Palestine Is a Story Away: A Tribute to Refaat Alareer
By Mosab Abu TohaJanuary 2, 2024
When I published my poetry book, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, in 2022, the first person I gave a copy to in Gaza was Refaat. I signed the copy by writing, “Palestine is a poem away.”
Now Refaat is a world away. He was assassinated on December 6 by the Israeli army. The only weapon in his Gaza apartment was an EXPO marker. If the Israeli soldiers were to raid his house, he said, he would throw it at them, while crying, “We are helpless.”
Refaat and I loved strawberries. We used to go to Beit Lahia in North Gaza, pick strawberries, then sit and eat. He would not forget to bring a lot of strawberries for his mother and wife and children. We would also sit in the open and play pun games. He would not fail to tease me and our third partner, Waleed.
I remember that, in June 2015, Refaat messaged me, asking if he could recommend my name to join the recently founded We Are Not Numbers, which aims to mentor and train young people in Gaza to become writers.
I had sent him one of my early poems, to which he responded, “Mosab, I read your poem. It’s very good. With more writing, more reading, more practice, you can write amazing stuff.”
In 2017, I told Refaat about the Edward Said Library that I managed to create in North Gaza. I showed him the picture I used to raise funds for the project and spread awareness about the situation in Gaza. It was of me holding a copy of The Norton Anthology of American Literature that I retrieved from under the rubble of the English Department at the Islamic University of Gaza back in 2014, after Israel bombed the administration building. Refaat told me it was his book. I would later think of Refaat as the co-founder of the Edward Said Library. The status of the two branches during the war remains unknown.
Refaat and I were huge fans of FC Barcelona. He would get mad whenever Barcelona was defeated. He would start blaming the players, saying, “Why have they bought him?” And many times he would say, “The coach must resign.”
Refaat loved to play ping-pong.
He loved John Donne more than any other poet.
He loved to teach Shakespeare as well as Palestinian literature.
Last December, I was in the United States completing my MFA program. Refaat hosted me at one of his poetry classes. He introduced me to his students and praised my book before discussing it with the students. Then we had a conversation.
Refaat always urged his students to write their own poems and stories.
Refaat himself was a poet and short story writer as well as an essayist whose writings appeared in The New York Times, among other places.
Refaat did not want to die.
He loved life; he loved his students; he loved his family; and he loved food, especially ice cream.
The last time I heard Refaat’s voice on the phone was on November 27, a few days after I was released by the Israeli army, having been kidnapped for three days. Refaat was furious about what happened to me. He generously asked if my family in North Gaza needed anything that he could offer. He told me about his car, that it was damaged. We used to go in that car to the restaurants and ice cream shops, as well as to the strawberry farms.
But now there is no car, no restaurants, no ice cream shops, no strawberry farms, no Refaat.
There is only this world that keeps watching our burnt bodies, our disfigured children, our wiped-out neighborhoods, our devastated humanity.
What Refaat asked of every one of us was to tell his tale. And his tale and those of others need to change this world, need to stop the genocide. It is not fiction. It is not poetry. It is his life.
Refaat left us, but his word must not.
The last time I was in touch with him was on December 3. I texted him that I made it to Egypt with my wife and three kids and that I felt a bit guilty because “I’m now away from you and my family and the whole of Gaza. I cannot get in touch with you easily.”
Refaat replied, “Do not regret anything. The only one who knows about your circumstances is you.”
I don’t know how Refaat died, whether he was reading a John Donne poem or editing a poem of his own. I don’t know what became of his body after the bombing of his house, whether his glasses got smashed, whether his soft fingers were clinging to a pen or a flower he asked the world community to send to Gaza.
I wish I had taken my copy of his book, Gaza Writes Back, but my house got bombed last month. I lost all my books.
I still foolishly hope that Refaat will come back to see a peaceful world for Palestinians, an end to the blockade and occupation, and a ceasefire that could bring water and food to the starving and bleeding children and mothers.
Featured image: Mohammed Chebaa, Palestinian Geometry, 1978. A printing from the Visual Arts Exhibition's catalog entitled “International art exhibition for Palestine” which was held in Beirut during the spring of 1978. Mona Saudi Collection, the Palestinian Museum Digital Archive. Accessed December 27, 2023. Image has been cropped.
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