• Dispatches from the Land of Erasure During a Genocide

    “Poetry’s belatedness hauntingly echoes international law’s belatedness when it comes to defining genocide.”

    “I wish children didn’t die. I wish they would be temporarily elevated to the skies until the wars end. Then they would return home safe, and when their parents ask them; where were you? They’d say ‘We were playing with the clouds.’”
    Ghassan Kanafani

    On October 9, 2023, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in an Israeli Army situation update advised that Israel was “imposing a complete siege on Gaza. No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

    On October 31, when asked why he was not fleeing the North [of Gaza], Dr. Hammam Alloh responded: “If I go, who would treat my patients? We are not animals, we have the right to receive proper health care.”

    Two weeks later, he was killed in an Israeli air strike.

    By the end of October, it was estimated that 6,000 bombs per week had been dropped on Gaza.

    By December, Israel’s military attacks had “wreaked more destruction than the razing of Syria’s Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, Ukraine’s Mariupol, or proportionally, the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.”

    The destruction wrought by Israel is so extreme that, “Gaza is now a different color from space… a different texture.” (Corey Sher)

    Gauze, in one etymological positing, is connected to Gaza. A center of weaving in the so-called Middle Ages, Gaza was known for its fine silk (qazz in Arabic) that was imported into Europe. The delicate covering now used to stimulate wound healing.

    Well over 1,000 children have had at least one leg amputated since the bombings began.

    Did I take the time to walk a little outside during the genocide?
    Did I phone an old friend, remember the old days and catch up on the new, during the genocide?
    Did I share a kind smile with strangers on my way to and from work during the genocide?

    Did I see Amina Ghanem, thirteen-year-old girl, her black irises seeming to crowd out the white, in her gray Adidas hoodie and blue surgical mask, the blue star clip in her black hair?

    She told the journalist, “We were sleeping and we heard the sound of tanks when they came and walked [drove] over the caravan in which I, my father, and my brothers lived. The tank squeezed us inside the tin all night until the morning, and when they took us out, I found that my father and my little sister had been killed.”

    Did I take a deep breath and count to ten when I became angry during the genocide?

    Did I keep watching those black eyes, whose blackness beyond the iris was not iris but blood vessels broken, and those dancing hands, as they gestured the flattening of the tanks over her family in their tin hovel, during the genocide?

    Did she remind me of my daughter?

    Did I text my daughter at school to check in on her when she was struggling, during the genocide?

    Did I remember that the genocider was also once genocided, and what preceded the genocide was an attack that brought back memories of the genocide, during the genocide?

    How could I forget?

    Why did it take attacks by Hamas for people to pay attention? Is it possible that we only understand the logic of violence?

    In the wake of Hamas’s attacks, some critics like Judith Butler noted that critique itself—at least in official, corporate media—was suddenly suspended, even forbidden. And in some sense, the ongoing disinformation and censorship campaigns have created their own no-speak zones. Social media—despite its own measures of social control and the matrix of the information war—has been a space where once marginalized voices and perspectives have suddenly gained purchase, even popularity.

    In early November, my daughter Leila tried to mobilize the Diversity Council she co-founded at her high school to do a walkout and day of mourning for Palestine. To stand with the other Arab American students, for the first time, as a group.

    The school said no, it’s not a good time.

    That month, I received an email from the DEIB office at my university, stating that I was the subject of a Bias Report. Because of my social media posts, one of which stated, “From the River to the Sea, let every precious life be free,” this student asserted that I was wishing for the death of Jewish students.

    Let every precious life. Every precious life. Precious life.

    With the murders of Palestinian journalists and poets, what can poetry do? Poetry’s durability is sometimes in proportion to its belatedness. Poetry is often a practice where first thought is usually not the best thought, nor even the final word. Poetry’s belatedness hauntingly echoes international law’s belatedness when it comes to defining genocide.

    Calling any event a genocide, particularly when unmoored from legal definitions of genocide, has become one of the go-to politicized moves of attention-grabbers. And yet, what if calling an event a genocide can prevent the further unfolding of a genocide?

    The documentary/investigative poetry impulse spans historical and contemporary and ought to create a thread between them, but the present constantly recedes like the angel of history blown into the future. In a situation where genocide may be unfolding, is there not a need for other kinds of poetry, more transient, fugitive, and truthful to the moment?

    In “Notes on Craft: Writing in the Hour of Genocide,” Fargo Tbakhi writes: “We must be engaged in this kind of writing, which calls others into mobilization, generating feelings within our audiences that cannot be dispersed through the act of reading, but must be carried out into collective action.”

    What if the best poem of the AWP convention of 2024 is the RAWI email encouraging all panels begin with a land acknowledgment that recognizes we are living in a time of genocide?

    Pastry chef Masoud Muhammad al-Qatati [was] killed in an Israeli airstrike on his house on November 3, 2023. His shop’s motto “let the poor eat”—and reputation for giving away the popular Palestinian treat knafeh to indigent customers—had earned him the nickname “Father of the Poor.”

    The Israeli Minister of Security Itamar Ben-Gvir clarified the government’s position in a televised address, stating: “[t]o be clear, when we say that Hamas should be destroyed, it also means those who celebrate, those who support, and those who hand out candy—they’re all terrorists, and they should also be destroyed.”

    On November 10th, the US vetoed the first UN resolution for immediate ceasefire.

    In early November, my daughter Leila tried to get her school to do a day of mourning for Israel and Palestine. The school said no, it’s not a good time. She resigned from the Diversity Council.

    Now she knows, I thought suddenly, what it’s like to be Arab American.

    In December, I learned a new term: shadowban. When a social media platform mutes a user without informing them.

    On December 8th, only one rescue vehicle was reportedly operational in the whole of Gaza, with survivors forced to try to dig for survivors with their bare hands.

    On December 8th, the US vetoed the second UN resolution for an immediate ceasefire.

    In January, when I printed out the names of the dead children of Gaza, each name a line, it came out to one hundred pages. I flipped through them, looking for names I knew. The first four names:

    Abd al-Jawad Mizar Jamal Hoso (0 years old)
    Abdel Khaleq Fadi Khaled Al Baba (0 years old)
    Abdel Rahim Ahmed Abdel Rahim Awad (0 years old)
    Abdel Rahman Ahmed Essam Salah (0 years old)….

    On the final page, it read: this is half of the dead children.

    It’s not enough to share the poetry of Hida Abu Nada or Refaat Alareer, two recent poets killed in Gaza. It’s not enough to publish Palestinians, though they should also be published.

    Palestinians want to go home. We, the citizens of this empire, are funding the Israeli effort to make that impossible.

    Five months since October 7th, the US has made over 100 arms deliveries amounting to billions of dollars of military aid to Israel, including “thousands of precision-guided munitions, small-diameter bombs, bunker busters, small arms and other lethal aid.”

    Perhaps no poet has been more tireless in his writing—and his widening reach—than Mosab Abu Toha. His work, and indeed the work of Gaza journalists like Motaz Azaiza, Bisan Owda, Wael Al-Dahdouh, and many others, invite us to think about a criticism that could treat a social media curation as a form of live documentary poetry.

    Once we release the page as our only source and look to new media, we might find how poets deploy language and narrative to fit the nebulous, changing story of an ongoing, massive traumatic event.

    Already in January, many people in Gaza had resorted to eating animal feed, mixing it into flour to make a bitter bread.

    In February, Abu Toha wrote:

    Humans!! My family are telling me they don’t have wheat flour or rice.
    There is not enough food.

    Please help!!!

    Did I savor each bite, or did I scroll through my phone and fog-eat, during the genocide?
    Did I remember to floss my teeth each night, despite my fatigue, during the genocide?

    On February 7th, Abu Toha wrote, from Egypt: It’s shocking. I feel utterly outraged to watch a video of a child from Gaza drinking from a pool of polluted water in the street today.

    Did I stay hydrated during the genocide?

    On February 20th, the U.S. vetoed the third U.N. resolution for a ceasefire.

    Did I tire of reading posts about the genocide, during the genocide?
    I did.

    Was I watching my weight during the genocide?
    I tried.

    Did I say, when I saw the girl in Gaza who made Cinnabon to raise funds during the genocide, see how resilient they are, they will survive, during the genocide?
    I did.

    There are now over 120 mass grave sites. Not 120 graves. 120 mass grave sites. All the cemeteries are full, one headline reads. A trench in the earth, bulldozed open. They are covered in white cloth. When white cloth runs out, they are wrapped in bright blue tarp, zip-tied at the top and bottom and laid on top of each other.

    Did my bald spot grow wider during the genocide?
    Did I worry about the shadow on my father’s CT scan during the genocide?
    Did I see the bodies wrapped in white lowered into the hole during the genocide?

    Gaza’s healthcare system has all but collapsed, with reports of operations, including amputations and caesarean sections, taking place without anesthetic.

    Contagious and epidemic diseases are rife amongst the displaced Palestinian population, with experts warning of the risk of meningitis, cholera and other outbreaks.

    Did I bathe enough, and wash my hands enough, during the genocide?

    In March, a senior Israeli official stated that “The food shortage and use of the word ‘hunger’ have been exaggerated. There is no hunger in Gaza,” he said, explaining that most of the food that Israel has been sending into the Strip has “immediately been taken by Hamas terrorists, who then sell some of the supplies for ten times more than what it’s worth.”

    The entire population in Gaza is at imminent risk of famine, whereas the proportion of households affected by acute food insecurity is the largest ever recorded according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (‘IPC’). Experts warn that silent, slow deaths caused by hunger and thirst risk surpassing those violent deaths already caused by Israeli bombs and missiles.

    Was I too tired to make the call when the congress was voting to continue to fund the genocide during the genocide?

    Can I say how much I love Students for Justice in Palestine?
    Can I say how much I love Jewish Voice for Peace?
    Can I say how much I love Sumud?
    Can I say how much I love We Are Not Numbers, Jewish Currents, Writers Against the War on

    Gaza, the Palestine Youth Movement?

    Can I say how much I love RAWI?
    Can I say how much I love the students at Brown University who went on hunger strike, trying to

    get their university to divest?

    Can I say how much I love Aaron Bushnell, who could not bear the brutality he was asked to bear,

    who became a pyre of flame crying Free Palestine.

    In mid-October, Israeli President Isaac Herzog made clear that Israel was not distinguishing between militants and civilians in Gaza, stating in a press conference to foreign media — in relation Palestinians in Gaza, over one million of whom are children: “It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible. It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians not aware not involved. It’s absolutely not true. … and we will fight until we break their backbone.”

    The Israeli President is one of many Israelis to have handwritten messages on bombs to be dropped on Gaza. He wrote “I rely on you.”

    Israel is said to be dropping “dumb” (i.e., unguided) bombs on Gaza, as well as heavy bombs weighing up to 2,000 pounds, which have a predicted lethal radius “of up to 360 meters”, and are “expected to cause severe injury and damage as far as 800 meters from the point of impact.”

    One in every 100 people in Gaza has now been killed.

    Did I learn to accept what I cannot change during the genocide?
    Did I come to understand that poetry that does not clog the arteries of the empire with its fury is a species of obscenity, during a genocide?

    An estimated 1,779 Palestinian families in Gaza have lost multiple family members, and hundreds of multigenerational families have been killed in their entirety, with no remaining survivors—mothers, fathers, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, cousins—often all killed together.

    One month into the genocide, 312 Palestinian families in Gaza had lost over 10 members each. Many Palestinian families have lost 70 members each.

    Did I imagine losing 70 members of my family tree, during the genocide?

    The level of mortality in Palestinian families is such that medics in Gaza have had to coin a new acronym: “WCNSF,” meaning “wounded child, no surviving family.”

    Have you called your congressperson?

    Have you retweeted, reposted, storied out, the content, or did you wonder how you would look, retweeting this thing that made you uncomfortable, during the genocide?

    But I prayed during the genocide. I prayed for the hostages. I prayed for the prisoners. I prayed for the living and the dead, and those in the middle.

    But I fasted during the genocide. I chalked sidewalks. I called congress. But I led peace walks. But I awoke in the middle in the night from uneasy dreams.

    I kept going to work during the genocide. I graded poems about paradise during the genocide. I asked the students not to forget to write their paradise haunted by the knowledge that there is suffering in the elsewhere, even if it seems to be a distant dream.

    That even in paradise it will be remembered.

    What has been lost?

    Gaza’s Central Archives
    Great Omari Mosque
    Over one hundred mosques and churches
    Most of the universities
    At least thirteen libraries

    There is a history of such erasure of history. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the first thing they did was seize the PLO archive, the world’s largest collection of manuscripts on Palestine.

    Can I say how much I love you, who overcame your fear. Who overcame the trauma. Who defied the rules. Who spoke up. Who pestered your reps. Who shamed city halls. Who walked out. Who disrupted the ugly peace of empire, because others could not, or do not.

    In February, at her high school, my daughter is reported to have written in chalk on the sidewalk, “Save Gaza” and “Ceasefire Now” and “Free Palestine.”

    We receive an email from the principal that states, “We are planning to connect with her tomorrow about this to let her know that that’s not an action that is permissible on campus right now.”

    What is permissible, right now?

    Did I wake up rested during the genocide?
    Did I remember my dreams during the genocide?
    Did it even happen, the genocide?

    In March, Susan Abulhawa reported:

    People first resorted to eating horse and donkey feed but that’s gone. Now they’re eating the donkeys and horses. Some are eating stray cats and dogs, which are themselves starving and sometimes feeding on human remains.

    She wrote: Save Gaza. Ceasefire Now. Free Palestine. Not an action permissible right now.

    On Instagram: a child in Gaza
    floats in the wide blue sky—

    between two nearly invisible
    and dead electric wires—

    he untangles the blue
    and purple tail of his kite.

    Am I dreaming
    Right now
    I am waking up.
    Save Gaza.
    Are you waking up
    Right now.
    Good morning.
    Ceasefire now.
    Right now.
    We’re dreaming.
    Let’s get to work.

    Free Palestine.


    Many lines are drawn, sometimes nearly verbatim, from South Africa’s Application for Proceedings on Genocide against Israel submitted to the International Court of Justice in January 2024. Featured image: Malevich’s “Black Square.”

    Philip Metres
    Philip Metres
    Philip Metres is the author of Ochre & Rust: New Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (2023), Shrapnel Maps (2020), The Sound of Listening (2018), Sand Opera (2015), and other books. His work has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, NEA, and the Ohio Arts Council. He has received the Hunt Prize, the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Lyric Poetry Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University, and Core Faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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