By Jean Franco
Mosab Abu Toha is a Palestinian poet, short story writer, and essayist from Gaza. His first English poetry collection Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza (City Lights, 2022) recently won the 2022 Palestine Book Awards prize in the “Creative” category. His first-ever visit to London coincided, somewhat ironically, with the 105th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
Do you remember the first time you ever wrote poetry in Arabic or in English?
Mosab Abu Toha: I was first introduced to poetry in Arabic because poetry is so essential for us as Arabs – we have poems that date back to the sixth century, and we read them even without necessarily understanding them. We listen to the music of these poems: think of al-Mu’allaqat, the Mu’allaqat of al-‘Asha’, ‘Antarah, Imru’ al-Qays, ‘Amr ibn Kulthum. Also as Palestinian refugees, poetry has always been something very important – to speak about our misery and the occupation.
Poetry was a very essential part of my education from a very young age, but I never tried my hand at writing something because Arabic poetry is normally associated with its form and strict meter and rhyme. I didn’t learn this as a kid. But as I grew up, and especially in 2014 as I was about to graduate, I started writing about the attacks in Gaza, in English, and some people reacted positively to my writings – they read them as poems even though when I wrote them I wasn’t thinking about poetry. This is why I carried on writing, experimenting with my writing style. I think one of the first poems I wrote in English was an imitation of MLK’s I Have a Dream, but my poem was about occupation. Through poetry I think I am more open to talking about my past, present, and my future – these three are very glued together for me. I do also write poetry in Arabic, but the first Arabic poem I wrote simply focused on the rhyme, and not the meter. I was reading Ahmad Matar, who wrote many poems about politics and dictatorship, and I tried to imitate his style.
As you study Arabic, you learn how important poetic form is. With English, was your approach to form something that you developed organically, or something that came from particular poetic forms? Did it just feel like second nature to experiment, to bend the boundaries of the language?
MAT: I feel like I can express my feelings and my observations better in English than in Arabic. When I write in English, I have a specific audience in mind: the English-speaking world. Especially Britain and the US, who have many things to do with Israel, the Occupation, and the continuing Nakba. The people who see Palestinians only as people who get killed and injured. Not much is ever said about these people when they were attacked, what they were doing when they were killed or when they were wounded.
In some of my poems, I try to explore what these people’s lives looked like before they ended. I’m trying to zoom into details that are not captured by a journalistic camera. I imagine myself as the person who was killed, because it is only luck that saved me from being killed. I was wounded, and I talk about this in my poem The Wound. I could be dead by now, and it is only by luck that I am alive and the father of three children. My only concern is about the lives that were wasted and abruptly ended by the killing machine. I want to speak about these people, about myself as a refugee, a father and a besieged person. So when I write in English, I am just showing some aspects of our lives that are not usually captured in regular coverage, academic journals, or essays.
In one of my favorite poems in your book, “On a Starless Night,” what struck me most was how you focus on the little things, the things that are left behind after an attack, the things behind the scene that you cannot see until lives are totally unraveled.
MAT: If this means something, it means that not only we in Gaza and in Palestine care about our own lives, but it’s also about the stones, the bathtub that was crushed beneath the house, the family cat, our footsteps and our memories that are being erased by the explosions and attacks. It’s about more than just our lives: it’s also about nature, it’s about the sun…
Another thing to consider is that because Gaza has been under siege forever, not only since 2007, many people my age have never been able to leave Gaza and see what the world looks like. So for me, for people my age who have never left Gaza, if you ask them ‘how big is the world’? They might answer ‘maybe it’s 10 or 100 times bigger than Gaza?’, because Gaza is their limit. I think geography and our sense of the world is distorted.
Even children confuse real life things with things associated with attacks: one time my son, when he was three years old, was with me on the balcony when he pointed at a cloud and said ‘daddy, daddy, it’s a rocket!’, and I had to explain to him that it was a simple cloud – a good, life-giving thing – and not smoke from a rocket.
International coverage tends to focus on the “resilience” of Palestinians and of oppressed peoples, how they express their sumūd, a romanticisation and fetishisation of resistance. How do you see the role of the poet in conflict?
MAT: I agree. It’s also about never wanting to change this. I don’t want to be brave. I want to be brave in other aspects of my life: in building a house for my family, not in bearing the weight of occupation and destruction. My role as a poet is to put myself in the place of those who have died. I myself have been in this place: I have been in Gaza all my life, I have lost several friends, I have been injured – shrapnel was lodged less than two centimeters from my windpipe. What was it like for the people who were crushed beneath the rubble of the house they loved? Maybe one of the walls on which they had stuck photos of their favorite singers and football players was the same wall that killed them. We don’t know what happened to those who were killed. It is my duty to create this life for them, to imagine what it is like to be in their place.
Your poetry has a political feeling that isn’t explicitly partisan…
MAT: There is one line by the Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, ‘What is poetry that does not save lives?’ In my writing, I hope to change how people think of us as Gazans and Palestinians. I’m not talking from a political point of view, regardless of how you perceive me and my poetry, I’m just describing how it can feel to be the person who has been turned into a number. This is not a choice. I was born in Gaza: do you want me to write poems about Liverpool and Chelsea? Do you want me to write about the sea and the beach? I did write about the sea! But my seashore has been the scene of bloodshed and destruction, as happened in 2006. I mention this in my book – Huda Ghalia’s family was killed there. Our nature is linked with atrocities. In one of my poems I also discuss how we usually see the sun as the sign of a new day, the time for a date with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but for us in Gaza it is the sign of a new day that we must survive. The clouds are bomb smoke. In Gaza, everything is twisted and upside down.
What is poetry for you?
MAT: There is a line from Wordsworth that defines poetry as “emotions recollected in tranquility.” You have to be quiet, close your eyes, and ideas will come to you. I start writing and ideas pull me in a certain direction – it is a really complex process. They say “you cannot cross a river twice,” well, you cannot write a poem twice.
For example, my poem “The Wound” about my getting injured in 2009, I wrote it only two years ago. I don’t know how I remembered all these details; I never imagined it would take me ten pages to complete the poem. It’s not just about details, but remembering how I felt. Remembering how my deaf-mute brother felt, how my neighbor felt. Wordsworth talks about tranquility, but in Gaza there is no such sense of tranquility. You recollect these things in troubled times, in anxiety.
Have the Romantic poets always been a passion of yours?
MAT: Yes. Attention to nature has always been one of the most exciting things for me. The beauty that you watch only happens once in your lifetime. It is the same with a child: every day he grows up he is never the same.
It’s about the “decisive moment.”
MAT: Yes, you have to be very attentive to your surroundings. Nature has always been part of mine. I was born in a refugee camp, but in 2001 we moved to a rural area in north Gaza where there were lots of open fields and trees. My father loved to raise pigeons, ducks, and hens. There were guava, orange and olive trees. I would just look at the birds every morning. To this day my family has a garden with trees – my love of photography comes from there.
You often write about Jaffa’s orange trees. They have always stuck with me since seeing your first online writings about them.
MAT: I want to visit Jaffa. A few days ago, I wrote something about my grandfather, interviewing my father about whether he was able to visit his parents’, my grandparents’, house in Jaffa. My father said that he did visit it when he was a child to help my grandfather work in the orange harvest, to iron clothes. He told me that he passed by the family house which was now occupied by a Jewish family, and he remembered a two-storey house and a big, old mulberry tree.
This is the picture of my dream house. But the tragedy is that many Palestinians have kept their house keys, but my question is, they have the keys with them, do the doors even still exist? Is the kitchen still there? Jaffa is a big thing for me. Currently I am writing more about my grandfather and my late brother, who passed away in 2003. I ask him some questions in my writing: I wrote one letter after he came to me in a dream and I didn’t speak to him. I don’t know why I didn’t speak to him, but even though he was deaf and mute, maybe he now knew how to speak. Maybe in death he gained the ability to speak. So I asked him, “you came into my dream, I didn’t converse with you, what kept my mouth shut? Were you holding something in your hand? Are your hands still small? Maybe you were carrying a letter from Fate. I didn’t ask you if you saw grandfather. Maybe he is not up there, but maybe he is still in Jaffa, tending to his orange trees.”
