Anti-Colonial Time in Fady Joudah’s […]

Maura Finkelstein reviews […] by Fady Joudah (Outspoken Press, 2024).

I am not a poet but I read poetry when I need to be reminded how to live. Right now, in present tense, is a very hard time to live. What is time in a genocide? This question animates Fady Joudah’s remarkable new collection of poems. Its title has no words, just punctuation: […]. Like Joudah, so many of us are living within the world of the ellipses – a world of violent stagnation, of waiting. Genocide time. Three threads of attention converge within Joudah’s collection. For people in Gaza, time is waiting for bombs, for aid, for a ceasefire, for death. For Palestinians in exile, time is survivor’s guilt, unspeakable loss, erasure of friends, family, homes, histories. For those of us outside of Gaza who are not Palestinian, time is looking in, scrolling through social media, bearing witness, marching, writing, standing in the streets.

[Then there are the people outside of the ellipses – on one hand, those who are supporting, funding, and doing the work of genocide. On the other hand, those who have the luxury of placing their attention elsewhere. Who fashion time any way they want. Let us leave them in these brackets.]

Joudah’s collection begins with an epigraph from the ninth-century Arab poet, philosopher, and scholar, Al-Mutannabi: “I want my time to grant me what time can’t grant itself.” Here, there are (at least) two forms of time – the time of the speaker (“my time”) and time itself (perhaps a universal notion of time). Within the bracketed ellipses of Joudah’s poems, are we confronting a notion of time that might provide something of a respite? Something kinder than the temporal world outside of Joudah’s brackets? What happens when we enter this contained world? Perhaps the 46 poems offered throughout the text provide more generosity than the world beyond these pages.

As a meditation on time, Joudah’s title brackets the elliptical madness of waiting, in a present tense that has become unlivable. Many of the poems in the collection (29 to be precise) share the book’s title, […]. In the first poem, Joudah explains: “I write for the future // because my present is demolished.” (3) The present, demolished like most of Gaza’s infrastructure, burying children, parents, lovers, friends. 7,000 people (surely a gross underestimation) are missing under the rubble. What do we do with these numbers? Numbers, statistics, are the metrology of genocide. Numbers serve the powerful when 31,000 dead are not enough to constitute a genocide to genociders; when genocidal time is the promise that more numbers are always on hand.

Joudah’s poems invite his readers into this bracketed genocide time, even as we inhabit such bracketed space in uneven ways. Within the brackets is a world where time and space are intertwined. The agony of waiting is entangled with the agony of displacement. Joudah writes (on p. 69):

You who remove me from my house
are blind to your past
which never leaves you.

There is intimacy within the bracketed time-space of the ellipses, an intimacy that closes the distance of Zionist ‘colonial agnosia’. Historian Kathleen Villeneuve explains that “colonial agnosia refers to the idea that settler colonialism, as a power structure that is invasive, totalizing, and genocidal, remains misunderstood by the population of colonising States.” Indigenous Studies scholar Jodi Byrd frames this colonial agnosia as a mode of perception that: “cannot connect the present tense presence of [Indigenous] bodies and referents to the larger systems of domination that continue to inform Otherness within … settler imperialism.” Later, in the same poem, the speaker continues:

But I’m closer to you
than you are to yourself,
and this, my enemy friend,
Is the definition of distance.

Colonial agnosia is settler logic, allowing the argument that the Holocaust of 6 million Jews (and 6 million non-Jews) then justifies the Holocaust of 31,000+ Palestinians now. This settler-malady flattens time just as it flattens homes, but Joudah’s speaker sees past this delusion, reminding his “enemy friend” that he understands proximity, temporality, and historicity better than they ever could. 

Perhaps this proximate awareness is the antidote to colonial agnosia, an antidote that Palestinian historian ​​Rana Barakat frames as “writing/righting” the Nakba within a settler colonial framework. A shift in perspective, a refusal of Zionist history.  In the 4th maqam of “I Seem As If I Am: Ten Maqams” Joudah writes, “We have time.” (41) What does it mean to have and claim time within genocide? Once again, we are back in the ellipses, which reminds us that, despite Israeli and American imperial narratives, reproduced by corporate media and spread like cancer across the world, this genocide is not a “conflict” or a “war” and it did not begin on October 7th, 2023. Speaking to this contextualization, several pages later, in the 6th maqam, Joudah’s speaker asks “When did the new war begin?” and then answers: “The new war has been coming for a long time. // The old war has been going for a long time.” (43) Once again, the temporality of settler colonial occupation and genocide is subsumed within the ellipses. Through this framing, Joudah shows us how settler colonialism is looping and ongoing, elliptical in form. A structure, not an event. Within this structure of ongoing occupation and genocide, the world is also layered, a stratification of time, textured like the homes that are built, demolished, and have and will be rebuilt. Old keys worn on chains around grandparents’ necks. Time-stained pages of stories clutched in the hands of those who can see the past because it still lingers in the present. Memories connected to land, a mobile embodied archive that refuses the violence of colonial agnosia.

