Page 20


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 cadencethe feelof 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. j oudah 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 cul tures. “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 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 storiesare 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-yearold 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 time She was up in the mango tree. He Only demanded that she Descend take off Her dress And walk home down the orchard path Naked. A girl of fourteen Climbed down Stepped out Of her body and gazed at Her mother the first to reach her With a shawl: Whatever they ask Say he never Touched you Whatever 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.” 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 8, 2008