By Tugrul Mende
This month sees the release of Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha’s debut collection Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, published by City Lights. At age 24, the Gaza-based writer founded the Edward Said Library, which now has branches in Gaza City and Beit Lahia.
After graduating with a degree in English literature, in 2019-2020 Abu Toha became a Scholars-at-Risk fellow and a visiting poet at Harvard University, hosted by the university’s Department of Comparative Literature.
The following is an excerpt from the collection’s title poem, available online at the Poetry Foundation website:
When you open my ear, touch it
My mother’s voice lingers somewhere inside.
Her voice is the echo that helps recover my equilibrium
when I feel dizzy during my attentiveness.
You may encounter songs in Arabic,
poems in English I recite to myself,
or a song I chant to the chirping birds in our backyard.
His publisher, City Lights, writes that:
“These poems emerge directly from the experience of growing up and living in constant lockdown, and often under direct attack. Like Gaza itself, they are filled with rubble and the ever-present menace of surveillance drones policing a people unwelcome in their own land, and they are also suffused with the smell of tea, roses in bloom, and the view of the sea at sunset. Children are born, families continue traditions, students attend university, and libraries rise from the ruins as Palestinians go on about their lives, creating beauty and finding new ways to survive.”
Included in the book is an extended interview with the poet, in which he says that “when you are a poet, you need to be saying something that cannot be said by other people. Poets don’t necessarily need to be first-rate readers of poetry, because when they start to write poems they already have what they need, they have been living it. When I tell my story to – anyone – it’s as if I’m reciting poetry.”
We spoke to Abu Toha about his experience of publishing his first collection, and with poetry itself.
Why did you choose to write poetry, and what does poetry mean for you?
I don’t think writing poetry is necessarily a choice. In my case, I started writing short poems during the 2014 aggression against Gaza. Over time, writing became a need. At times, I feel I have to write something in order to understand myself. I feel like ridding my subconscious of recurring nightmares. These nightmares could be things I had seen with my own eyes or on TV, or things I imagine had happened to others and I was lucky I was in a different place when it occurred.
In fact, I do write short stories in Arabic and have published a few of them in the New Arab magazine. I’m also working on my first novel in Arabic. Still, poetry remains my principal focus these days.
How did the collection, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, come to light?
I’ve been writing poems since before 2014. I never thought about putting these poems together in one book until I travelled to the United States. Between September 2019-July 2020, I spent my time at Harvard University as a visiting poet, during which I penned most of my poems. I worked on a collection of poems, but there were many of them. I did publish in a few magazines such as Poetry, Banipal, The Nation, Solstice, Peripheries, The Markaz Review, The New Arab, and Al-Jadid. I got nominated by some poets and scholars for a fellowship program at Harvard in 2019. I received a formal invitation letter to become a visiting poet at the Department of Comparative Literature and a visiting librarian in residence at Houghton Library for a period of 10 months. My friend Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to prepare a collection and submit it to publication. It wasn’t until January 2021 that I considered arranging my collection. My friend Ammiel Alcalay suggested a few publishers for my book. City Lights Books was the best option. I began sending Ammiel some poems which, he could share with City Lights. And we took it from there.
How did you meet Naomi Shihab Nye and how did she influence your own creative journey?
I haven’t met Naomi Nye in person in my life. We have been corresponding via email since before 2019. I first contacted Naomi to get her support for the Edward Said Library in Gaza. I have known her as an important contemporary poet. I shared some of my poems with Naomi. She read them and encouraged me to publish them in a magazine. Before that, I never thought of publishing any of my poems in magazines, not in anthologies or in book form. Naomi offered to recite my poems in reading events in Texas and elsewhere. I’m very thankful to her.
Naomi was also the first poet to invite me to read my work in poetry readings. It was a Zoom event back in August 2020. After the event, Naomi emailed me to say that some attendees asked her if I had published any poetry collection that they could order. She encouraged me to put a collection of poems together and submit it to poetry contests and later to a publisher. Naomi granted me her enthusiasm and passion for poetry.
Are there any particular linguistic aspects of poetry that you consider when you write poetry, linguistic, like style or ideas that you want to convey?
I usually don’t think about the linguistic aspect when I write poems. It mainly comes with feelings. When I write, words flow on the page and look for some space. Words decide where to locate themselves on my lines. I’m just a channel for them. Ideas are what the readers perceive of my writing.
How did you choose the poems that you included in the collection and how is the title connected to the poems?
