from issue 4
New Poetry from Gaza
Words Surviving Siege and War: Poems from Gaza
by Mosab Abu Toha
Heba Zaquot, Me and My Son (2020), 80 × 60", acrylic on canvas.
I don’t decide to represent anything except myself. But that self is full of collective memory.
Texts are not finished objects.
-Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism
Following the expulsion of Palestinians and the destruction of over 400 villages in 1948, the Gaza Strip, an area of around 141 square miles, was flooded with refugees. Refugees currently constitute 70% of the Gazan population, which now amounts to 2.1 million people, more than half of whom are children. There are eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, the largest of which is Jabaliya, where approximately 100 thousand people live in an area of 0.5 square miles.
All of the poets in this collection are refugees, and some of them were raised, and still live, in refugee camps. Every poet has lost a family member, a friend, or a neighbor. Some have had their houses or workplaces destroyed. And all live the nightmare of never-ending waives of terror (between 2008 and 2021 alone, Gazans have been subjected to four extremely disproportionate attacks by Israel, with every assault claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children). While one poet lives in exile, most have never been able to leave Gaza because of the blockade (it’s nearly impossible for a Gazan to secure a visa.)
Four of the poets included in this collection were born after 1990. They were born just before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the formation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. They have watched Israeli planes firing rockets at cars and buildings. They have joined marchers carrying martyrs through the street to the cemetery. They have lived the horrors of the devastating 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon and Gaza, and then the 2008-09, 2012, 2014, and most recently, the May 2021 assaults.
Most of the poems in this collection were written during or after the May attacks this year. The collections features seven poets, including its guest editors.
Hamed Ashour’s first poem is about Shaima Abul-Ouf, a girl in her twenties who lost her life in the al-Wehda Street massacre, which killed 44 civilians in an early morning bombing. Shaima and another 12 of her family members were trapped under the rubble of their house and died. Anas Al-Yaziji, Shaima’s fiancé, waited in the hope that Shaima would be pulled alive from under the rubble. But when they found her body, she was already dead.
Ne’ma Hasan is a Palestinian prose writer who also writes poems. In the first of her two poems, she celebrates the strength of the Gazan mother: “When everyone’s fast asleep, she stands to shield against death.” “Was Eid a Trap?” is Hasan’s second poem, which mourns the fate of children in Gaza. The May 2021 attack was planned to coincide with Eid celebrations, not only ruining the children’s joy, but proving a trap. In the early morning of day four of Eid, 18 children were killed in one attack.
In his short poem, Waleed al-Akkad offers an ominous picture of relations between the children of Gaza and Israeli soldiers. And in his second poem, al-Akkad invites the reader to consider the Palestinians differently, that is, humanly, describing the moment a building collapses on its inhabitants. Mona Msaddar, a graduate in English Literature, takes us on a journey inside her mind, where disappointment, detachment, and estrangement lead her to reject the world, the world that has ignored her. These feelings are widespread among Gaza’s youth.
Nasser Rabah is one of Gaza’s established poets and important voices. Born in 1964, he has published five poetry collections and a novel. Electricity has been a dominant problem in Gaza since 2006, when the Israeli military bombed Gaza’s sole power plant. In his first poem, “An Egg in a Frying Pan,” Rabah describes the moment the electricity switches off. In his second poem, “A Letter to the Pilot,” Rabah reproaches a military jet pilot who bombs Gaza and returns safely to his base.
A descendant of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Tayseer Abu Odeh explores the theme of exile.
In his first poem, “A Widowed City,” Abu Odeh stares “silently at the wounds of my living memory,” attempting to portray Gaza, the widowed city that he never visited. In A Lullaby from Gaza,” the poet promises to rename the maps, the cities, alleys, citadels, and dreams, yet isn’t sure if that would change anything. He grows older. In “The Thresholds for Mourning,” the poet travels further into exile, his blossoming fades, autumn predominates, he becomes “a lullaby without a cadence.” Caught in a mystical labyrinth of uprootedness, his subjective exile “sprouted beneath his skin” in various forms, opening up new sites of hope and emancipation.
Obtaining a Ph.D. from the United States, Abu Odeh has a deep interest in post-colonial and cultural studies. He is also the author of The Consolations of Exile: A Personal Account (2019).
The first time that the present author, Mosab Abu Toha, left Gaza was in 2019 to join Harvard as a visiting poet and scholar at risk. A bilingual Palestinian poet, fiction writer, and essayist, in 2017 he founded the first English-language library in Gaza, the Edward Said Public Library. In February 2021, just 3 months before the May attack, he visited his family in Gaza.
In his first poem, “My City After What Happened Some Time Ago,” Abu Toha moves in and out of the past and the present, searching for the city, as if in a continuing nightmare: “The city no longer exists but in the holes in the earth.” Similarly, in “silence of water” and “In the War: him and houses,” landscape and memory are both scarred as the poet ties to holds onto and marks down the details of daily life: “b/w pictures on walls are searching for colors at night.”
Girding the poems, Heba Zagout’s paintings draw Gaza into brilliant color and life for the reader: the sea, flowers, doves, and family. And because Gaza is part of historic Palestine, a painting of peaceful Jerusalem is included.
Mosab Abu Toha and Tayseer Abu Odeh guest-edited this special folio on Gaza for Peripheries. All the poems except for theirs were written in Arabic and translated into English. Great attention was paid to this task by a community of translators (we thank Peter Dziedzic, Hadi Fakhoury, and Sherah Bloor especially.) Because the poems were originally Arabic, we decided that it was important to include some poems in the original, and some lines were kept in Arabic on purpose. This way, the English-language reader can witness words that have survived colonialism and siege and think about how they experience the speech of those who suffer the same; what is communicated and what is left opaque?
We believe it is essential to showcase the creative work of Gazan writers. From the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish until today, Palestinian poetry is the poetry of resistance and resilience. The poetry of searching for a beauty buried under rubble or beneath uprooted olive trees. Here, beauty constellates with the political; the subjective ‘I’ aligns with the collective ‘we;’ and the “aesthetic is freedom,” as Darwish once put it.
Gazan poets are an extension of all other poets in the world, from the East to the West, who translate into words the ever-present and continuing sigh let out by the first human in such a disturbed world.
From Anas Al-Yaziji to his fiancé, Shaima Abu Al-Ouf, whose body he recovered after two days of searching
by Hamed Ashour
by Ne'ma Hasan