Born in Gaza's al-Shati Refugee Camp in 1992, Mosab Abu Toha wrote his first poems in 2014, during Israel's punishing war on Gaza. "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," he told PEN America recently. "Everything around me is a stone under which lies a poem or a story to write about." Even after his family moved out of Beach Camp, as it is known, to a small Gaza town surrounded by farms and fields, "the sense of being and living on the corners of things never left me," he said. "The Israeli warplanes and drones never abandon our ears or eyes."
Like so many Palestinians in Gaza, Abu Toha's family came from Yaffa. His grandfather, great-grandfather and great uncles were driven out of their city in 1948 and had to flee to Gaza on foot.
He became a librarian as well as a poet during the 2014 Gaza war. With so many of the territory's libraries destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, he set about collecting donations for what soon became Gaza's only English-language library, which he named after Palestinian scholar and public intellectual Edward Said. After teaching English at UNRWA schools in Gaza, Abu Toha came to the United States in 2019 as a Scholar-at-Risk Fellow in Harvard University's Department of Comparative Literature. He returned to Gaza in 2021.
"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."
- Mosab Abu Toha
He writes many of his poems in English, rather than his native Arabic. "When I write in English, I feel like being free from the confinements of my existence in Gaza, even if briefly," he said in an interview in 2020.
He considers his poetry a form of resistance, a record of Palestinian resilience. "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," he told PEN. "That's part of resistance—keeping memories of oneself and others, eternalizing shared feelings in human life."
His first book of poetry, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, was just published by City Lights. The New York Times praised it as an "accomplished debut [that] contrasts scenes of political violence with natural beauty."
His new poem "Door on the Road" is published here in Democracy in Exile for the first time. You can also listen to Abu Toha read the poem himself.
—Frederick Deknatel, Executive Editor
Door on the Road
In the Refugee Camp,
after the explosion, a door flies into a far street,
rests near a heap of rubble.
Clouds of dust settle on the coughing,
their noses swollen by the heat
of the scorched air.
A girl passes by, sees the bleeding door, opens it. A corpse
lies beneath it.
The earth weeps. Though some fingers got cut,
the dead young man still clutches in his hand
a very old key—the only thing he's inherited
from his father. The key to their house
in Yaffa. He was sure it's been destroyed, but a key
can be his passport to Yaffa when they return.
Now, neither he nor their knocked-down house in the Refugee
Camp can stand.
The girl closes the door. Windows of tears
open in her heart.