The title of my poetry collection is Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear and it’s one of the poems I published last year on Poetry Foundation. I wrote it after I had some surgery done on my right ear in Boston. I addressed it to my doctor, asking her to be careful while she was opening up my ear. Some things [in there] are precious to me. Other things are horrific, and I wanted her to rid my ear of them. Our ears are memories of sweet and bitter moments. The sound of birds in the morning, children chatting on the way to school, waves lapping on the shore, and other moments one cannot forget. When we hear someone speak certain words, we often directly associate these words with sounds stored in our ears. There are some awful sounds attached to some words like the whirring of drones, blasts of bombs, whistling of bullets cutting through the still air, wailing of a mother who’s lost a son or a husband, etc.
Almost every poem in this collection has this combination of beauty and violence, which is hard to separate.
What inspires you to write your poems?
Everything around me is a source of inspiration. The clouds in the sky, sunset at the seashore, drops of rain falling into potholes in the street, the voices of boys chatting on the way to school, the braying of a donkey while a dog is barking.
Which poets influenced you the most and why?
I have been influenced by the classical Arab poets and the musicality of their odes. The details they capture when they describe the nature and animals around them. The way they express their feelings of bravery and anguish of loss. Modern Arab poets also have contributed to my being and my writing. Poets like Gibran Khalil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish, Dader Al-Sayyab, Adonis, Saadi Youssef, Najwan Darwish, among others. Unlike most of the ancient poets, these modern poets lived their lives between two worlds, if not more. Sometimes these worlds proved to be opposing.The Arab poets have influenced nearly everyone in the Arab world, whether they are poets or not. I personally have been influenced by the music of the Arabic poetry as much as by the morals presented and by the images carried in every line. Nature, whether animals, trees, or the landscape in general, was present in their poems.
I have also been reading literature from the Western world, especially from the US and Britain. The romantic poets have touched my heart a lot. Mary Karr and Naomi Shihab Nye are both poets and prose writers. I have been influenced by their work and their personalities.
How do your studies affect your work as a poet? Are they connected to each other?
I studied English and I really enjoy attending literary courses, especially courses on writing poetry and short stories. When I teach children, I try to link what I have learnt to what I’m teaching them. Names of books and authors, whether from the Arab or Western world, inspire students to work harder. I tell them they can be as well-known as these people, but only if they read widely and thoroughly and write well.
Your collection includes an interview with you. How do you feel about talking about your family and work with the media?
Not a lot of people in the world know about life in Palestine, not to mention Gaza. What I was talking about in the interview was a unique life to many people. I was born in a refugee camp. My grandparents were expelled from their homes in Yaffa in 1948. They both died in the camp. They never thought they would. I still live in Gaza, a few kilometers away from my grandparents’ house in Yaffa, which I think had been destroyed.
Gaza is under siege so we live under siege in an occupied country. No one can leave this place when they wish to or need to, nor could they return to it when or if they leave.
I feel compelled to sometimes talk about my family because my family is me. It’s what I’m living and what my children and grandchildren would live if this situation doesn’t change.
Why did you choose to write your poems in English and do you ever think about writing in Arabic too?
I write poetry in Arabic, and I think I started this around the same time I wrote poetry in English. I don’t usually decide to use English or Arabic when I write a new poem. Either the words and inspiration reveal themselves to me in English, or I feel like I want to address a friend outside of Gaza and Palestine and to share my feelings and what I witness as a person living under the sword of occupation.
When writing in Arabic, it’s often about the past, my grandfather and home, or it’s about statelessness and alienation. It’s about our dilemma as human beings. Big questions like why we are here, and what if I was this or that person. Worlds of God and angels and nature as actors on the stage around me.
You say that “Worlds of God and angels and nature as actors on the stage around me”. Could you elaborate on this?
I don’t know if this could be easily explained. Moving between two languages might be perplexing. But mainly, when I contemplate existential issues like God, death, or angels, when I question these things, I think of them in Arabic. That’s not always the case. Why in Arabic? Because Islam’s holy book is in this language. I read the Holy Quran hundreds of times in my life along with other books. So, these things show up around me on the stage wearing their gowns embroidered in the Arabic alphabet.
Do you ever translate your poems?
I write in both English and Arabic. I don’t think I should translate what I write in either language and prefer to let my poems stay in the language they were created in. Maybe this is something I should leave to others.
Mosab Abu Toha’s collection, Things You May Find in My Ear is available from City Lights from April 26. Excerpt from “Things You May Find Hidden In My Ear,” from Things You May Find Hidden In My Ear © 2022 by Mosab Abu Toha, reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books: www.citylights.com.
May 7: Mosab Abu Toha, in conversation with Mary Karr
Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.