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After Javon Johnson*: When the Cancer Comes

Grappling with the burden of keeping a legacy alive in the face of occupation and erasure

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series of writing about Palestine and Palestinians, written by Palestinian American writers, as a response to the recent escalation of conflict in Palestine, which started when the Israeli government ordered the expulsion of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, and led to Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and aerial bombardment of Gaza. Look out for more in the series in the coming weeks.)


My uncle Fuad was someone I never remember speaking to

Grew up looking at old photos and hearing his stories

When he died, I didn’t cry;
an eighty-five-year-old man can only battle cancer for so long…
but he was

eighty-five in 2019

means he was born in 1934
means he remembered when Palestine was all Palestine
remembered his country before the cancer came,
bombing living cells into submission and terror,

Amo Fuad had six college degrees and somehow never learned

to live forever,
to survive dying from the inside out

He taught generation after generation to grow loud,
fought cancer by dousing it in olive oil and marching on Fridays
“From the river to the sea,” taught them to swim
in a dust storm

They said Fuad was a scholar, a teacher, a great man
an architect of a liberated future

I can only believe the stories empty buildings tell

Now, when family regales me with his legacy,
how he loved good stories over good coffee with good people,

I wonder how much of someone’s story dies with them,
wonder what he wished I knew
or what he forgot to tell me

My country was someone I never remember speaking to

Grew up looking at old photos and hearing her stories

Now I’m watching her die, choke on tear gas and dust,
watch her inside bleed demolition and conquest—
cells eating each other alive
A millennia old country can only battle cancer for so long

When someone dies, their family praises their legacy,
gathers under the shade of an olive tree to recite surah al-teen
Who will dabke on Land Day if everyone has suffocated and
the ground no longer beats?
If I come back to the village
kiss auntie cheeks drink uncle tea
and watch conversation zip past my tongue
too fast for me to respond, too fast until the

the look
of anticipation

waiting for the mother tongue
          to quit oversleeping


as she stays in bed
and I ask
in English instead,
“Can you say that again?”
Will there be funeral for my language or theirs?
Little graveyard on my tongue;
I can only believe the stories empty mouths tell

A month before he died, Amo Fuad

published a book of our family tree
his way of ensuring my roots ran deeper than I’d ever understand
curled “bi harf al-daad”—a language wrapped around my throat—
into the terracotta of his backyard
in Jerusalem, a city so alive and proud
it burns with the tick of survival

Late last night, a friend asked if ever
               I thought Palestine would be free

and I didn’t       say   no

I felt my jaw swing wide,
tongue unearth

and I tried to explain how
as indigenous people to Palestinian land, we
      must always live where our country cannot
             become her
      when she cannot
look death in the eye and say not today,
battle cancer with every living thing left in a war-ravaged body
             like Fuad
       we all are
dying from the inside out
sick, crumbling, and

for some godly reason, full of faith in the future

When doors to empty buildings swing wide open
and the dust settles inside
we march to leave

our footprints at the door

When family trees bear olives,
rupture the sunbeams and entwine
home in their fists
we march, we march, keeping
keeping her
between our ribs
Fuad: name, meaning heart.
Meaning beating.
Meaning alive.

*Javon Johnson is an American spoken word poet, writer, and professor. He is the director of African American and African Diaspora Studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities, and the poem “When the Cancer Comes.”


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