To Be the Poet of Troy:
An Interview with Mosab Abu Toha by Philip Metres
On Starting the Edward Said Library in the Gaza Strip
After finding an anthology of English literature in the rubble of the Islamic University of Gaza during the 2014 Israeli bombing, Mosab Abu Toha had a dream: founding an English language library in one of the most confined, crowded, and isolated places in the world. According to the “We Are Not Numbers” website, Mosab lost two friends during the 51-day assault. He also worked as an interpreter for a journalist during that period, which fueled his desire to express his own perspectives. Only a couple of years later, at age 24, Abu Toha fulfilled his vision in the rubble, creating The Edward Said Library, named after the noted Palestinian scholar and thinker.
Abu Toha has also taught English language at the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), before traveling to the US as a Scholar-at-Risk fellow at Harvard University in the fall of 2019, thanks in part to the advocacy of Noam Chomsky. He is a writer and a poet who has been writing in English. Read his work here. This interview was conducted via email in May 2020, during the COVID pandemic’s first “shelter in place” quarantine, formalizing what began as Facebook Messenger conversations.
Philip Metres: What stoked your passion for English literature, and how did it inspire you to found the Edward Said library in Gaza? I understand it began with a book found under rubble.
Mosab Abu Toha: English is a subject in Palestine at schools from first until twelfth grade. I found myself very good at this particular subject and decided to major in it at university in 2010. Due to the imposed siege on Gaza since 2007, my only way to practice the language was by chatting with Facebook friends during the few hours of electricity. The siege means that no one can easily leave Gaza or enter it. The only time I could spend some days with foreigners and where I could speak English was in the summer of 2014, where I volunteered to translate for a couple of journalists. A terrifying experience for someone who wanted to focus on his language improvement.
Aside from the university library, there was not a single library that I could access in my city. The only English books that I possessed were books some of my online friends sent to me. However, it was in 2014 that the idea of establishing a public library flashed into my mind. Because of the 51-day aggression on Gaza, not only my graduation ceremony got postponed, but also the English Department was turned into rubble. During the few hours of ceasefire, I could make a quick visit and see the ruins and the many English books buried. One book that I was able to rescue was The Norton Anthology of American Literature, a book, I discovered later, one of the instructors had used in his lectures.
Our house was also badly damaged and the few English books I had collected were critically ruined. For about a month we stayed away from our house. Even in one of the places we stayed in was targeted by the Israeli barbarity. It was an UNRWA school. Fifteen people we killed along with 90 casualties.
Therefore, I thought of establishing a safe haven for books in the form of a public library that aspires to find good readers, writers who would make use of its books and the place. My definition of a public library is that place where people can find books and participate in cultural, social and intellectual activities.
PM: If I may ask, where does one go when one’s house is being bombed? You stayed in a school that was targeted as well! Was there any safe place in Gaza at that time?
MAT: In fact, at the time of aggression, when the Israeli army declared ground invasion, many Gazans left their houses, especially those who live near the border, to schools. We have no shelters in Gaza.
In our case, in 2008-09 aggression, we had to evacuate our house to our aunt’s house. It was there that I was wounded while going to buy some food for my little siblings. I was 16 at the time. Then we moved to our other aunt’s before we returned home and found our house slightly damaged. Upon returning, I saw part of some white phosphorus shell remains. When I tried to rub it with a stick, it started to burn again.
In the 2014 aggression, lasting for 51 days (the longest in decades), we evacuated our house just one day before our neighbor’s house was completely destroyed with an F-16 missile. Our house was severely damaged and my small library turned into ruins. Our beds and closets were destroyed, the water barrels were damaged, and the hens and ducks my father had raised all died.
My family spent some days in the Abu-Hussein UNRWA School in Jabalia Camp. At the dawn of July 30, 2014, several shells slammed into the crowded school, which was used as shelter for the displaced, killing at least 15 people and wounding 90. My then-wife, along with her family, was sleeping in the room right next to that which was bombed. It was miraculous they were safe. Because of the summer heat and the overcrowded classrooms, some of the families had been sleeping in the school playground. A dozen of those men, women, and children, who thought they would be safe in the schoolyard, all died or were wounded that morning.
A terrifying day with many funerals. Luckily, my family had left the school for my aunt’s house just hours before the bombing.