The collection contains an outlier, an ouroboros living on the back cover of the book. Not first, not last, this poem, “Suddenly I” –  also titled […] – is an anchor. Perhaps the poem itself is the [ ] of the book, holding us in the ellipses, rooting us to the ground. In conversation with Refaat Al-Areer’s devastatingly prophetic poem, “If I Must Die,” “Suddenly I” // […] begins, “Suddenly time // quit lingering.” Joudah will not allow his readers to live in metaphor, in allegory. We readers are here, in the world. And this world is killing Palestinians, destroying the rest of us. We cannot forget that Refaat Al-Areer is dead, murdered by Israeli airstrikes. This poetry is real, material annihilation.

Within the chorus of “Suddenly I” is also a fragment of Richard Wright’s “Between the World and Me”: Joudah writes, “Suddenly I // “in a blaze” died.” In 1968, Wright – through his poem’s speaker – encounters a body, lynched, in the woods: “And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs.” Joudah’s “Suddenly I” gives me pause, returns me to the … of […] – when Wright’s speaker encounters the mangled, brutalized body of a lynching victim and the speaker and the brutalized body become one. For Wright, this poem shows us how all Black people are brutalized by white supremacy, a violent alchemy. Similarly, Joudah’s speaker becomes Al-Areer – “Suddenly I // “in a blaze” died.”

Over the past five months, I – along with so many millions – have attended marches, protests, and rallies calling for a ceasefire and a free Palestine, from the river to the sea. For the most part, I have screamed all of the slogans I have been given, becoming one of many voices echoing through these calls and responses. But there is one I have refrained from repeating, one I have clenched my jaw around: “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinian.” Not because I do not want to stand in solidarity, but because I do not want to flatten the way we are all unevenly entangled in this genocide. I am Jewish, white, American, a settler living on stolen land. I am not Palestinian, I cannot know what it is, what it means, to be Palestinian right now. And I do not want to wrap myself into a false position. Here I think of Dana Olwan and Mike Krebs, who write about building solidarity “without reproducing and enacting the same colonial logics and asymmetric relationships of power on which settler colonialisms hinge” (2013).

However, in reading and rereading Joudah’s memorial to Al-Areer, I am reminded of June Jordan, who wrote, “I was born a Black woman // and now // I am become a Palestinian // against the relentless laughter of evil.” Jordan wrote these words in 1982, after the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila camps, outside of Beirut, Lebanon. Between 2,000 and 3,500 people were killed. In terms of identity, we are not all Palestinian. But if, to quote Angela Davis, “Palestine is a litmus test for the world,” then this genocide in Gaza is both evidence of our un-freedom and a key to collective liberation. Palestinians are subject to imperial violence enabled by racism and islamophobia. But in the realm of capitalist extraction and colonial conquest, no one is safe. We are not all Palestinian but we must all stand in solidarity with Palestinians (and oppressed people everywhere). This solidarity is multi-pronged but surely includes us all submitting to the […] – an elliptical temporality that keeps our attention focused on the horror and devastation wrecked by Israel’s genocide, the Nakba, ongoing for 75 plus years. Within the ellipses of our collective attention, suddenly [we] are all experiencing some form of annihilation. Suddenly [we] understand how we are all vulnerable to the next wave.

Suddenly [we] readers are both trapped and held within the brackets of Joudah’s poems – brackets that hold the agony of the present while also resisting a normative notion of time, one that is chronological, productive, linear. This collection also marks a refusal to participate in the temporal frame of the coloniser, a refusal to acquiesce to a forgone conclusion, determined by violent occupation and genocide. In this way, Joudah can begin with the lines: “I write for the future // because my present is demolished.” But then, in writing for the future, the collection transforms the future into present tense, conjuring hope amidst the darkness. In the final poem, Sunbird, Joudah writes: “I be: // From the river // to the sea.” Finally, a transformation of grammar. “I be.” Here, in present tense. Let it be a blessing. And a prophecy.

Fady Joudah’s […] (81 pp. £11.99) is published on 21st March, 2024. You can purchase it here: