• A Palestinian Meditation in a Time of Annihilation

    Thirteen Maqams for an Afterlife


    Hiba Abu Nada, 32, wrote and published her final poem ten days before Israeli bombs killed her and many others on October 20, 2023, in Gaza. She had a B.A in organic chemistry and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition. In her short life she managed to publish one novel, Oxygen is Not for the Dead. The speaker in Abu Nada’s final poem is an inner I, probably the voice of God welling up inside. Here is an excerpt:

    I shelter you
    and the children who
    are sleeping
    as chicks in the lap
    of their nest

    they don’t walk
    in their dreams
    because death
    towards the house


    I shelter you
    from wound and woe,
    and with seven verses
    I shield

    the taste of orange
    from phosphorus,
    the color of clouds
    from smoke.


    In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey passed through Houston loaded with rain. Our house was among the countless houses that flooded. Feelings of displacement, panic, attachment to material losses, and PTSD from growing up Palestinian in this world were initially overwhelming. Quickly, however, they were replaced with a sense of annoyance at the effort required to restore one’s life to its previous privilege. We did well. We had good insurance, could afford our copay, and sympathized with the less fortunate.

    On the morning that water entered our house, we rushed, all four of us, to salvage what we could from the first floor. Some of those items were my books, especially those on the lower shelves. Months later, after the house was remodeled, I got those books out of their boxes to reshelve them. For days, I was obsessively lost in my memories: books I had read decades ago, my marginalia and underlined sentences, flagged paragraphs, arrows, earmarks, all modes of signs and signals I had left behind—like a map for myself in an afterworld I was certain would come but didn’t know how or when: what I once was, how I once thought, felt, searched, loved, and whether I still feel the same.

    Isn’t this what burial rites are about? We send our lost loved ones, who are part of ourselves, to an afterlife, with or without accessories, but always with words, prayers that launch their departure into our memories. And so it is with the parts of ourselves we bury in our books: memories of the self that, when we revisit in the marginalia we leave behind on the printed page, we encounter as a version of our afterlife.

    Hiba Abu Nada did not live long enough to encounter her afterlife through her books.


    I now pause for a brief moment of silence for the murdered Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere. And for all the murdered and maimed everywhere, civilians or not. Imagine extending this equal humanity to everyone, every time. It’s what oppressors fear most. Because they are invariably the greater victimizers.

    I now pause for a brief moment of silence for the murdered Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere. And for all the murdered and maimed everywhere, civilians or not.

    What happens to the unburied? Are the Palestinians permitted to count and retrieve their dead? The American administration, through the mouth of President Biden, says that the Palestinians can’t have their dead and bury them, too. The high and rising number of Palestinians killed since October 7 is suspect, propaganda. Palestinians lie, as they often do in English, even when they are murdered. America speaks for them in a pathologic projective identification that guards the US propensity to mutilate those it kills—a marker of the national narrative affinity with the Israeli narrative.

    In The Blue Light, Palestinian writer Hussein Barghouthi says, somewhat flippantly, “America produces schizophrenics like it produces sandwiches.” I am not certain if he was in conversation with Deleuze & Guattari’s work on schizophrenia and capitalism, the manufacturing of loneliness as a desire to seek and dread simultaneously—exported as a universal aspiration, insignia of freedom. But for Barghouthi, Palestine in English is one trigger for the collective psychosis, the distortion of self-perception, that seems to afflict the American and Israeli vernacular, especially in times of crisis.

    What happens to the unburied? Are the Palestinians permitted to count and retrieve their dead?

    I understand that Israel and the US are not individuals, and any blanket statement about a collective is arguable, if not dangerous. Still, if you examine, with an open, honorable heart all the negative things by which “Palestine” is named in English, you will find that those things also name America and Israel. Projective identification as mass phenomenon.

    Palestine becomes the mirror of a Western self that struggles to recognize itself in the mirror. Each time this version of the self plays peekaboo in front of the mirror, it cannot see itself. When it opens its eyes, the person in the mirror is Palestinian.

    This process, however, limits its practitioner from, or denies them access to, their own better angels. Sooner or later, one cannot see their darkness as their own.

    Neither America nor Europe, as Aimè Cèsaire said, seem able or willing to solve their colonial addiction, their civilizational motif. Israel is a translation of that failure, a prized Western desire. But Israel has agency in mechanizing this desire.

    Neither America nor Europe, as Aimè Cèsaire said, seem able or willing to solve their colonial addiction, their civilizational motif.

    Israel and the United States erase even Palestinian ghosts from existence.


    Years ago, I received a query from a prominent editor about a line in Mahmoud Darwish’s long poem, “The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man,” (If I Were Another). The poem channels Chief Seattle’s voice and spirit. In the poem’s second section, the line in question follows an address to Columbus, “the free [who] has the right to find India in any sea, / and the right to name our ghosts as pepper or Indian.”

    The line in question is this: “You have burst seventy million hearts…enough, / enough for you to return from our death as monarch of the new time”:

    isn’t it time we met, stranger, as two strangers of one time
    and one land, the way strangers meet by a chasm?
    We have what is ours…and we have what is yours of sky.
    You have what is yours…and what is ours of air and water.

    “I just don’t get where he got the seventy million from?” the editor asked.

    I didn’t reply. I didn’t wonder about the accuracy of Darwish’s claim. Maybe he included all the Natives annihilated in the Americas over the centuries. The only thought I had in my head was, “Is this really what’s bothering you about the poem?”

    Years later, in a daydream, a marginalia of my soul visited me, and it spoke thus: “Do you remember those seventy million punctured hearts in Darwish’s poem? If you’re ever asked again, if the person who asks you says that historical studies show the number is not possible or whatever, remember the buffalos.”

    The buffalo hearts are also native hearts.
    Who will count the donkeys, dogs, and cats in Gaza?
    The birds will return.


    But what does all this have to do with Hurricane Harvey that flooded my imperial city in August 2017?

    In August 2005, I returned from Darfur after serving with Doctors Without Borders for a few months. I returned to Hurricane Katrina next door in New Orleans. I returned to displaced, disenfranchised, distraught Americans, mostly Black. Anderson Cooper’s heart was in genuine agony on TV. His reporting was forthright and compassionate.

    Still, I found him pitiable. I didn’t doubt his intention but I recognized that this was his breakthrough moment. I was already aware of the price of the ticket for anyone who auditions for the cast of the longest running play in our times, the American dream. Even suffering in empire is a capitalist translation.

    Today, the whole of CNN is a propaganda machine for the erasure of Palestinians, an achievement on par with any other US propaganda machine doing the same thing on the opposite side of the nonpartisan aisle. How wondrous that Palestinian murder and destruction unite American media.

    In the next presidential election cycle, many Americans have a tough choice to make. Does one vote for those who sanction, drive, fund, weaponize, and execute ethnic cleansing of Palestinians on the continuum of genocide? To not do so risks plunging America into greatness again. But we Americans have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles before, and we do not have to cut off our nose to spite our face. Palestinians, on the other hand, are faceless, nameless.

    Can you imagine if, for a year after the annihilation of Gaza has ceased, the US culture industry relentlessly features Palestinian voices, narratives, without the customary censorship? What if solidarity with Palestine in English becomes profitable?


    I found it. I was flipping through my books that survived the flood in 2017, searching for something I couldn’t name. I found it. A part of my old self that I had sent to my future self, my afterlife. Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. I haven’t thought about it since I read it two decades ago. And there it was, after the flood and the house restoration. Like a relic in one of my tombs. My marginalia on its pages. I skimmed through it and arrived at a long passage, which I instantly restructured, word for word, into a poem. Toni Morrison came back to me as the great poet she was.

    For many, the poem may be difficult to stomach. Some may argue that, taken out of its narrative context, the text is stripped of its necessary nuance and manipulated as ad hominem. The character who spoke the passage, for example, possessed contradictions and imperfections that only the novel can elucidate. Yet, I find Morrison’s text funny, humor its saving grace that carries its truth into the afterworld. I title it with a line that concludes the passage: “Basking in the Cold Light of One of the Killers of the World.”

    And in these long Palestinian days and nights, whose sun is Gaza, a sun that will not end after the massacre ends, I need to crack a smile.


    As I witness my collective Palestinian death unfold live on digital media and non-American TV, as I have become “a river of bodies into one,” a conduit for common decency, condolences, solidarity that affirms and elevates me, a survivor who has his dead, a survivor with a familiar name, relatable sound, relevant corpus, a vessel for the outpouring of empathy whose primary mode offers me the visibility that can’t be uncoupled from market forces—and it is true that my books, along with those of several Palestinian writers, have been selling well since, in my case, I have announced my dead to America, at least until the mainstream media became uninterested in parading my grief, since my grief did not come without troublesome talk about equal humanity, a political condition for freedom, an unthinkable condition for the US and Israel vis-a-vis Palestinians, a condition whose absence is necessary for the continued destruction of Palestinian life.

    I am terrified to think that the steady snail-pace of pro-Palestinian solidarity in the US has not recognized how largely it has leaned on the near absolute condition of Palestinian suffering. As long as Palestinians are the sole recipients of death, dying, and wretched life, solidarity with them gains in legitimacy. Any disruption in this balance—which never alters the Palestinians as the landslide majority owners of misery—must be attacked, contained, belittled with moral superiority by allies who had not said much of anything previously about Israel’s decades-long atrocities.

    I am terrified to think that the steady snail-pace of pro-Palestinian solidarity in the US has not recognized how largely it has leaned on the near absolute condition of Palestinian suffering.

    When will you begin to truly listen to what Palestinians have been saying for decades?

    I am terrified that so many never asked themselves the basic question: do I really believe that Palestinian lives are equal to Jewish lives? For too many, the answer is a resounding No. But they are neither asked this question nor challenged on it. Instead, they are the ones in charge of asking questions. They hide behind the unbearable size of events, interrogate Palestinian ethics, teach Palestinians how they, too, have become pathologies.

    Examination of why this is the case should lead only to one question: will you now declare that Palestinian lives are equal to Jewish lives? Try it on for size.


    What matters more? The number of Palestinian dead or the number of Palestinians who will endure a life worse than death after the Israeli desire for carnage is sated?

    I am terrified that so many never asked themselves the basic question: do I really believe that Palestinian lives are equal to Jewish lives?

    The former question captivates and deceives us with the mathematics of permissibility—a math we have been indoctrinated in over the decades of American hegemony. Empathy math. If the aim, for example, is twenty thousand Palestinians killed before we decide that this is the threshold of the unacceptable, then it makes sense for the US and Israel to doubt the number of Palestinians they kill, a delay tactic that allows the civilized war machine to get the job done—as Darwish wrote in his “Penultimate Speech”:

    and if our murder is imperative, then do not
    kill the animals that have befriended us, do not kill our yesterday,
    you will lack a truce with our ghosts in barren winter nights,
    you will lack a gray sun and a waning moon for the crime to appear
    less festive on the movie screen, so take your time
    to kill God…

    The latter question, about a life worse than death, is much more untranslatable, almost unimaginable to an American public always on the move, from one generation to another, one redemption to another, one jackpot to another, one changing same to another, as Amiri Baraka put it. In due time it turns into pity, perhaps even a sick romance.

    What forgetfulness, what fatigue and ennui will afflict the pro-Palestinian American public after the massacre? Will Palestinians return to their demoted status in the public sphere, as subjects of the temporality of Zionist moral illumination?

    But I have a more daring question. The Israeli people at large, the Jewish communities outside Israel that identify strongly or faintly, defensively or hawkishly with Israel, the mainstream Western world, and all expressions of Zionism, what do they want from Palestinians?

    In the best-case scenario, I do not think they really know. I am terrified to think that this relentless progression of dispossession and carnage against the Palestinians has reached irreversible, irrational levels. In my dark hours, which increase by the year, I wonder if Israel is unable to examine or defuse its impulse to test the limits of genocide against the Palestinians—because it has not been able to process the genocide that the Nazis committed against the Jewish people. A genocide that was made possible by centuries of European antisemitism, pogroms, silence, and looking away.

    I am terrified to think that this relentless progression of dispossession and carnage against the Palestinians has reached irreversible, irrational levels.

    If this is the path we are on, what then, as this path reaches its fulminant stage? Aren’t we there yet? The Palestinians do not need to fully identify, in the flesh, with the Jewish experience of genocide.

