After lucky escape from Israel’s torment, poet Mosab Abu Toha ponders Gaza’s fate and his own
"My poems speak of wounds and destruction. Right now Gaza is filled with darkness."
This is the account of Mosab Abu Toha, the renowned Palestinian poet, who was kidnapped on November 19 by Israeli forces while attempting to cross the Rafah border into Egypt with his wife and children.
Through his writing and his poetry, Mosab narrates the tragedy of war by describing daily life in Gaza, marked by siege, poverty and bombardment.
But speaking to The New Arab, Mosab explains that "The [current] war has changed everything. Not only my life but how I perceive reality, particularly nature."
"Sometimes, when I look at the sun, I think of the bursts of light from explosions. When I look at the clouds, I remember the screen of smoke after a bombing. War has distorted our way of life, how we interpret beauty."
"When you write about your nightmares, the scenes that had once frightened you, you can begin to explore and process them in the hope of freeing yourself"
Israel's 94-day assault has engrained death and suffering into the souls of Gazans. "After the war, when students return to school in a building that became a shelter, they will think 'We were here, we slept here, a piece of shrapnel flew through this window."
Mosab Abu Toha now ponders his role as a poet. "During the war, the poet reflects on his feelings and of those around him: his family, his neighbours, his friends. He tries to draw an image of what is happening around him."
After the war, Mosab hopes his poetry will serve as a remedy and therapy, "When you write about your nightmares, the scenes that had once frightened you, you can begin to explore and process them in the hope of freeing yourself."
The Palestinian poet has lost many of his colleagues to Israel's assault. 28 Palestinian artists, intellectuals and authors have been killed by Israel since October 7, decimating the cultural fabric of Gaza.
On December 6, Refaat Alareer, fellow poet, writer and friend of Mosab was killed in an Israeli air strike. Now Mosab is determined to keep his creative vision alive. "The only way to keep poets and artists alive in Gaza," Mosab tells The New Arab, "is to continue telling our stories, not just the story of our lives but also the story of those who lost their lives. In one of his last poems, Refaat wrote: "If I'm going to die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale."
"We must continue to tell their stories. As Refaat explained, 'Palestine is a story away'. We must find the story that will help us return to Palestine, to the real Palestine we want to live in."
Mosab is lucky to escape from Israel's assault and meet the same fate as some of his colleagues. On November 19 Mosab was kidnapped by Israeli forces after attempting to cross the Rafah border into Egypt with his wife and children.
"I lined up with the young and the elderly, kneeling before they called me. I was forced to undress before being blindfolded and handcuffed. I was then interrogated, beaten, and humiliated."
At the time of travel, the southern cities of Khan Younis and Rafah had been designated as "safe zones" by Israel, to forcibly displace 1.5 million Gazans from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south. Yet the north-south route quickly became a major target of Israeli airstrikes and the site of military-led abductions, with the Palestinian poet being one of the army's targets.
Mosab Abu Toha, a graduate of Harvard University, author of the poetry book Things You May Find Hidden In My Ears, and recipient of the American Book Award 2023, told The New Arab about the circumstances surrounding his kidnapping.
"I was heading with my wife, three children, and my wife's brother along Salah El-Din Street, the main highway of the Gaza Strip. We approached a military checkpoint where we saw Gazans walking in single file. As we walked closer, a tank and Israeli soldiers screened our movement, some were allowed to pass, while some were dragged out of line and forced to kneel. One of the soldiers at the checkpoint shouted: 'The young one with the black backpack holding the red-haired child, put the little one down and come to us'," Mosab recalled.
Mosab is not the only Gazan to be kidnapped in Israel's 90-day assault of the Strip. According to Euro-Med Monitor, more than 200 Palestinian women and children have been abducted since October 7, with videos of soldiers allegedly kidnapping babies also being shown across social media.
On November 20, Mosab was transferred to Be'er Sheva detention camp in the Negev where he was beaten and interrogated by Israeli security personnel. But after an hour of questioning, Mosab noticed a change in tone. "You are going home," one of the interrogators uttered, surprising Mosab, who was told by an Israeli captain it would take days to decide.
The next day Mosab was dumped back at Saleh El-Din street in Gaza where he found his family and learnt his wife had been petitioning the international community for his immediate release.
Now Mosab and his family are in Cairo. Speaking to The New Arab, Diana Buttu, Mosab's lawyer and former spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, explained the brutality of his case: "Mosab Abu Toha was not arrested, as was reported by the newspapers. Mosab was kidnapped. Arrest implies a charge against him, which was not formalised. During interrogation, he was repeatedly punched in the face and the stomach."
Despite finding relative sanctuary, Mosab now fears for his family in Beit Lahia, north Gaza, and prays for their safety. "My parents, brothers and their children remain in danger. My only plan is to save my family and the people in Gaza, rebuild our home and plant trees and flowers in our garden”.
Mosab's dream is to return to Gaza and continue his work. After the Israeli bombing campaign of 2014, Mosab Abu Toha founded two public libraries in Gaza named after the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, one in his city of Beit Lahia and the other in Gaza City. The libraries were populated by people from around the world who wanted to send gifts of knowledge to help Palestinians in Gaza dream beyond the confines of their imprisonment.
As Mosab sits with his family in Cairo, he doesn't know if these libraries still exist. Like so much of besieged Gaza, Israel's war may have also destroyed this symbol of hope.
Giovanni Vigna is a freelance Italian journalist with a focus on Middle Eastern and global politics.