Fady Joudah

A Conversation With Fady Joudah by KR poetry editor David Baker


Fady Joudah was born on New Year’s Day in 1971 in Austin, Texas, to Palestinian refugee parents. He grew up in Libya and Saudi Arabia, speaking Arabic as his first language. After receiving an undergraduate degree in microbiology at the University of Georgia, he went on for his medical degree at the Medical College of Georgia and subsequently received training in internal medicine at the University of Texas in Houston, where he served as chief medical resident. Later he served as an emergency room physician in the Veterans Hospital in Houston for eight years. Currently he works in clinics in the Houston area; he has also traveled twice, to Darfur and to Zambia, with the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. Joudah’s wife, Hana, is a physician at the Baylor Medical College, specializing in infectious diseases. They have a one-year-old son, Ziyad. Hana’s daughter, Mona, completes their family of four.

Joudah’s poetry is rich with the influences and styles of both American and Arabic poetry. It can be personal and image-driven, by turns, as well as discursive and social. Its lyric gifts are as powerful as its narrative impulse. Though he has said that political poetry is often “propagandist or apologist for injustice,” Joudah’s work is notable for its cultural conscience as well as its commitment to a sense of justice. His poems and translations have appeared widely in the past few years, including in the New Yorker and Poetry.

Fady Joudah won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for his first collection of poems, The Earth in the Attic, published in 2008 by Yale University Press. The award was judged by Louise Glück, who wrote that “the book is varied, coherent, fierce, tender: impossible to put down, impossible to forget.” Joudah’s translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden appeared in 2007 from Copper Canyon Press and has been widely and enthusiastically reviewed. The translation was short-listed for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and received the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic translation from the UK’s Society of Authors in 2008. His new translation of Darwish’s poetry, If I Were Another, will appear from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall.

David Baker: Fady, thank you for finding time in your packed schedule to talk about your work and life. We are happy at The Kenyon Review to feature some of your new poems, along with your recent translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s work. American readers have come to know Darwish only lately, thanks in part to your advocacy and translation. What did his death last year mean to you, and to other poets in the Arabic world and language?

Fady Joudah: I am not sure I can fully grasp what his death means to me or to others. I think in one manner it affords me that invaluable experience of speaking with the dead, as it were, through my working and reworking of language in my own poems. There is an endless well in Darwish’s aesthetics, private and universal, original and communal, with which one can correspond and journey. And you are right, this depth has begun to be searched and embraced only recently in English.

On a larger scale, however, I think Arab poetry and poets are now in a moment that is no longer dominated by the giant figures (of Adonis, Saadi Yussef, Darwish, etc.). I think Darwish’s death brings a particular era of innovation to a close and opens up to unknown possibilities in aesthetics and form. For example, the endless debate over the form of the contemporary Arab poem, between prosody and prose, free taf’eelah (the basic unit of prosody) and free verse, has now entered a wider dimension of experimentation. Darwish was an amazing, innovative formalist who refused to simply accept that one school of poetry negates another. He believed that contemporary Arabic is easily able to embrace its modern moment, away from the nebulae of colloquial versus classical Arabic, which is sometimes brought up in English when discussing Arabic (by many who do not speak it well). Darwish touches on this issue in “Train Station” but with a “native’s eye” toward the end of the poem, when he mentions how classical Arabic was spoken only in formal, literate social gatherings.

DB: I’d like to talk a lot more about Darwish and his poetry, as well as your work as a translator from the Arabic. I also have some related questions for you about recent Arabic poetry and prosody and what you call the modern moment. So let’s come back around to those things by looking at your own poems, especially this group in this new Kenyon Review. Are they from a new collection, or manuscript, or are you working one poem at a time just now?

FJ: Yes, these poems are part of a new manuscript titled Alight. They are in its second half: the life of family and parenthood as it relates to the mind in the world. The manuscript continues the dialogue with art as it appropriates the suffering of others, which is not a problem specific to art, obviously. Politics and power engage in this, albeit to a much more horrific extent. In part I feel it is the age-old question of the imbalance between memory and forgetfulness, testimony and complicity. It is a slippery slope, however, when this art is essentially an art of empire.

DB: Alight is a great title. It also is a good example of the kind of thing I find so powerful, and sometimes playful, in your work. That is, the doubling of meanings. To alight is to land, as a bird does on a limb or a reader on an image. It means to brighten, to shine on; and it also suggests a kind of levity or lightness. But it also sounds like something has been set on fire—a fuse, a bomb, a pyre.

