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If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Gaza as you feel/see it?
Bleak, yet hopeful and resilient.
Since 2008, Israel has launched four major attacks against Gaza, besieging it from the sky, sea, and land. Gaza is kept isolated from the whole world: very few people can leave it or visit it.
In Gaza, light in the sky can come from either the sun and moon or from bombs sending death.
The young wake up searching for a new start, for an opportunity to prove their abilities, at least to themselves, but generally they fail, because the only job available for most is talking, whether at home, in the street, or near a border they cannot cross.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
On May 13, 2021, in the middle of the night, Israel heavily bombarded the Sheikh Zayed neighborhood in North Gaza, just three kilometers away from where I live. In my and other people’s experience, it was the most intensive and horrific bombing by Israel. Among the dead was an entire family, the Al-Tananis: the two parents and their four children, all under ten years old.
I was standing at the window when it happened. The sky was lit, and our ears got clogged with the deafening sound of bombs. The next day, I went to see the area. The houses were unrecognizable. I couldn’t distinguish what was a balcony or a children’s room or a kitchen. I could see a bathtub sandwiched between a destroyed ceiling and floor. I took a photo that I later included in my debut poetry book.
I cannot but share my sadness as I watched the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings a few months later. It’s perplexing. I felt like the houses should have remained on the ground, in a heap of rubble, as a testament for all people, even for the criminals who ordered the killing and those who pressed the button.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The countryside around Gaza, especially the northern area of Beit Lahia. This small city is known for its strawberry fields, but not many people know it’s one of the best walking spots in Palestine. The sand dunes and trees are charming.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Nasser Rabah, Yousri Al-Ghoul, Mohammad Nassar, Ne’ma Hasan, Hamed Ashour, Atef Abu Saif.
Most of these writers write in Arabic, and very little of their work, if any, is translated into English. I recommend translating books by Nasser Rabah and Yousri Al-Ghoul in particular.
Is there a place here you return to often?
The beach and also the countryside of Beit Lahia. I like to spend time at the Al-Jundi Al-Majhoul Park (the Unknown Soldier Park) in the middle of Gaza City. It’s like a big café, a place where even children can come with their family and play. If I wanted to meet a new or an old friend, I would meet them there. We could eat ice cream or drink coffee and talk, while taxi drivers would honk nearby to attract potential passengers.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
A refugee camp in the Gaza Strip is like a literary café, where people narrate stories and recite the epic of their daily lives.
There is also the Samir Mansour Bookstore, which was bombed by Israel in May 2021. Fortunately, though, it was rebuilt a few months later.
A third place is the Edward Said Public Library in Gaza, which I founded in 2016. It mostly has English-language books that my friends sent from abroad. Children and young people come to read and participate in an environment that encourages learning and growth.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
I’m afraid that because Gaza is very small, it proves hard to find a city within it. However, Gaza itself wears the cloak of another city whenever Israel bombs it. People who leave Gaza for five years, for example, won’t recognize some neighborhoods and streets when they return because once bombarded, a neighborhood gets reconstructed with a different building arrangement. Even the people are never the same.
Where does passion live here?
Near the border, where we create new designs in the sky above our grandparents’ houses, which Israel demolished in 1948. At the beach, where we sail with our eyes to places we are deprived of seeing. On top of the small hills, where we imagine ourselves touching the clouds.
What is the title of one of your works about Gaza and what inspired it exactly?
I have a poem titled “Shrapnel Looking for Laughter” in my poetry book Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear.
I wrote this poem during the horrendous eleven-day Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2021. It was 1:10 am on May 13, and the Israeli warplanes struck different parts from Gaza with new kinds of bombs. We could hear them being dropped from the planes. Everyone looked into the eyes of those around them as if to say goodbye, take care.
It was the same day the Al-Tanani family was massacred.
Here is part of the poem:
The house has been bombed. Everyone dead:
The kids, the parents, the toys, the actors on TV,
characters in novels, personas in poetry collections,
the I, the he and the she. No pronouns left. Not even
for the kids when they learn parts of speech
next year. Shrapnel flies in the dark,
looks for the family’s peals of
laughter hiding behind piles of disfigured
walls and bleeding picture frames.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Gaza does an outside exist?”
Unfortunately, as most of the young generation of Gaza has never left it, even to go to the West Bank, another part of the Palestinian Territories, Gazans fail to imagine what the outside world may look like. The question of how large the world is can bring an absurd response from a Gazan: Maybe one hundred times bigger than Gaza?
I myself sometimes feel like an outsider. Because there is a city I dream of returning to: Yaffa, from which my grandparents were expelled in 1948. That’s the city I feel I should be native to, but this doesn’t mean I don’t want Gaza. Gaza is the soil where the tree of my consciousness and enlightenment has grown. It will remain a place I will forever miss, even while I’m in it.
Mosab Abu Toha is a Palestinian poet, short story writer, and essayist from Gaza. He is the author of Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza (2022, City Lights), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and winner of a 2022 Palestine Book Award. He is the founder of the Edward Said Library, and from 2019 to 2020, he was a visiting poet and librarian-in-residence at Harvard University.
Copyright © 2023 by Mosab Abu Toha. All rights reserved.