    Israel does not need to experience the completion of a genocide on another people to truly forgive Europeans for what they have done to the Jewish people.

    But what “if our murder is imperative,” as Darwish said? Will it be enough or will Palestinians continue to suffer further comparisons on the grand scale of suffering, further analysis of their deficient, impure victimhood? Or is all this really about Zionism’s imperfect victimhood?

    What genocide isn’t enough?

    There are countless Jewish people in whom the love and light of the divine lives easily, openly, and they neither want such a catastrophe to befall anyone or, least of all, stain the Jewish memory.

    So, before I turn to Toni Morrison’s poem, I ask you, dear reader, to remember that Tar Baby, published in 1981, was set in the Caribbean, and the voice of the monologue can only be heard through the settler-colonial prism and its assimilationist horror. Nonetheless, how repulsed and offended you are after reading the poem is how far you are from laughing at yourself.

    I also ask you what Darwish asked in his “Penultimate Speech”: “Won’t you memorize a bit of poetry to halt the slaughter?” A stranger’s echo to William Carlos Williams’s famous verse: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”


    “Basking in the Cold Light That Came from One of the Killers of the World”
    (An excerpt from Toni Morrisons Tar Baby)


    “They had not the dignity
    of wild animals who did not eat where they
    defecated but they
    could defecate over a whole people
    and come there to live
    and defecate some more
    by tearing up the land
    and that is why they loved property so.

    Because they had killed it
    soiled it defecated on it
    and they love more than anything
    the places where they shit
    would fight and kill to own
    the cesspools they made

    and although they called it architecture
    it was in fact elaborately built toilets, decorated
    toilets, toilets surrounded with and by
    business and enterprise,
    in order to have something to do
    in between defecations
    since waste was the order of the day
    and the ordering principle of the universe

    and especially the Americans
    who were the worst
    because they were new
    at the business of defecation
    spent their whole lives
    bathing bathing
    bathing washing
    away the stench
    of the cesspools as though pure soap
    had anything to do with purity.

    That was the sole lesson of their world:
    how to make waste, how to make machines
    that made more waste
    how to make wasteful products
    how to talk waste
    how to study waste
    how to design waste
    how to cure people
    who were sickened by waste
    so they can be well enough to endure it
    how to mobilize waste
    legalize waste and how to despise
    the culture that lived
    in cloth houses and shit
    on the ground faraway from where they ate.

    And it would drown them one day
    they would all sink into their own waste
    and the waste they had made
    of the world and them, finally
    they would know true peace and the happiness
    they had been looking for all along.

    In the meantime
    this one here
    would chew a morsel
    of ham and drink white
    wine secure
    in the knowledge
    that he had defecated
    on two people
    who had dared to want
    some of his apples.”



    Where is the Palestinian Mandela?
    Why is it that only white people ask this question?

    Where is the Palestinian Mandela?
    When will this racist wit stop?

    Where is the Palestinian Mandela?
    Where is the Israeli de Klerk?

    Where is the Palestinian Mandela?
    We are past the apartheid stage now.

    Where is the Palestinian Mandela?
    Why don’t you ask South African brothers and sisters, and they’ll tell you where? Food for thought. You can digest their answer then excrete the rest.


    A Palestinian proverb I have heard since I was a kid goes like this: To die along with a collective is a mercy. This is not merely the opposite of dying alone or the equivalent of dying while surrounded by kin or a group of compassionate humans. This is a comforting proverb about collective disaster. The saying is tacitly invoked when a great loss is at hand, a calamity that befalls a multitude, a family, be it financial or medical, for example. You can easily imagine that the proverb originated in a distant past, when famine or massacre decimated entire villages or clans.

    To live the experience of collective death in real time, however, is, despite my words, unspeakable. For this Palestinian proverb to become a Palestinian reality devoid of metaphor is a definition of genocide. For Palestinians to run for shelter, pile on top of each other in rooms, and console themselves with dying together is a definition of genocide. For Palestinians to be unable to grieve their private deaths because all and every Palestinian death has become personal within a duration of ruthless murder is a definition of genocide.