I think we were fortunate to have some space to live temporarily in another house with relatives.
PM: I’ve read of the astonishing levels of PTSD experienced by Palestinians in Gaza. How do you deal with that level of precarity, that daily uncertainty? What helps you survive your conditions? What brings you peace, joy, and beauty?
MAT: You’re right. The levels of PTSD in Gaza, especially during and after every Israeli assault, are unbelievable.
Whenever Israel bombarded Gaza or when rockets were fired from Gaza, two neighbors of mine used to shake in fear. No matter how small or “unserious” the explosion was, these two would demand that they leave their house either to their grandparents’ house or to a school. Ibrahim, especially, would cry and visibly go pale. I learnt from his parents that he got bad grades in his school exams whenever there was a raid.
It is noteworthy that nearly half of the Gaza residents are under the age of 15, which means that about one million children are vulnerable and susceptible to traumatic experiences, not to mention the many women and the elderly.
On a personal level, whenever there was an attack or rumors of an impending war, I would absorb myself in reading and writing or in following the news. Sometimes I thought of myself as a piece of breaking news on TV or the radio.
In 2018, a big explosion very close to our house shook the whole area. Some of my books on the shelf fell off and a small vase broke next to me while I was writing. This incident inspired me to write a poem. This is an excerpt:
Edward Said is out of place
His books on my shelf
fall off on the broken glass.
[Palestine is also out of place:
falls off my wall.]
The books’ exile bleeds
of continued estrangement.
Whenever there was a chance, I used to go to the seashore before sunset. I would take photos of the waves and the setting sun. I think that had a great effect on my psychological well-being.
PM: In your poem, “Blockade,” published in Banipal, you have a metaphor that alludes to the strangeness we feel in another language, subtly: “I see a new poem / in a foreign alphabet.”
I discover my own theory
I write my new poem.
A new Kubla Khan.
I get up and look
at myself in the mirror.
It tells me that I still exist.
On my face,
I see a new poem,
written in a foreign alphabet.
I smash the mirror.
The glass falling down
creates a word that probably
could become the title of my final piece:
a word that describes perfectly
my Palestinian current
It must be strange to express yourself in English, knowing the legacy of the British Empire and the current role of the U.S. in the situation? Doubly strange, because when we speak another language, we are not quite ourselves. We become someone slightly other. Could you talk about this poem and being Palestinian, writing in English?
MAT: It is true that I feel strange finding myself writing poetry in English. I first started to share my thoughts and creative writing in English on my Facebook page, especially during and after the 2014 aggression. I felt it necessary to address the English-speaking world. Not necessarily the governments but the people who stand in solidarity with our just cause, and who are doing their best to affect their governments.
When I write in English, I feel like being free from the confinements of my existence in Gaza, even if briefly.
We are trapped in Gaza, we are attacked from time to time by Israel, and we experience the ramifications of the political rift between Hamas and Fatah since 2007, Fatah being the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
It is still ironic that I feel more free in English when it is the language of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the notorious declaration that promised the mainly Arab-populated Palestine to Jewish immigrants, and the declaration why I find myself unsafe in my home with my kids and wife, why I find myself sometimes writing about melancholy dreams and thoughts.
The poem that I found written in a foreign alphabet on my face represents the tragedy incurred on us Palestinians by foreign agents, government, probably the infamous Balfour Declaration.
PM: That’s fascinating and very poignant—that the language both produced alienation (on the level of political structures, the support of the Zionist movement, etc.) and freedom for you as an individual. In order to speak to empire, you must use its language, literally. I’d love to know more about your family roots. Where is your family originally from? Did they become refugees during the 1948 Nakba? What stories did you hear from your elders (grandparents, parents) about their original villages?
MAT: My family originally comes from Yaffa, a beautiful Palestinian city on the seashore of the Mediterranean Sea. We call it “The Bride of the Sea.” My grandfather, his four brothers, and their father, had to walk to Gaza under the gunfire and airstrike of 1948. They all lived in Al-Shati’e Refugee Camp, or Beach Camp, where I was born in 1992. Due to the 1967 war, three of my grandfather’s brothers fled to Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, never to come again to Gaza.
