Gaza through a poet’s eyes

Mosab Abu Toha sits at a table in the Edward Said Library holding a book

Poet Mosab Abu Toha established the first public English-language library in Beit Lahiya in the Gaza Strip in 2017 and established its second branch, in Gaza City, in 2019.

Mohammad Zayed

One afternoon a few years ago, when poet Mosab Abu Toha sat down at his desk to write, he heard one of his young sons cry out.

“Come and look!” Yazan said. “There’s a rocket flying out there!”

Mosab went outside to check, but, looking up at the sky, he saw that it was only a cloud. He reassured his son that they were safe, that it was not a rocket.

“Clouds are never confused for rockets by kids, except here,” Mosab said in late June of this year, during an interview at his home in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya.

Recalling this moment, he said it’s the kind of situation that motivates him to keep writing.

“If I let these horrible sounds dominate the sky and my mind,” he said, “I wouldn’t be able to hear my heart beat and know I’m still alive. When I write, it’s like speaking over the sounds of bomb explosions and the buzzing of drones. To write is to assert my existence.”

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear

Mosab’s debut book of poetry, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, was published in April 2022 by the San Francisco-based City Lights. In June, it was shortlisted for the Palestine Book Awards.

Yet Mosab, 29, said he only started writing poems during the summer of 2014, during Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza.

He posted what he was feeling and witnessing on Facebook. Online, the reactions were encouraging, and he continued to write.

“I sensed I could change how people perceive things in Gaza through my eyes, the poet’s eyes,” he said.

“Wars and surviving them, yet losing close friends, have had a great effect on me as a person and also as a poet.”

Mosab was born in Gaza’s Beach refugee camp in 1993, just a few months before the signing of the Oslo accords. His family moved to Beit Lahiya when he was 9 years old.

He still lives there today, with his wife and three children, in a home surrounded by farmland. Sparrows chirp and hop from tree to tree in the garden. But some of the home’s walls are damaged and cracked from Israeli attacks. They are a reminder that, even in this tranquil setting, war is possible at any minute.

“I don’t feel safe in Gaza,” he said, “whether during the Israeli aggressions or in the permanent ceasefire periods. I can’t feel the deep meaning of home, where I should feel comfort and assurance and where I can stay or leave whenever and to wherever I desire.”

In October 2019, Mosab left Gaza for the first time when Harvard University appointed him as a visiting poet and librarian.

The experience, he said, was “life-changing” and, at times, “shocking.”

“This cultural shock can be simplified in one example,” he said. “In one shopping center outside, one can listen to people speaking different languages and even accents.”

In contrast, Gaza receives international visitors only in times of war, crisis or with the arrival of a human rights delegation.

“The time I spent at Harvard was essential for me to develop as a poet,” he said.

For the previous eight years he had been writing the poems that would be collected in Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear. In the end, he would collect 50 poems for the book, drawing on themes of memory, nature and spirituality.

“When I started writing poetry, I never thought I would be publishing them in a collection.”

After his book was published, he eagerly waited for copies to arrive from the press in California. Yet the shipping company UPS doesn’t deliver to Gaza and, instead, the copies were sent to the West Bank.

Consequently, in an ironic turn, people around the world received the book earlier than its author.

Gaza’s first public English-language library

On 2 August 2014, Israel bombed the administration building of the Islamic University of Gaza, including the university’s English department.

Mosab had graduated that year with a degree in English-language teaching, though he had a particular interest in English literature. His favorite course was Romantic Literature.

While walking through the ruins of his university, he came across the destroyed library.

“The sight of thousands of books buried under rubble, especially the English-language books for which I felt such an affinity … struck me the hardest,” he wrote in an essay.

At that time, he decided to establish Gaza’s first public English-language library, the Edward Said Library.

“I don’t remember finding a public library as a child,” he said. “My father used to buy us little illustrated short stories. I thought of creating a public library in Gaza to make that available for children who cannot afford to buy books.”

The library opened to the public in 2017 in Beit Lahiya, receiving dozens of visitors on a daily basis, whether to read books or use the computers. Inspired by this, Mosab opened a second branch in Gaza City in 2019.

Still, stocking the libraries proved difficult.

“It wasn’t easy to ship other books to Gaza for the library, as they must come through and be checked by Israel,” Mosab said. “This happened in 2016, when [the incoming books for the library] were banned for months and even some packages were damaged, especially the ones donated by Professor Noam Chomsky.”

Mosab spends a good deal of his time reading. He has several favorite authors, including Mahmoud Darwish, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Najwan Darwish, Rabee Jaber, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Karr, J.R.R. Tolkien and Sinan Antoon.

Of the poems in his own book, his favorite is “my grandfather and home.” It’s a tribute to his grandfather, who he never met.

The first stanza reads:

my grandfather used to count the days for return with his fingers
he then used stones to count
not enough
he used the clouds birds people

“To me, he is the lost Palestine, which I cannot visit and can only hear about from others,” he said.

Mosab is now working on his first collection of short stories in Arabic and a second collection of English poems.

“I dream of traveling wherever and whenever I want,” he said, “without the slightest concern of not being able to return.”

Hanin A. Elholy is a researcher, writer and translator based in occupied Palestine.