A Poet in Palestine

By W.D. Ehrhart

Back in the spring of 2022, I wrote an essay titled “A Farewell to Arms” about a young Palestinian poet named Mosab Abu Toha who had just published a book called Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear (City Lights, 2022).

Mosab is a remarkable young man. Still in his very early 30s, he is married and the father of three children. He was a visiting poet at Harvard University in 2019-20 (during which time his youngest son was born, thus making Mostafa a U.S. citizen); founded the Edward Said Library, the first English-language public library in Gaza; and earned an MFA from Syracuse University just this year.

His collection of poems has won a Palestine Book Award and an American Book Award, and he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems and prose have been widely published in the New Yorker, New York Times, Nation, Progressive, Atlantic and elsewhere.

I first became aware of him and his writing through our mutual friend Professor Ammiel Alcalay of the CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College, a first-generation American and Sephardic Jew, and a specialist in Middle Eastern languages.

Alcalay has been in regular contact with Abu Toha since the events of October 7th, and has shared with me some of those communications, which have been disturbing to say the least. In late October, his home was completely destroyed, and he and his family were forced to take refuge in a school in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

“I’m so heartbroken, so heartbroken, so heartbroken,” he wrote on October 29th. “One of my students got killed, along with his father, grandfather, and grandmother. Wadee, my handsome, polite, and clever student doesn’t deserve this. Nor the many thousands of Gazans. This is so cruel. We cannot bear to watch more lives ended.”

“Still alive,” he wrote on November 8th, “Just yesterday my three-year-old son, Mostafa, my brother-in-law Ahmad, and I survived death by chance. I was on my bike while Mostafa and Ahmad on another bike were returning to our shelter school when two bombs fell on a house just a hundred meters away. Rubble fell on us like a shower of rain. Mostafa and Ahmad were just ahead of me. I started biking madly in the street looking for them and crying. Thankfully they made it safe to school before me. This needs to stop!!!”

“We don’t have any access to food or clean water,” he wrote on November 16th. “Winter is coming and we don’t have enough clothes. Kids are suffering. We are suffering. The army is now at Al-Shifa Hospital. More death, more destruction. Who can stop this? Please stop it now.”

Then a few days later, Ammiel sent me this: “I’m Mosab’s brother. The army took Mosab when he arrived at the checkpoint leaving the north headed south to where the [Israeli] army had ordered [civilians] to move. His wife & children entered the south, but the army arrested my brother and we know nothing about him.”

“My understanding,” Ammiel added, “Is that Mosab and his family were heading to Rafah in order to leave, having been cleared to do so by the U.S. Embassy. Mosab was taken with some 200 others, forced [at gunpoint] to give up his 3-year-old child he was holding.” For several suspenseful days, no one knew anything else.

Today Ammiel wrote, “Mosab was released yesterday. He’d been taken with about 200 others, men & women, to a prison in the Negev, beaten & “questioned,” &, my understanding is that he was then re-united with family (after the poor youngest, of course, was traumatized by having had to be handed over by Mosab to his wife as soldiers fired a few shots (“for fun,” I guess) & took him away. So I’m not sure where they were re-united, in central Gaza, I think. My hunch is that they would try & wait for a ceasefire/truce deal before trying to move toward Rafah where, to my understanding, they planned to exit to Egypt. But, of course, any of these things can turn on a dime at any second, given the utter terror being unleashed from the air, artillery, roving bands of soldiers picking people up, lack of food, water, clothing, shelter, etc.”

My own guess is that Mosab was released because of pressure from major media outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker, and organizations like PEN America. Mosab is a bright and rising star in the literary world, a public figure. He has a following, and strong advocates.

One can only wonder what will be the fate of the other 199 people who were rounded up with Mosab, and who do not have an international following. And the thousands of others like them.

Postscript: On November 24th, Mosab wrote, “I’m safe but I still have severe pain in my nose and teeth after being beaten by the Israeli army last Sunday. I gave them all my family’s passports, including my American son’s passport but they didn’t return anything to me. Also my clothes and my children’s were taken and not returned to me. No wallet, no money, no credit cards. Everything was confiscated. I’m in pain.” That is the latest news I’ve been able to find.

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W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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