This is the fundamental method of your work, to me, the way your images deepen into metaphor, the way the metaphors often measure the particular with the general, and the way they argue with each other. You seem at home with contradictions. As you just said, testimony and complicity.

FJ: Alight starts a flame and sets the inflammatory against the humane, before the fire turns gradually into light and alights onto the familial discourse of love and its contradictions, its insolvable difficulties at times, through the experience of fatherhood and husbandry.

Images for me are an ancient trope, if one may say that, of poetry. I grew up to the idea of metaphorical conceit borne out of weaving images and emotional being, in Arabic poetry, and not necessarily as direct influence of the twentieth-century school. That the ancient and the new, the foreign and the domestic intersect is evidence of the universality of the language of poetry in the human mind. Neuroscience argues well for this. Still, Arabic romanticism exists independently of (and much earlier than) its Western kin. Maybe it wasn’t a movement per se, but Arabic romanticism has been present and developing for a thousand years.

As for the particular and the general, I also think this is an ancient poetic trope: the balance of the private and the universal, the personal and the collective. Yet in our modern times, and because of my predilection for engaging life in the administered world in which we live, I am (hyper)vigilant of the darkness that moral certainty can bring into poetry; it can bring poetry to its knees, damage the art and the artist. The contradiction is not a wily maneuver to remain elusive and to “read between the lines,” however. It is an attempt to universalize the particulars of tragedy and suffering, of humanity, that of the speaker and of the “other.” I struggle with and against the classification of suffering, which often perpetuates further dehumanization of victims, through justification of violence or of silence.

DB: Yes, you mentioned earlier the slippery slope of art and empire. Empire, or empires, is the subject of your poem “Smoke.” I love the hybrid quality of this poem. It is a portrait of two people—though they remain anonymous—but it is also cultural and political commentary. Warfare and love. Philosophy and a sex shop. Many things here are alit with clarity and contradiction.

Louise Glück noted that your poems, your images, often seem like analogues for photographs. There’s something distinctly photographic about this poem, as it captures real detail in a kind of suspended moment. But inside that moment there is also a very dynamic circumstance. Time passing and time held still.

FJ: Time must be master and subject in a poem. Poetry is, in one manner, the words as they elude and allude to time.

As for the photographic moment, that brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s infamous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” about art in the era of cinema. Another way to say it perhaps is through the dynamic of the psychological portrait, which is not without its problems since, like cinema and photography, it lends itself to the troubles of representation and appropriation of the “other.” I have been interested recently in the comeback of the historical poem in American poetry and how it reflects the documentary mode. This really brings the brilliance of Benjamin’s prescience to light more.

DB: Susan Sontag’s great book Regarding the Pain of Others also comes to mind here. She argues that sincerity is what may turn our spectator stance into the stance and responsibility of a witness. Sincerity is here a version, I think, of sympathy. And also, as you say, of historical or social engagement.

I’m delighted by the sympathetic and synthetic language of “Smoke.” The poem clarifies its circumstances through its word choice, but then immediately baffles that clarity. For instance, a gazebo is noted in ancient Asian landscapes but also in Persian ones. One etymologist argues that it derives from “casbah,” the Muslim quarter in Algiers, but most agree that its origin is, as they say, “unknown.” We have here also unnamed ancient capitals alongside tear gas, a “faraway country of immigrants,” and so on. Specifics and the unknown. Where is this scene?

The poem also feels distinctly multicultural even though it is grounded in a particular place. It even provides its own translations. The village that means Little Planet. All those ancient manuscripts and scrolls.

FJ: Gazebo and similar rootless words are fantastic, aren’t they? When you mention “casbah,” I immediately flashback to the Clash and their song “Rock the Casbah,” and its video on MTV, and how I was always disturbed by its accepted racial representation of the Arab, which is still an accepted situation today in America. Then there is the Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” which puts us squarely in Edward Said’s critique of Albert Camus’s absenting of the native in Algeria. Have you read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays? Here is this fantastic existential philosophy at work. Then in the “other essays” he talks of Oran, a major city in Algeria, as if it came without a people. This is obviously not without precedent, and still goes on. So, in “Smoke,” why should I name places and get caught up in the jargon of the politics of the day?

DB: Camus’s Sisyphus was one of those foundational books for me, once upon a time. Are specific names of things jargon? That’s an interesting angle. Is the poet’s job not, at least in part, to name?

FJ: In Camus’s case, it is the absence of naming that is the problem. Paradoxically for me, absence of naming is against the jargon of the classification of suffering, which has become an internationalized décor, it seems, that conveniently tells us which people have suffered more than others and what should be done “about it” (or “for them”), and almost always nothing is done about anything or for anyone except the engraving of moral righteousness in the minds of those who are far away and watching cable. There is an amazing piece on this by Theodor Adorno, “The Paragraph,” contained in his Minima Moralia.

DB: Your phrase about the internationalized décor of suffering is really apt but points to the conundrum, too. It speaks to the crux of both Sontag’s and Adorno’s texts. How do we approach the depth and reality of the genuine suffering and pain of others, without appropriation or without fashioning that pain into the aesthetically palatable?

FJ: There cannot be one specific approach, obviously. I think the speaker in the poems has to know who he is and where he stands in relation to the “other.” It is laughably sad to simply substitute pity for compassion. Hannah Arendt has a wonderful essay on this distinction, by the way, “The Social Question.” But let’s go back to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Kipling’s Kim. Our (and when I say “our,” I mean the citizens of empire) recognition of our own hegemony, or awareness of our tyrannical moral compass, keeps shifting and changing with the passage of historical time. Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is also another important guide to answer this “how” you ask about.

DB: Yes, it’s partly an issue of awareness in the text, as you say—of conscience.

Back to your poem. Who are the two people? They are trying to live a life of normalcy—whatever that means—in a circumstance of upheaval and destruction. That’s even how the title works for me, suggesting both the particular pleasure she derives from her cigarette and the smoke of tear gas and bombs.

FJ: It is the seeking of normalcy, the utopian state, which the poem’s after, through the humanizing of its protagonists. If I specify things further, then I remove much of the possibility of universalizing the narrative. We are programmed to associate names with Pavlovian responses. It is often a disturbing outcome. Why get side-tracked by excess specificity. Yet we can argue (thankfully) about what defines “excess” or perhaps “extraneous” data, and create different poems that dabble in time. “Smoke” here also is perifire. This man’s ardent involvement in revolts and manuscripts; truth, fact, and their illusions is just smoke, hot air. He is harmless. Good. Broken. Normal.

DB: The issue of naming is important to “Still Life” also. But you make an important distinction here. The poem opens in the act of writing of the name, but doesn’t actually provide the name itself. So I see what you mean about the interplay between the specific and the general. The poem dances back and forth between those two worlds. The poem lives in the space between those two.

FJ: Yet the naming later in the poem is essential, because of its simplicity to me. It is a personal and a familial narrative, not a historic or political one. I also recognize the taboo in it, especially in English. But for me, first and foremost, it is a private narrative: a love affair that engulfs and is consumed by time and history, the linear or otherwise. For example, this poem was written nearly two years ago. Sadly and suddenly the word Gaza takes on a grave and enormous corollary and echo.

DB: The family narrative becomes considerably more personalized in “Twice a River.” If the first two poems are more politically driven, this one seems more autobiographical. Yet it is also compelled by its social conscience. The son here “beams” and he “gazes,” and while those gestures are lovely in their innocence and simplicity, I also can’t help but hear the rhetoric of witness again: the gaze of the viewer or spectator on the familial scene but also on the national and political one. The gaze is not necessarily passive. Does the gaze ever abate?

FJ: I am not sure I agree the first two poems are more politically driven. When Louise Glück does not identify the characters in her poems (as sister, mother, etc.), it does not make her poems less familial or more mythical, for example. “Twice a River” is as political and as familial as the other two are; or is it because it addresses an infant and a young American father that “our” gaze turns toward “our” interiority? Yes, gaze does not abate, it shifts.

Another difficulty the poem addresses is that of the father “passing down” identity to his child. I remember how my sense of self in the world changed after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Now Mona, our daughter, seems obsessed with Gaza, and to tell you the truth we ache over it, her mother and I; we evade her questions about it at times, change the subject.

DB: Your hymn to the son in this poem “O son // Love no country and hate none / And remember crimes sometimes // Immortalize their victims . . .” is part of the multiplicity of your vision, I think. Again, to dance between the worlds of politics and the self, between the Middle East and the West, between the family and the nation, and so on.

I see this as the fundamental, empowering irony of your work. Does that sound accurate to you?

FJ: The multiplicity of my experience deals directly and indirectly with what I believe to be a defining facet of our times: the nation-state (and its harrowing litany of victims, refugees, massacres, dehumanization, exiles, etc.). But one cannot simply write about this and be content. It has its pitfalls. One must, naturally, turn his or her gaze to one’s private, shared humanity in the daily and the quotidian; just as much as one should turn toward the natural (pomegranate or the sea) and juxtapose it to the categorical or what we sometimes call the specific.