My grandfather, Hassan, died in 1986, just before my father got married. It breaks my heart that I never had the chance to sit with him and listen to his stories and adventures in Yaffa. In the Yaffa, my grandfather and his brothers worked as farriers and fishermen before Nakba, my father tells us.
Hassan also worked in orange and grape orchards in Yaffa. Oranges had been Palestine’s trademark, especially Yaffa’s oranges. (Just like falafel and hummus, many people have been misguided to think that “Jaffa” oranges are Israeli.)
In the camp, my grandfather worked for UNRWA, United Nations Relief and Work Agency founded in 1949, as a porter, carrying large amounts of frying oil, wheat flour, and vegetable boxes from trucks to stores. He had great muscles.
In one of my latest poems I ended:
My grandfather was a terrorist—
My grandfather was a man,
was a breadwinner for ten,
whose luxury was to have a tent,
with a blue UNRWA flag set on a rusting pole,
on a beach next to a cemetery.
PM: Thank you for sharing this background. Some of my dear Palestinian friends are from Yaffa. In Shrapnel Maps (see the section called “Returning to Jaffa”), I try to tell the story of Nahida Halaby, whose family fled in April 1948. In the process of learning about her family, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the story of Yaffa itself. I found out that Yaffa was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state for the 1947 UN Partition Plan—but as an island surrounded by the Israeli state. It was absolutely untenable. The arguments about the plan often focus on the percentages of land “given” to each side, but they don’t talk about the fact that the biggest Arab Palestinian city had no geographical connection to the offered Palestinian state. I also learned about the disappearance of the municipal archive, which meant that no one could settle their claims to property and land. The erasure was not just of Palestinians and their rights, but also their archives. The outpouring of Palestinian literature has really been to stanch the loss of history due to destruction, dispossession, and diaspora. What do you recommend among Palestinian literature that speaks best to your sense of the Palestinian predicament?
MAT: Since the Partition Plan in itself was unjustifiable in the first place, what would ensue after its implementation would not strike me hard. The Jews, who were a minority in Palestine, were given the larger part of it. The Zionist project relied on expansion rather than on security or coexistence with their Palestinian neighbors, who of course had the right to be furious about the plan and its results.
Mahmoud Darwish expressed it best when he said that “…We haven’t heard Troy’s account. I’m sure there were poets there. The voice of Homer, the victor, vanquished even the Trojan’s right to complain. I try to be the poet of Troy. Is it painful? I love the vanquished.”
I think the issue with the Palestinians is that, as you rightly said, not only their lands and properties were stolen, but also looted were their archive, historical documents, land deeds, etc., which one can find at Israeli universities libraries and the military archives.
What the Palestinians so far have been doing is documenting their stories in the form of history and academic books (important and encyclopedic works had written by Walid Khalidi, Aref Al-Aref, and Mustafa Al-Dabbagh, especially the latter’s 11-volumes encyclopedia Biladuna Filastin.) and literary works, specially by novelist and short story writer Ghassan Kanafani, poet Mahmoud Darwish, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, among others.
The works of Edward Said have helped draw the attention of many people worldwide to the Palestinian story, when the word “Palestine” was either unknown or seen as a term equal to terrorism and inferiority. Said urged every Palestinian to “tell their story.” His books After the Last Sky and Out of Place are excellent examples. Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa is particularly rich in its sense and agony of homecoming and the feeling of guilt. Saeed and Safiya, the two main characters, not only left their house, but also their child, Khaldoun, who they failed to find while leaving. When the couple returned in 1967 to visit, they found their house occupied by an old Jewish woman, an immigrant, and met their son, now David, serving in the Israeli army. One of Darwish’s poetry volumes is titled Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone? and this again talks to me about probably the same question of guilt.
PM: I’d love to ask you about your move to the U.S. What induced your desire to leave, and would you talk a bit about your being sponsored by Noam Chomsky?
MAT: Noam Chomsky is one of the first people to whom I reached when I began collecting books for the library. In October 2012, Chomsky visited Gaza for the first time. He was the guest speaker at a conference at my university. I was a sophomore then. Chomsky was surrounded by many people after the event, and I was lucky to talk to him for a few minutes. I even asked for his email address and signature and took a photo with him.
