Mosab Abu Toha’s “Gaza Notebook (2021–2023)”
By Mosab Abu TohaNovember 22, 2023
MOSAB ABU TOHA’S poems and journal dispatches have become familiar to American poetry readers following the unfolding Israeli carnage in Gaza for the past 45 days. Between published works, his social media posts updated readers on the destruction of his house in Beit Lahia, his near-death escape of a second bombardment, and the losses of loved ones and life as he had previously known it, even as a survivor of five previous Israeli wars on his hometown. On November 19, we learned that Mosab was kidnapped in southern Gaza as he and his wife and their young children were fleeing Israeli bombardment. Like thousands of other families, they had sought shelter in a school in Jabalia, in northern Gaza, and waited to move to the southernmost city of Rafah. The journey of roughly 18 miles is incredibly treacherous, with roads bombed out into deep craters and dead bodies strewn along the way. Mosab and family only decided to embark on this terrible journey when Israel said there was safe evacuation corridor and they had finally secured evacuation papers that would enable them all to leave to the United States. En route to Rafah, at Deir al Balah, the family was stopped at the Israeli Netzarim checkpoint. Mosab was carrying his American-born son in his arms. A soldier ordered him to put the boy down. Walking in a line, arms raised above their heads, nearly 200 Palestinian men were arbitrarily abducted by the soldiers. Mosab was among them.
This morning we learned that Mosab has been released. He sought medical attention because the soldiers beat him violently during interrogation. He made it back to Deir al Balah and has been reunited with his family, waiting to make it to Rafah. None of the other men captured with Mosab nor those he met in captivity have been released yet. According to Addameer, the Palestinian Support and Human Rights Association, untold numbers of people remain captive in Gaza, and in the West Bank and Jerusalem the number of those arbitrarily detained since the onset of the war has exceeded 2,000.
Mosab is a poet, scholar, and librarian. He is the founder of the Edward Said Library, the first English-language library in Gaza. He is the author of Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, published by City Lights in 2022. His book won the American Book Award and the Derek Walcott Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Mosab writes in the long tradition of Palestinian poets in Palestine and in the diaspora. His love for his home, his land, and his people is channeled in his expansive poems, underscoring the richness of the tradition to which he belongs and the dignity of all Palestinians writing despite state violence and erasure.
—Lena Khalaf Tuffaha and Deema K. Shehabi
November 21, 2023
MOSAB ABU TOHA
Gaza Notebook (2021–2023)
My two eyes, when closed,
each see different things:
One me leaving Gaza in peace,
in one piece,
one me getting jailed at the Erez crossing point.
My head: a confused old TV channel
picking up crossed
(In Egypt visiting the Red Sea)
Riding a jetboat for the first time,
my hat falls in the sea, waves
wear it now,
and at night I’m back home,
unable to sleep.
In 5th grade, I visit the school library.
On one wall next to the door, a poster claims
“If you read books, you live more than one life.”
Now I’m thirty and whenever I look at faces
around me, old or young, on the foreheads I read:
If you live in Gaza, you die several times.
The bomb when it pounded the sea
made an eye socket underneath the sand.
The fish thought the sea
had been crying forever.
She asked her teacher:
If there are four directions,
then why do we have only two feet?
When it rains, farmers think the sky loves them.
They are wrong. It rains either because
the clouds cannot carry the sacks of water for too long,
or because a sparrow has said a prayer
when it heard a thirsty root begging.
In Gaza it’s been raining bombs
because death was born here.
It never left our neighborhoods.
No one at home.
The doorknob only dust touches it now.
The pots grow parched.
The frying pans miss the smell of olive oil.
The clotheslines pine for soap scent.
The flowerpot the window the key
stones of house after explosion get Alzheimer’s
some forget they were in a wall in a bedroom or a kitchen or a bathroom
some in a ceiling
some forget they sat behind photo frames for years
a few stones [forget] they were stones
those hit by the bomb
Birds draw the lines of their homes in the sky,
and the wind…
walking on the beach,
dreams grow between each two footprints
on the sand
and the waves, what do they do?
Her dreams get stale
she throws them on the closest sea wave
and that wave
Raindrops slide on windowpanes,
each one exploring a new space,
a bed made for the night,
or, on the kitchen counter, a glass full of water
(or missing siblings)
(Gaza July 16, 2014, boys from Baker family)
children play soccer ball
on the beach they are eight
eight bombs thump the field four kids killed
four wounded without checking his watch
the referee announces a draw (4–4)
he knows the game
should be over [unless there are more planes more bombs
more goals] the audience the waves
no longer cheers
an ambulance worker
glimpses the ball the kids used to entertain the soccer ball [unharmed]
the referee blows a second final whistle
on the smashed scoreboard
(the kids’ team wins)
upon birth mask up your children and leave them unnamed
the angel of death won’t find them
someone may ask
why not paint their faces change their names
a nightingale on the tree of the night exclaims
what if both the painter and the registry official
work for the angel of death
and a stone near a cemetery suggests
what about not giving birth to children
in the camp house small
power off humid
drone buzzing fills up bullet holes in walls
young and old
spend most of the night
in the street
in the camp
a street can become a living room
talking talking watching cats and mice
scavenging through trash for cheese or meat
rooms inside: drawers where tired souls
are temporarily stored
LARB Poetry Editor Elizabeth Metzger was in correspondence with Mosab Abu Toha before his kidnapping and received his permission to publish this work.
Samia Halaby (b.1936, Jerusalem) is a leading abstract painter and an influential scholar of Palestinian art. Although based in the United States since 1951, Halaby is recognized as a pioneer of contemporary abstraction in the Arab world. Halaby has been collected by international institutions since the 1970s, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art (New York and Abu Dhabi); Yale University Art Gallery; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Art Institute of Chicago; Cleveland Museum of Art; Institut du Monde Arabe; and the British Museum.
Rosalind Nashashibi (b. 1973 in Croydon, United Kingdom) received her BA in painting from Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield (UK), in 1995, after which she attended the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow (UK), where she received her MFA in 2000. As part of her master’s degree, Nashashibi participated in a three-month exchange program in Valencia, California (United States), at CalArts in 2000. Nashashibi became the first artist in residence at the National Gallery in London, after the program was reestablished in 2020. She was a Turner Prize nominee in 2017, and represented Scotland in the 52nd Venice Biennale. Her work has been included in Documenta 14, Manifesta 7, the Nordic Triennial, and Sharjah 10. She was the first woman to win the Beck’s Futures prize in 2003.
Featured image: Samia Halaby, Three Way, Nine, 1982. Casein on paper, 57 x 77 cm.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Summer Farah interviews Hala Alyan and Zeina Hashem Beck about “We Call to the Eye & the Night: Love Poems by Writers of Arab Heritage.”
A Century of Writing Back: How Salma Khadra Jayyusi Brought Arabic Literature to the Anglophone World
Dima Ayoub describes the long and multivarious career of Palestinian author and critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!