A Poet and Librarian Catalogs Life in Gaza

20 June, 2022
Yazan Khalili (b. 1981 Pales­tine), “Col­or Cor­rec­tion 1.5,” 2017 – 2010, Light jet on Kodak print, 61 × 100cm (cour­tesy of Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, Dubai).

 

Things You May Find Hid­den in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, Mosab Abu Toha
City Lights Books, 2022
ISBN 9780872868601

 

Eman Quotah

 

Near­ly 30 years ago, I vis­it­ed Gaza for half a day. I was part of an annu­al “peace stud­ies mis­sion” that my U.S. col­lege and two neigh­bor­ing schools host­ed to allow a group of stu­dents to trav­el to and study a “con­flict zone.” Pre­vi­ous “mis­sions” had gone to Los Ange­les and North­ern Ireland.

Gaza was not on our offi­cial itin­er­ary, which includ­ed loca­tions in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. Then, an Amer­i­can relief work­er offered to take a sub­group of stu­dents to Gaza on her week­ly trip there. Three of us went. As we drove to Gaza City, the smooth free­ways of Israel gave way to pot­holes and ruts. We could see the beach from the road.

Things You May Find Hid­den in My Ear is avail­able from City Lights.

Today, Gaza is per­haps more noto­ri­ous to the world beyond its bor­ders than it was then, before Hamas’ takeover and Israel’s ongo­ing siege, which began in 2007. At the same time, Gaza is also pos­si­bly more for­got­ten, only prick­ing the glob­al con­scious­ness and con­science every few years, as Chris Doyle not­ed in Arab News last week.

Pales­tin­ian poet Mosab Abu Toha, writ­ing in Eng­lish in his debut col­lec­tion, Things You May Find Hid­den in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, is well aware of the outsider’s inter­mit­tent and unre­li­able gaze.

“Gazans have to show the world that they can­not be defeat­ed,” he tells Amer­i­can poet Ammiel Alcalay in the inter­view includ­ed in the book.

The poems in Things You May Find con­vey both the dif­fi­cul­ty Gazans face and their undy­ing deter­mi­na­tion. Abu Toha roots his poet­ry in every­day expe­ri­ences of hard­ship and vio­lence — so many men­tions of drones and heli­copters and F‑16s and gun­shots and bomb­ings and explo­sions that the read­er instinc­tu­al­ly wants to cov­er her ears. The grand­child of refugees forced from Jaf­fa dur­ing the Nak­ba in 1948, he writes about a Gaza that is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly the only home he knows and a sym­bol of every­thing the Abu Toha fam­i­ly has lost.

The col­lec­tion begins with the long poem “Pales­tine A–Z,” a list of entries that, with cheeky solem­ni­ty, refus­es to cat­a­log Pales­tine for an Eng­lish-speak­ing world that large­ly eras­es it.

B is “A book that doesn’t men­tion my lan­guage or my coun­try, and has maps of every place except for my birth­place, as if I were an ille­git­i­mate child on Moth­er Earth.//Borders are those invent­ed lines drawn with ash on maps and sewn into the ground by bullets.”

And G: “How are you, Mosab? I’m good. I hate this word. It has no mean­ing to me. Your Eng­lish is good, Mosab! Thanks.//When I was asked to fill out a form for my U.S. J‑1 visa appli­ca­tion, my coun­try, Pales­tine, was not on the list. But lucky for me, my gen­der was.”

Abu Toha found­ed the Edward Said Library, Gaza’s first Eng­lish-lan­guage library, after sav­ing an anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture from the rub­ble of his bombed uni­ver­si­ty in 2014. Doc­u­ment­ing life in Gaza is a Gor­dian knot through­out his col­lec­tion. The poet’s need to record the details of dai­ly liv­ing is at war with the life the siege forces him to live, one dom­i­nat­ed by unend­ing fear and loss of life. His need to tell the sto­ry of his peo­ple bat­tles with the pic­tures of them oth­ers see. In “My Grand­fa­ther Was a Ter­ror­ist,” Abu Toha writes,

My grand­fa­ther was a terrorist—
He depart­ed his house, leav­ing it for the com­ing guests,

left some water on the table, his best,
lest the guests die of thirst after their conquest.

Here is one rhetor­i­cal real­i­ty, Abu Toha seems to say, and here is anoth­er. “A poem is not just words placed on a line. It’s a cloth,” he writes. “Mah­moud Dar­wish want­ed to build his home, his exile, from all the words in the world.” In “Fly­ing Poem,” words are hid­den in a draw­er and then set free to be sung to “pass­ing clouds” by migra­to­ry birds. In “Cold Sweat,” the poet sees the stars “through a bul­let hole in the ceiling.”

Mid­way through the col­lec­tion, Abu Toha sup­ple­ments his words with pho­tos in an “Inter­lude” whose cap­tions serve as tiny poems, such as:

Every­thing gets tied in Gaza’s noose.
When a show­er of stones isn’t enough, a sky of stones might be.
The scent of cof­fee still hangs in the air. But where is the kitchen?
Through it all, the straw­ber­ries have nev­er stopped growing.

In “Dis­cov­er­ies,” we imag­ine the harsh­ness of life grinds down Gaza­’s children:

We are fine, even though we don’t feel well.
Gaza is okay, although it has noth­ing to make her feel that way. In Gaza, the sun shines and the moon flirts with the leaves of the orange trees; 
How­ev­er, Gaza’s peo­ple come and go empty-handed:
No good news to give to their children, 
no can­dy to sweet­en their pale mouths, 
and no light to read by.

Mosab Abu Toha is a Pales­tin­ian poet, schol­ar, and librar­i­an who was born in Gaza and has spent his life there. A grad­u­ate in Eng­lish lan­guage teach­ing and lit­er­a­ture, he taught Eng­lish at UNRWA) schools in Gaza from 2016–2019, and is the founder of the Edward Said Library, Gaza’s first Eng­lish-lan­guage library. From 2019–2020, Abu Toha was a Vis­it­ing Poet in the Depart­ment of Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty; a Vis­it­ing Librar­i­an at Harvard’s Houghton Library; and a Reli­gion, Con­flict, and Peace Ini­tia­tive Fel­low in the Har­vard Divin­i­ty School. He is a colum­nist for Arrow­smith Press, and his writ­ings from Gaza have also appeared in The Nation and Lit­er­ary Hub. His poems have been pub­lished on the Poet­ry Foundation’s web­site, in Poet­ry Mag­a­zine, Ban­i­pal, Sol­stice, The Markaz Review, The New Arab, Periph­eries, and oth­er journals.

These frag­ments of life inter­rupt­ed, of death that nev­er departs, have a pow­er­ful impact, while putting the read­er off-kil­ter, as though the poet is say­ing, “My lan­guage and pho­tos allow you to see, but do you ful­ly under­stand?” At the same time, Abu Toha has a knack for putting read­ers in the shoes of Gazans so sub­tly one might hard­ly notice, as when he writes of sur­viv­ing an Israeli bomb­ing that kills an entire fam­i­ly: “We were safe, but our hearts/still ache.”

Like Mohammed El-Kurd, anoth­er young Pales­tin­ian poet with a recent col­lec­tion pub­lished in the Unit­ed States, writ­ing in Eng­lish brings Abu Toha a dif­fer­ent audi­ence than that of Pales­tini­ans writ­ing in Ara­bic, whether in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions or today. In an inter­view with Mon­doweiss, Abu Toha said, “When I write in Eng­lish, I think of a west­ern lis­ten­er, as I speak direct­ly to them to tell them what is going on here in Gaza.”

That aware­ness of audi­ence lies under the sur­face of Abu Toha’s poems and some­times gives his lines an edge they might not have in Ara­bic, a lan­guage in which Pales­tine exists in a way that it does not in Eng­lish. Dar­wish wrote to a large­ly sym­pa­thet­ic though often neg­li­gent Ara­bic-speak­ing world. Poets like Abu Toha and El-Kurd write to a world that may auto­mat­i­cal­ly cat­e­go­rize their work as provocative.

For exam­ple, read­ing through Abu Toha’s Twit­ter feed while writ­ing this review, I encoun­tered quite a few tweets whose images were blocked because of poten­tial “sen­si­tive con­tent.” The images at issue includ­ed the Pales­tine Book Awards logo and a pho­to of Abu Toha’s adorable young daugh­ter in a straw­ber­ry field.

Stop being provoca­tive by insist­ing on your exis­tence, Twit­ter and many oth­ers are say­ing. In one poem, a dis­em­bod­ied voice asks Abu Toha “to stop writ­ing heavy poems.” He responds, “That voice takes away my voice.”

Are we, those who can only vis­it Gaza through Abu Toha’s words, lis­ten­ing? Upon fin­ish­ing this pow­er­ful col­lec­tion, will we speak up for Gaza’s lib­er­a­tion so Gazans may be free to live bet­ter lives and poets like Abu Toha can write about a new reality?