A few months after my alma mater was targeted by the Israeli warplanes in the 2014 aggression, I sent Chomsky an email along with our photos and a photo of the targeted university building. I told him about the situation. He sent me four of his books with his signature. In April 2016, he sent another big parcel with some of his books. However, the Israeli authorities had decided that all mail to Gaza should be stopped. They claimed that the military groups in Gaza were getting materials that could be used for military ends.
Apparently, the situation in Gaza had not worn me down completely. I still did not think that the draconian Israeli ban would apply to books for children, linguists, and anyone interested in British and American literature, but I was wrong. Chomsky’s books were held up by the Israelis from May 2016 until January 2017.
When I started the fundraising campaign in early 2017, Chomsky endorsed the campaign, donated some money, and invited his fans on FB to support the initiative.
In early 2018, I was recommended for a fellowship at Harvard University to be a visiting poet and a visiting librarian-in-residence. I arrived with my wife and two kids in the U.S. two months late for fellowship, after a long and tortuous journey. I was denied the permit twice to attend my visa interview at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and denied again from crossing “Israel” on a shuttle bus to Jordan. I had to go to Egypt and then fly to Jordan. Instead of a four hour journey from Gaza to Jordan through “Israel,” it took me two days until I arrived in Jordan, having paid a lot of money for crossing fees to Egypt and for the flight.
That was the first time for me to leave Gaza, at the age of 27. It was the first time for me to board a plane. We don’t have an airport in Gaza, not even in the West Bank, or a seaport. Can you imagine?
PM: A 2012 UN Report predicted that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, yet somehow, people in Gaza continue to survive. It seems like a stunning testament to the will of people to overcome their circumstances. How have they done it?
MAT: Well, it is true the people of Gaza are still surviving. However, survival has been their only option. If surviving is about continuing to be alive, then trees, stones, and the sea are surviving, right?
The people in Gaza have been trying to shout out loud to the whole world. They have tried to protest against the political rift between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah-PA in the West Bank.
Nonetheless, those who took to the street in Gaza were violently suppressed by Hamas. They were treated as agents of the PA who were trying to oust Hamas from power. But those people in reality were protesting at the electricity cuts, taxes, and unemployment.
On the other hand, some people took to the streets in the West Bank in support of Gaza, especially in 2018 after the PA president Mahmoud Abbas has cut the salaries of almost all of the PA’s Gaza staff, while those in the West Bank went unaffected. Those protesters were also suppressed by the PA forces.
So people in Gaza survive only because they clutch at the straws of hope, which most of the time keep flying away in the gusty winds in Gaza’s sky.
In the past few years and months, the reports about suicide in Gaza have been alarming. The siege, having surpassed its 13th year, has produced new challenges to Gazans. They not only face occupation and wars, not only the rift and siege, not only unemployment and ban on movement, but now they are facing themselves, people who almost have nothing to do but to question their mere existence on earth.
PM: What has life been like since coming to the United States?
MAT: I arrived in the U.S. with my wife and two kids last October. Unlike life in Gaza, life here is very busy but calm. In Gaza, the only sound that came from the sky was that of the drones, F-16, or helicopter. Here, it is either the airplane, or birds singing. This is not to say that we do not have birds. We do. But their singing is drowned by the chaos coming from all sides, especially from above.
Since I arrived here, I found people really interested in listening to my voice. There are many literary events, especially poetry readings. This is something you rarely find in Gaza. One reason is that Gaza’s cultural societies and groups are not sufficiently funded, if at all. Again, a result from the political rift.
PM: I understand that you were not only dealing with the privations of living in Gaza because of Israeli control, but also because of threats by Hamas? Why would your library be a threat?
MAT: Not only were my endeavours to found a public library in Gaza discouraged by getting zero support from the Gaza government or its Ministry of Culture, but also I was summoned for an investigation.I thought they wanted to learn about how I started such a promising project. The office that summoned me deals with people who are suspected of being spies.
Although many reports in Arabic, English, Italian, and French were written about me and the library from day one, the Intelligence office dealt with me as a spy. They took my phone and ID away, not respecting that I was an English teacher at UNRWA schools or that I was planned to organize a reading club at the library that same day. A month later and after my father contacted some people, they returned the phone and ID without revealing the result of their investigation. One guard threatened to jail me for six months, because when they attacked me, I pushed him in defense.
Their suspicion was irrational and extreme. Maybe my being independent and not affiliated with them helped worsen my treatment.
PM: So you’ve become a Scholar-at-Risk at Harvard University this academic year, and you’re a librarian at the Widener and Houghton libraries. Have you been able to work in the library at all, given the COVID crisis?
MAT: A group of writer friends recommended me for a fellowship at Harvard University. I was appointed as a visiting poet at the Department of Comparative Literature and a visiting Librarian-in-Residence at Houghton Library. During the first semester, I met with many librarians and directors with whom I shared my experience and from whom I learnt much. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, I have been unable to go to the libraries and meet with staff. But I remain in touch with many people.
PM: What has been like, to be here in a new kind of confinement?
MAT: The title of a recent column I published on Arrowsmith Press was “We Are All Gazans… Sort Of.”
I wrote that the new reality for me and for my American friends “has been the norm for all Gazans for a long time, except that in Gaza the internet runs at a snail’s pace for a Zoom call, with electricity available for only eight and sometimes four hours a day.”
PM: What are you working on now?
MAT: Aside from continuing to write poetry, I am doing some research on exile and its meaning in Palestinian poetry, especially, Darwish’s. Other work can be found here and here. Three of my poems appeared in Banipal last month. I have many other poems that are not yet published and which I hope I can publish in different places or in a chapbook or a poetry collection. I would love to see them published.
PM: What do you want all Americans to know about life in Gaza?
MAT: Simply two things: that people in Gaza are just as human and intelligent as all people on earth are, and that people in Gaza long for their freedom, for a life based on equality, democracy, love, and mutual recognition.
Not all people in Gaza are Hamas or Fatah. Most of them wish to live a simple life, raise their families, build their dream house, have a job, write books, go to the seashore and watch the sunset, and visit their relatives in neighboring countries.
I myself was able to see my aunt Alia last year when I visited Jordan. As I mentioned, I went there for a visa interview. I suspect the Jordanian authorities would have allowed me to go to Jordan for a mere visit to her. Going to the U.S. embassy in Amman was strong enough.
The last time we saw her was in late 1999 when she visited Gaza for the last time. For 20 years now, neither she nor her family in Gaza could meet. It is only four hours by car between Gaza and Amman. All of this is a result of the Israeli occupation. Not only that, the Israeli authorities did not allow me to accompany my wife and two kids on our way out of Gaza to Jordan on a shuttle bus. Let’s imagine that while you are in Boston, you cannot visit your sister in New York. I know this might be the case these days. But in Gaza, it has been for over 20 years now.
MAT: I was told by a Palestinian-American friend of mine that when she usually goes to visit her family in the West Bank, she gets treated badly by the Israeli authorities. She gets stranded for long hours. However, when she goes with her husband, a European, and their two children, she faces almost no trouble. That is shameful.
PM: Tell me about the decision to put Israel in quotation marks. It seems to speak to the level of pain that you feel about its erasure of Palestinian life. Is that correct?
MAT: To be honest, I just recently started to put “Israeli” in quotation marks, not only because it does not recognize us, distort history, deny our rights, and dehumanize us, but also because they claim the right of the small part of Palestine that is left for us, especially the West Bank. I am sure you heard about the Israeli government’s plan to annex large portions of the West Bank. It has not been enough for them to build illegal settlements but now they want to steal those lands and claim right over them.
It is now my right as a Palestinian to be recognized as the victim and the not the Israelis. Sadly, as Edward Said once said, “We became the Jews of the Jews.” And I am sure what is meant by Jews here are those who ethnically cleansed our parents and grandparents from our Palestine and continue to oppress and kill us.
But ironically enough, if I may say and as once told his Israeli interviewer in 1996, “We are lucky because you are our enemy. You have given us… publicity.”
On my part, I am, like Darwish, “busy with my own right to return. I cannot defend the Israeli’s right to return.”
PM: Do you have any hope that something could change. What would a viable and just peace look like, from your perspective?
MAT: A viable peace, I believe, should be between equals. My hope that in this world people will start to see the Palestinians as brothers and sisters and not as inferiors or as victims who are craving others’ sympathy. The only hope, I think, for all is to live in a place where being this or that (X or Y, US or THEM,) would not affect how we look at each other.
My only concern is that the Palestinians would continue to be perhaps the only nation in the world to certainly feel that today is better than what the future holds for them.