Victims are victims first. We know they are human and humans are neither angels nor saints. There’s a fascinating title of a book on the Rwandan genocide: When Victims Become Killers. Obviously this is not just specific to Rwanda. It is a human phenomenon. And yes, victimizers intentionally or otherwise brutalize their victims in order to strip their victims of their humanity and turn them into similar monsters. So to what extent does one fall into the trap of blaming victims? And to what extent does one fall into the trap of apologizing for victims who have become victimizers?

DB: Those are the kinds of questions for which we need art, aren’t they? And they are central to your recent poems. How else can we say—how else dramatize—these things in the complexity and uncertainty that they demand?

FJ: One way is to address the politics of naming: what to name, and what to rename. Another way of looking at the name question is to abandon false and presumed identities that are imposed on one as absolutes: nation, religion, and ethnicity. Darwish writes in an elegy to Edward Said, in a dialogue between the two, where the latter says: “Identity is self-defense / and not the inheritance of a past / but what its owner creates.”

DB: “Volition is an afterthought.” Would you care to pry open that wonderful statement for us here?

FJ: I think this is a parallel syllogism to “the chicken or egg” phenomenon, or the “object” and “the object as an act of consciousness.” I am interested in consciousness and its dialectic, because it is another of the significant representations of our contemporary moment, laden with its scientific aura.

DB: Another of your poetic vocations, Fady, is to translate Arabic poetry into English. Your book of Darwish’s poems has been really well received. It gathers three individual volumes of his, if I’m not mistaken. Can you place these Kenyon Review translations in his timeline? Are they recent, older? To me the prose poems feel distinctly different from “At a Train Station,” and perhaps that’s due to some slippage in time as well as the obvious formal differences.

FJ: All of the poems are recent. In fact, “At a Train Station” was written at the time of the sixtieth anniversary of the Palestinian dispossession, Nakba, last year, months before Darwish’s death. Its conversational discourse, between the narrative, the descriptive, and the expository, is also a recent development in Darwish’s longer poems; his sense of the lyric has changed, as does the diction of all great poets in their late style. Soon, I hope, it will become clear to many who read Darwish which era a given poem is written in: his diction and breath and lyric have clear and distinct shifts in them throughout the years.

The prose poems are also recent, from his last collected book, The Trace of the Butterfly (Athar al-Farasha), in 2007. He calls them diaries and not poems. In them he experiments openly and persistently with nonprosody. In fact, he wrote a memoir in 2006, In the Presence of Absence, which reads like a book-long prose poem, a description that made him happy. Darwish always worked at redefining prosody and rhythm in the contemporary Arabic poem, always negotiating the meaning of “free” in poetry. He resisted the notion that modern poetry or free verse meant “free for all.” In the same book, he has another prose piece, “In Madrid,” in which he recalls reading with Mark Strand and asking him about what defines a poem away from prosody: and Mark’s reply: “rhythm . . . rhythm.”

DB: These prose poems also have a kind of interior voice or perspective to them that feels more contented with their interiority. They are not necessarily so social. “So what if I am alone,” he says in “If I Were Another.”

FJ: Darwish loved his solitude, tried to protect it as much as he could, and only when he realized in 1999 that his days were numbered (after surviving cardiovascular death for the second time in his life) he began to write with a hunger that humanizes himself more and more. He wanted to gaze at the almond blossoms and not have his humanity consumed and eaten up by the checkpoint and the violence of occupation, as he said in 2005. Darwish had also begun to home in on his Sufi gaze in his later years, a presence and a process that had initially surfaced in 1990 in his masterpiece lyric epic The Hoopoe. But that is another story. Still, I would like to argue that his interiority had always been there.

By the way, I am also glad to say I have a new translation collection of Darwish’s lyric epics due this fall from Farrar, Straus and Giroux; its title is If I Were Another. How about that for a coincidence? In fact, this expression is found in “In Jerusalem,” Darwish’s poem The Kenyon Review published about two years ago. It is an expression, a concept that typifies Darwish’s incessant dialogue with and recognition of the “other” who constitutes the self, the “I” in being.

DB: That is a wonderful coincidence! I’m eager to see your new collection of his lyric epics.

I guess you can tell that these two prose poems really surprised me. I didn’t know he wrote prose poems. They bear some of the parable-like quality that I love in Paz’s prose poems, I think. Both writers impel an intense, compacted impulse toward philosophy in their prose poems. And a deepened metafictional content.

FJ: I remember Darwish telling me with a certain satisfaction how he was awarded an honorary doctorate of philosophy from the University of Chile in Santiago, also back in 1990, on the eve of the death of his friend Yannis Ritsos. Darwish wedded contemporary philosophy with the philosophic traditions of Arabic and Islamic poets and thinkers from the medieval times, including those of Persia and Andalusia, as well as the literary traditions of Sufi writing.

On a related note, there is a wondrous book by Adonis, Sufism and Surrealism, that parallels the two movements’ similarities although they are ten centuries apart. I think it is a great window to a better, more complete, and less self-referential understanding of Arabic literature in English.

DB: Can you identify for us the Sufi element in Darwish’s poems?

FJ: “If I Were Another,” that alterity, is an important essence of the Sufi element. Sufi poets and masters arose as an alternative to the dogma of mainstream, the institution of language and arts (and politics) in the early days of the Islamic empire. One can say they were language poets in a manner of speaking, but they always infused the deconstruction of meaning with a palpable spirituality. Another way of saying this perhaps is how Darwish often brings the self to the brink of its “other” and in doing so achieves forgetting or vanishing into the other. His diction and meaning are between the concrete and the ethereal, a powerful singularity and independence that protect the self from being appropriated by the “other,” while freely giving itself over to the other. In his last epic poem, The Dice Player, his own elegy weeks before he died, he writes: “My lexicon is Sufi / my desires, sensory / and I am not who I am until the two meet: / I and the feminine I.”

DB: For you, in your thorough sense of Darwish’s work, how do his prose poems add to his poetic oeuvre? What does he do in them that is specific to them?

FJ: Darwish expanded his themes in them, as you mentioned, and his personal oscillation between metaphysics and existentialism. The “I” is simply merged into two, and not necessarily a “we” (this is more powerful in the original Arabic since there exists a dual nominative case). He also, obviously, abandoned prosody, yet was able to remain lyrical. This is an obsession and a fear of Darwish’s: how to continually widen the lyric and in doing so reinvent or reinvigorate prosody; or as the epigraph to his 2005 collection reads, quoting another medieval Arabic scholar: “The best speech is that whose prosody is like prose, and whose prose is like prosody.” This is an accomplishment he achieves in “At a Train Station,” which reads in Arabic in the same “prosaic” bend as it does in English, to my ears.

DB: In your opening remark you mentioned the tension in Arabic poetry between prosody and prose. I know that Darwish’s work is considered, in Arabic, fairly strict in its formality. Could you provide our readers (and me) with a quick lesson? What is free taf’eelah? Am I right in thinking that this form of metrics considers the prosody of a whole stanza—the wholeness of it—rather than of the line itself?

FJ: First, I would say Darwish is considered fairly innovative in his formalism, and not strict in that prohibitive sense. In this he shares much with the brilliant Iraqi poet, Saadi Yussef, who takes the art of prosody to enviable heights, by Darwish’s own testimony.

As for the “free taf’eelah,” you are correct. It is kin to saying the whole stanza is made up of an even (or whole or divisible) number of feet. However, in Arabic there is a recurring scansion or a mixture thereof. But thinking of it with or without a recurring pattern of feet opens up the meaning of “free verse,” doesn’t it? Is there a poem that doesn’t add up to a whole number of feet?

Darwish’s magic was in the deceptive simplicity of his language. He adapted the contemporary spoken and written Arabic to ancient prosody, and ancient prosody to contemporary Arabic.

DB: Do you find the tension in Arabic poetics similar to the tension in contemporary American poetry, between formal and freed prosodies? I hope I am right in sensing, at least in American poetry, that these automatic divisions are dissolving.

FJ: I think they are similar to a large extent, because both poetics live in the same moment of time. But it is true there is less public debate about it in American poetry than in Arabic poetic circles. But you know the notion we have in America about how our “democratized” poem through “demotic” vernacular comes, in part, from the luxury afforded to a powerful, decadent society of riches. Still I wonder about the meaning of the dominant presence of poets like Walcott, Heaney, Muldoon, and many others.

In general, I am not a proponent of equating or comparing languages because often this leads to a soft jingoism in my opinion. I allude to this in “Twice a River.” Language and poetries are, more often than not, as is science, linked to power structures and histories. It becomes inevitably problematic.

DB: But this problematic is central to the task of the translator, isn’t it? You embody the vocations of both poet and translator. The translator must deal, as you say, with the comparing of languages.

FJ: One idea of translation is to echo or mimic the unifying aspects of speech in the language centers in the human brain. That is a creative, highly imaginative process that must believe in a beyond of sorts, beyond the dogma of the contemporary diction perhaps, if need be. Still, I know that I would translate Darwish’s poetry differently a few years down the line. Language is not fixed. And no reading of any great poetry can be fixed either.

DB: Of course you pursue a vocation beyond poet and translator. You are also a medical doctor. Which came first for you, poetry or medicine? How do you manage to stay so deeply involved with each?

FJ: I think poetry came first. Still, “volition is an afterthought.” Poetry comes so early to a child. I suppose an idea of compassion or suffering arrives equally early. Yet its manifestation through lyric is earlier than that of the practicality of medicine. And how do I manage? I think most poets are at least hypomanic.

DB: Medicine seems to me a form of hope. It is a social expression of sympathy and engagement with others. In its best forms, that seems to me very much like political engagement. Would it be fair to say that medicine and politics are closely related in your life, or is that too simple-minded an assessment?

FJ: They have to be closely related. After all, the patient suffers from the classification of suffering, and doctors hold power over patients and wed science to power appropriately or inappropriately. Of course without the power systems there would be no “modern medicine” as Foucault and others elucidated.

But the ethics of modern medicine are dubious at best, and are concealed (or diluted) under the penumbra of an amazing infrastructure of law and capitalism. I thought you were going to say “medicine and poetry” are closely related, which of course they are, in those exact terms I just mentioned. We talk about how certain poems are political, but we rarely mention the political institution that is the poetry establishment.

DB: I think the discussion about the political institutions that support the poetry establishment is intense and is growing. The relation of poetry to the academy, to the market, to advertising—this is of profound import to many poets and critics now. Our freedom to write derives from systems that we are likely to despise, like the military machine-state or Wall Street.

FJ: And it is exactly the same conundrum with medicine. Again, Michel Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic is a fantastic rendition as well as an allegory of this question.

DB: I guess that people come to you as a physician when something is wrong, when they are experiencing pain or physical ailment. Poetry is also compelled by pain or at least by irritation. We tend not to write when all is well. Is this a useful point of comparison? Physical and metaphysical irritants?

FJ: Of course, the metaphysical here is often a consequence of the physical. But what do we mean by “all” is well: the within or the without? Can the two be separated?

DB: No, they can’t be separated. That’s also central to your poems.

Do your patients, or your medical colleagues, know about your poetry? I guess I’m thinking of William Carlos Williams and his preference for keeping these two kinds of practice separate.

FJ: I keep them separate. Very few patients know about it. Just as very few doctors know, or care, about it.

DB: What does medicine give you for your poetry? And what does poetry give you for medical practice?

FJ: The questions of compassion and suffering, beyond their clichéd, hackneyed consumption, seem endless. I rarely, in my practice in the U.S., seek medical narratives as source for my poems. But the overarching reality of suffering and living is a different matter. I am not sure what my poetry gives to my medicine or takes away from it. We live in an intensely administered world and we are automatons half the time, it seems. Obviously, I am somewhat uncomfortable talking about it.

Similarly, I am just as uncomfortable these days talking about my experiences with Doctors without Borders. I am not going back to the “field” anytime soon, mainly because I have a family with two children. Maybe years down the line. All I can say about that experience is that the horror of this hierarchy of suffering in which we live our daily lives rarely leaves me. It is maddening at times. Especially when I ask myself, as a doctor, as one with power, how I partake in it, and how I have partaken in it.

I am the one who “returns” from these sojourns into “suffering,” and I get congratulated on it, as if it weren’t just a simple act of private common decency, but a heroism that the society to which I return wants to claim as its own (as one once told me: “thanks for doing this in our name”). And to top it all, I make art out of it.

DB: Well, this seems to be the paradox we have arrived at a number of times in this interview: to be inside a system of power and to critique it at the same time. To sympathize with suffering but also to be part of the wielding of power. This conundrum arose when we talked about poetry, and about translation, and about medicine.

If poetry and medicine are both forms of hopeful practice, what are your hopes, Fady?

FJ: I hope to be able to return to medical service in some capacity around the world. I also hope to relocate or reposition my aesthetic past the centrality of suffering at some point. It is natural for the “I” of the “we” to interiorize. It is not sustainable otherwise.

[This interview is part
of a series of conversations with authors who have work in KR.
It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for
the Arts.]

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