In your poetry you manage to capture the past, the present and the future all at once. You also focus on identity: in an age in which people try to ‘discover’ their authentic selves, their true identities. It seems that in Palestine, it’s a matter about holding onto an identity that is being forcibly eroded. You capture this through the little things such as a fruit tree or a house.
MAT: I am a third generation refugee. My grandfather was expelled from Jaffa. My father was born in a refugee camp. I was born in a refugee camp. Now my son, who is seven years old, was not born in a refugee camp. So he doesn’t have the sense of what it feels like to be a refugee. The chain between me and Jaffa is becoming longer and longer. I am two steps away, and my son is three steps away. The challenge is to foster in our children and grandchildren the feeling that they have something to return to. As a kid, when I used to introduce myself I used to say: “Hi, my name is Mosab, I am from Jaffa.” It’s very important to remember where we come from, not only our names and our date of birth. It’s about remembering the places we should’ve been in instead of being in a refugee camp. The last time I was able to see my aunt, who lives in Jordan, was in 2000. Relatives abroad no longer have Palestinian IDs, but they still have Palestine inside. You are besieged both inside, and outside of it.
What is English for you?
MAT: In general, a language is just a means of communication. We speak languages to communicate with our fellow humans. English is a world language, but it is also the language that makes you at home wherever you are in the world. But unfortunately for us Palestinians, it was the language that deprived us of our land. The Balfour Declaration was written in English. It is the language of openness and also the language of destruction. That is English for me.
What is your relationship with the Hebrew language in a moment in which more and more Palestinians are becoming bilingual?
MAT: It is different between the West Bank and Gaza. Gaza does not really have any Hebrew speakers. When you hear Hebrew in Gaza, it is either the news, the radio, the TV, or Netanyahu threatening Gaza. It is what you see on some bombs manufactured in Israel. I’m not sure – I’ve never met anyone who speaks Hebrew, and I have never lived in Israel. When you think of Hebrew you may think of Israel, and when you think of Israel you think of occupation and war, but this is not the sin of the language, it is the sins committed against us by those who speak it. I’ve never had the chance to read any Hebrew book translated into Arabic because they were never available to me. But I wonder if people in Israel read what we write in Arabic! I’m trying to read as much world literature as I can, regardless of whether it’s Hebrew, German, or Russian. I’m curious to know what Hebrew writers write about. You know, Mahmoud Darwish accessed world literature through Hebrew – he was fluent in Hebrew. Growing up in Akka, he said in one of his interviews he said read Russian literature in Hebrew! One interesting thing about Darwish is he said that in his young age he had wanted to be a painter, but his father couldn’t afford painting tools. So he decided to become a poet! Thank God he did.
I was curious to know, who do you see as making up your poetic ‘genealogy’ – who do you see as your literary fathers and mothers?
MAT: Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Edward Saïd, but also the old Arab poets such as al-Mutanabbi, ‘Amr Ibn Kulthum. (then recites https://www.aldiwan.net/poem311.html). There is also a pre-Islamic su’luk (brigand) poet called al-Shanfarah, the wandering poet, who wrote the ‘lāmiyyat al-Arab’ (he then recites this poem). He talks about his clan, boasting about his strength and speed, but also about his humility and politeness. He says that he doesn’t love his qawm, he thinks that they are greedy hypocrites, telling them: ‘and without you I have another community, and even though I am the best hunter, I don’t eat my catch and leave it for them to eat’.
Jean Franco is the co-editor of Farsang Journal (farsangjournal.substack.com) and the newest member of ArabLit.
Three poems by Mosab Abu Toha: