An Idea of Return
By Fady Joudah (Palestinian-American poet)
I look for your hair and find it
In the night, holding color,
After so many years inside an envelope.
And I think of the soul
Making speeches hours ago:
Dying of cancer in a hospital bed
Saying, god, I know
You’ve given me misfortune
But when I get up there
There’d better be a damn
Good reason for it,
I’ve got nothing against trees.
The carpenter thought I was kind
And searched my nametag for a while
Then said: I know your people.
They’re good people, they
Have suffered enough,
And the city is theirs—
The carpenter would be dead by morning.
Did I think your hair
Would have turned white by now?
Like the Mediterranean, frothing at the shore.
You asked for your hair back
Is why I kept it:
Like the city that is only mine
When I’m confused for another.
From: The earth in the attic / Fady Joudah ; foreword by
Raised abroad by Palestinian parents, Joudah returned to his native Texas to practice medicine and compose poetry. When Louise Glück selected his debut, The Earth in the Attic (2008), for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, she recognized its subjects as “characterized by crisis and transience” and alluded to Joudah’s desire to suture the disjointed experience of exile.
In her introduction, The 2020 Nobel Laureate Loise Gluck says the following words about Fady.
“As an Arab in the West, as a doctor who practices emergency medicine, as a poet writing in English: for a number of reasons, in a variety of situations, Joudah finds himself not at home, not among his people. The Earth in the Attic is a book of exile, its biblical resonances less motif than echo.
Fady Joudah is, in one sense, a deeply political artist (though never an artist who writes to manifest or advance convictions) and in another sense, a luminous aesthete who thinks in nuance, in refinements. He is that strange animal, the lyric poet in whom circumstance and profession (as distinct from will and fashion) have compelled obsession with large social contexts and grave national dilemmas. Under other conditions, one could imagine this elegant austerity, this precision, this dreamy inwardness absorbed entirely in the natural world. But the sky and earth here are the sky and earth of an imperiled country, or the haunted landscapes of a lost homeland.”
In the above poem, the poet is examining a locket of hair (possibly of his past lover or Ex Wife) contained in an envelope which is asked to be returned. The patient, a carpenter by trade, is humorous in asking questions to God on why the misfortune had fallen on him. He examines the name tag of the doctor and seeing his surname ‘Joudah’, he mistakenly thinks the poet is a Jew and says he is sympathizer of the Jews as their people have undergone so much suffering (holocaust).When the patient’s mentions ‘And the city is theirs—‘, the contested city is Jerusalem. And in the end the poet says that city is only his when he is mistaken for a Jew.
Note the title of the poem. It refers both to the Palestinians' demand for the right to return to Palestine and to the idea of returning the hair. (Note the title of the poem is “An Idea of Return,” not THE Idea of Return. I think there are two reasons for AN. First, it lets the title refer to the hair as well as return to Palestine. Second, it avoids a reference to THE RIGHT of Return, which is the Israeli policy that says all Jews have the right to live in Israel.)
The exact meaning of the ending on the level of the hair is difficult to formulate. The intriguing idea that he had somehow expected the hair to turn white, as it would have done on the head of the living person, is an image that refers to what our expectations are about the passage of time. White hair means the person is "mature."If the Mediterranean supplies white hair at the fringe of the shore, then the land is imagined as mature. But alas, Palestine is not mature, little has changed, just as the color of the hair in the envelope has not changed. The Palestinians do not have their capital in East Jerusalem; the patient says the city belongs to "your people" only when he mistakes Joudah for a Jew.
A lot to pack into a short and apparently simple poem.
I thank my friend and American Poet Rogergreenwald , who happens to be a Jew, for furnishing a meaningful interpretation of this poem, esp on hair turning white.