    What more do you want? How many more arguments will you insist on flipping? Intergenerational trauma does not speak a language of hierarchy across human bodies. Cellularity makes equals of us all. It does not know religion, ethnicity, or alphabet, and does not submit to our timelines that serve our hunger for domination.

    In The Silence That Remains, the Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan has a poem titled “Collective Death.” He was probably thinking of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 or some other massacre around those years, a massacre he’d been witness to from a distance. It is eerie, uncanny to revisit this poem in 2023, now that we have the advent of live television, social media, and the censorship they practice “for the crime to appear less festive”:

    Evening didn’t come without its darkness.
    We slept roofless but with cover
    and no survivor came in the night
    to tell us of the death of others.
    The roads kept whistling
    and the place was packed with the murdered
    who came from the neighboring quarter,
    their screams escaped toward us.
    We saw and heard
    the dead walk on air
    tied by the thread of their shock,
    their rustle pulling our bodies
    off our glowing straw mats
    to see a glistening blade
    that kept falling over the roads.
    The women gave birth
    only to those who passed.
    And the women will not give birth.


    I have another concern. Surveillance as a form of twenty-first century slavery. The Israeli killing of the family of Jazeera reporter Wael Dahdouh on October 25 was not part of indiscriminate madness. They know how to assassinate. One pundit on Israeli TV said of the incident, “Today we knew what the target was. Tomorrow is a different target.”

    By killing Dahdouh’s family, they sent a message to all Palestinians who had listened to his voice for nearly two decades, including the last few weeks where he was reporting on live TV about Israeli crimes in Gaza. To break his spirit is to kill so many Palestinian voices in one blow. To watch Wael run in his press gear and slump over the bodies of his wife, son, daughter, and infant grandson is to kill the wife, child, and grandchild of every Palestinian who has come to find in his Palestinian intonation a home. This is exactly what the Israel army did when it assassinated Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022.

    Through advanced technology and digital surveillance, along with collaborators, Israel owns Palestinian lives and bodies, their right to movement, to privacy, to childhood, to dreams. Palestinian children are criminalized as adults at the age of 12, for example. Israel works hard to maintain near-total control over its power to punish Palestinian bodies, should the state deem any of those bodies disobedient or rebellious. The punishment is often brutal, barbaric. Palestinians are confined to narrow spaces, and in the case of Gaza, subjected to a siege that has controlled their caloric intake, their access to healthcare and basic hygiene products, including feminine products.

    Palestinians are confined to narrow spaces, and in the case of Gaza, subjected to a siege that has controlled their caloric intake, their access to healthcare and basic hygiene products, including feminine products.

    What makes a state obsess over its desire to totally dominate a whole people, to own their bodies between servility and expulsion? What makes an overwhelming majority of a people consign another to oblivion, cut them off from the outside world for decades, mutilate their image and their being into superfluous nonbeings? What people obsess over severing another people from their olive trees? How deadly the olives?

    How did Israel get here? How different was the beginning? It is time you ask this question without blaming the Palestinians. Look inward, deeply, kindly, in true mirrors, and win back your heart.


    Gift laden with dew. Hiba Abu Nada wrote her final post on social media ten days after she wrote her final poem, hours before she was killed. The movement between the two texts is haunting, unforgettable. The God within and the God above:

    Each of us in Gaza is either witness to or martyr for liberation. Each is waiting to see which of the two they’ll become up there with God. We have already started building a new city in Heaven. Doctors without patients. No one bleeds. Teachers in uncrowded classrooms. No yelling at students. New families without pain or sorrow. Journalists writing up and taking photos of eternal love. They’re all from Gaza. In Heaven, the new Gaza is free of siege. It is taking shape now.

    Enough. Enough. I want to be happy, happy with my things, as Ghassan Zaqtan wrote, “happy because I have my hand,” “happy and thrilled that my hand, which called to you / or touched you / is still with me.” And that you’re still with me. I want to be happy with my voice and its foolish joys. I want to tell my children, what? What will I tell my children? What will you tell yours?

    Fady Joudah
    Fady Joudah
    Fady Joudah is a Palestinian American poet, translator, and physician. He has published several books. His latest poetry collection is Tethered to Stars from Milkweed, 2021. His latest translation is The Blue Light, the autobiographical fiction of Hussein Barghouthi, from Seagall Books, 2023.

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