The PEN Ten: An Interview with Mosab Abu Toha
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Viviane Eng speaks with Mosab Abu Toha, author of Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza (City Lights, 2022). Amazon, Bookshop
1. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was a child, my father used to buy me little stories in Arabic. Before I went to bed, he would tell us tales about animals and people. I would then fall fast asleep and sometimes continue the tale in my dream—sometimes it had different characters. Language is a means for us not only to communicate, but also to build a new world. That world to me is usually a place I never had as a child, or a space that fits me and is as limitless as my mind.
2. Where was your favorite place to read as a child?
I was born in a refugee camp and lived most of my childhood there, so I never had a quiet place to sit and read. However, my favorite place to read was near my father, just in the living room. At the age of nine, we moved to a neighboring town. We still live there. This town is largely agricultural—farms on many sides. A big land where eggplants grew was a good place to look at, play in, and to read tiny stories. Even now, I like to go down and sit among trees in our small garden facing blossoming almond, guava, and orange trees—and to read and write.
“Everything around me is a stone under which lies a poem or a story to write about.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know?
“The Dice Player” a poem by Mahmoud Darwish.
4. How can writers affect resistance movements?
A writer must speak on behalf of the unheard, those who cannot articulate well what they feel or see, and most importantly to me, those who lost their lives under the rubble of vicious wars. That’s part of resistance—keeping memories of oneself and others, eternalizing shared feelings in human life.
Other writers may pen revolutionary poems or manifestos. This can move people to act and lead marches and clashes with their oppressor. But we mustn’t forget that what writers also need to address are the details—the unnoticed in people’s lives, as well as the inner and recurring feelings that people have daily. Glorifying people’s resilience may well affect how far they can advance towards liberty.
5. You founded the Edward Said Library, Gaza’s only English-language library, in 2014. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to lead this effort?
I don’t ever recall entering a public library in my childhood. I only remember the library in the mosque of our neighborhood. It had many books, mostly heavy old ones with hard covers—about religion, morals, and education. Seldom did it have literary books. When I went to university to study English, it had a huge building: a multi-floor central library. In August 2014, Israel bombarded the Islamic University-Gaza, particularly the administration building. The English department, where I was a student, was completely ruined. During a truce, I carefully climbed up the stairs to the department to witness the barbarity of the occupation. Just a few days before that, our house was badly damaged in a separate Israeli airstrike. My small book collection was pierced by the shrapnel of an F-16 bomb. On Facebook, my friends and their friends started to offer to send books to me to rebuild my collection. Over time, I thought of creating a public library, something more people in Gaza could use. More and more books kept coming in. Now, the library has two branches in the Gaza Strip and hundreds of children and adults use the books and spaces of the libraries. There is music, painting, movies, English-learning, and other things to enjoy. The library hugely relies on donations from individuals and I hope will continue to support it.
6. In your latest collection of poetry Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, you write about life under siege in Gaza—first, drawing from childhood memories and continuing on until adulthood. When you started writing these poems, I’m wondering if you had a specific reader in mind. Did the image of that reader change as you continued writing?
I wrote my first poems around the same time Israel was attacking Gaza in 2014, from air, land, and sea. Having a circle of friends outside, with whom I could connect and exchange emails and messages, encouraged me to write about my life and that of the people around me. Everything around me is a stone under which lies a poem or a story to write about. I was born in a refugee camp in Gaza. A camp is a condensed spot where one can hear what neighbors are chatting about while having supper. One can hear neighbor’s laughing over a joke in the kitchen. Even after we left the refugee camp to live in a nearby small town, the sense of being and living on the corners of things never left me. It’s true the new town has farms and open lands, but the Israeli warplanes and drones never abandon our ears or eyes.
My readers are now larger in size, and they are also more enlightened about the realities on the ground, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank and the pre-1948 Palestinian cities, thanks to alternative media. I don’t mean to say that during my writing I always think of a reader. Oftentimes, I write to speak to myself or just to imagine a different image of what I see or hear around me, like in my poem “Shrapnel Looking for Laughter.”
When I traveled to the States in October 2019, I was able to meet some of my readers. This helped me understand more about what writing can do. When I think of my readers now, they are individuals and groups that I imagine sitting in front of me, rather than something abstract in my mind.
7. The subtitle of your collection is “Poems from Gaza.” How did writing these poems reorient your relationship with your home—a place that has seen so much destruction in the course of your lifetime?
The poems in this collection were written during three different times. Part of the collection was written before I left Gaza for Harvard in October 2019. The other part was written during my stay in Cambridge, MA, and then Syracuse, NY. My time there allowed me to see my homeland, and Gaza specifically, in a different life. I was concerned about my shadow in Gaza’s streets. I feared that it would catch cold in the fall or get trampled by a car or get hit by a blind F-16 bomb.
The third part was written after I returned to Gaza in February 2021.
Just within three months of my return, Israel would attack Gaza again, kill dozens of children and more civilians, bombard residential buildings—terrorize us at night. Suns of flames would light up my dark town, houses would shake even before a bomb hit the houses. Yaffa, my four-year-old daughter, was terrified. She, her mother, and two siblings had accompanied me during my stay in America. Yazzan, her older brother, offered to cover her with a thin blanket—he wished to protect her. But how can a blanket save one’s life when the sky is on the verge of collapse? That’s something children cannot understand. I cannot either.
8. In 2019, you were a Scholar-at-Risk Fellow in Harvard University’s Department of Comparative Literature. During your fellowship, you hoped to work with linguists on “developing dialogue across walls,” develop your own body of poetry, and amplify the experiences of young writers through their work. Was this collection of poems an outgrowth of your fellowship goals? In addition to making time to write, why was it important to you to also uplift the voices of others—especially young writers?
The fellowship at Harvard and the time I spent in Cambridge greatly shaped my writing, especially my poetry. I wrote many of the poems in this collection there. New elements entered my soul and mind. At the time, nature (birds, animals, bodies of water, clouds, snow, trees) consolidated its presence in me and my diction.
I also made very good connections with scholars and literary people at Harvard and around it: Professor Stephen Greenblatt, poet/ novelist Askold Melnyczuk, poet Richard Hoffman, scholar Sara Roy, among others. I also got to meet poet Robert Pinsky at Boston University, during which time we talked about poetry and writing.
It was during my fellowship there that I first published my work in magazines and journals. I wasn’t focusing on publishing my work in magazines until I was in Cambridge. Meeting with writers and editors there was a life-changing experience. My titular poem, “Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear,” was written while on the train back home from Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital.
Gaza is not a place where you can spot literary magazines on bookstores shelves. There are a few newspapers. There was once Al-Karmel Magazine, which was edited by the late Mahmoud Darwish. Just a few months before his passing in August 2008, this very important literary magazine, which had been active since 1981, ceased its publishing forever (save for a one-off issue to commemorate the poet’s memory in 2009).
Young poets in Gaza don’t enjoy the opportunity to share their work with larger audiences, whether it be locally or internationally—not only due to the lack of magazines and journals, but also because their works don’t get to be translated. I worked with my friend, poet and scholar Ammiel Alcalay, on collecting the poems of some young Gazan writers for the purpose of translating and publishing them in American magazines. In March 2021, I was invited by Harvard Divinity School’s Peripheries Journal to contribute and guest-edit a special folio on Gazan poetry. Four of the six poets included in the folio were translated for the first time. Every poet represents a distinct experience, and it was essential to share it.
“A writer must speak on behalf of the unheard, those who cannot articulate well what they feel or see, and most importantly to me, those who lost their lives under the rubble of vicious wars. That’s part of resistance—keeping memories of oneself and others, eternalizing shared feelings in human life.”
9. In times of crisis—whether they involve war, grief, or pandemics—many people turn to poetry for comfort. Why do you think that is? What poets do you read when you’re feeling lacking in hope?
Poetry is something that confirms to us that we are part of this world. All of us. No one is alien when it comes to war or suffering. When blood seeps through our flesh, the earth doesn’t mind absorbing it. It doesn’t ask for an ID; it doesn’t look for the color of skin or the language or belief of the bleeding.
When I feel lacking in hope, I tend to write more than to read. Reading spiritual poetry can be soothing. Poems of Rumi, Tabrizi, and Gibran, along with diaries, notably Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, prove to be a source of solace at times. However, the non-stop whirring of drones above us in Gaza is a constant reminder that pain may not vanish.
10. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
Writing in Arabic: Najwan Darwish, Yousri Al-Ghoul, Adania Shibli, Sinan Anton. Atef Abu Saif, and Ziad Khaddash.
Writing in English: Mary Karr, Naomi Shihab Nye, Richard Hoffmann, Kaveh Akbar, Zeina Hashem Beck, Ahmad Almallah, Philip Metres, and Nathalie Handal, Susan Abulhawa.
Mosab Abu Toha is a Palestinian poet, scholar, and librarian who was born in Gaza and has spent his life there. A graduate in English language teaching and literature, he taught English at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools in Gaza from 2016 until 2019, and is the founder of the Edward Said Library, Gaza’s first English-language library.
In 2019-2020, Abu Toha was a Visiting Poet in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University; a Visiting Librarian at Harvard’s Houghton Library; and a Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative Fellow in the Harvard Divinity School. In 2020, Abu Toha gave talks and readings at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and the University of Arizona. He also spoke at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting held in Philadelphia in January 2020. In October 2021, University of Notre Dame’s Literatures, Annihilation, Exile, and Resistance lecture series hosted Abu Toha to speak about his poetry and work in Gaza.
Abu Toha is a columnist for Arrowsmith Press, and his writings from Gaza have also appeared in The Nation and Literary Hub. His poems have been published on the Poetry Foundation’s website, Poetry Magazine, Banipal, Solstice,