On the Cusp of Invasion, a Poet in Gaza Reflects on Trauma

I was in my family’s living room on the first floor when my younger brother entered one night this week. It was very dark, and electricity had been cut off for over 20 hours. My brother could not see me. I was just as black as the armchair I was sitting in. He took his place on a couch, and then the flash of an explosion a couple of kilometers away lit up the room.

“Oh, you are here?” My brother sounded surprised.

It had been a long day for every one of us, especially parents. Not only does each of us get to be responsible for our own lives during Israel’s military attacks, but for the safety of children and the old around us. It’s been five days since I last had a shower. It’s been four days since I last left my house for the shop or the barber’s.

Nearly all the women and girls in my neighborhood have left for schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or Unrwa, which during escalation time turn into shelters. I try to see if we could find a room in a school nearby. One of the workers there advised me against it. “There are three times more people than the school can accommodate,” he said.

I decide to remain at our house, where my parents, two siblings, and I live on different floors.

The next day at 10 a.m., we find my two sisters, Sondos and Saja, at our door with their husbands. Sondos is with her three small children — the oldest is 6 — and Saja is with little Zeina, whom she gave birth to two months ago.

They struggle to walk in, coughing, the soles of their feet blackened.

We are worried.

“Take a deep breath!” I bring them all jars of water.

Little Zeina keeps coughing; Saja is weeping.

“We were sleeping and all of a sudden the house was full of black smoke and window glass shattering over our bodies,” Sondos, panting, tells me.

Right now, 10 children are in our house, the oldest my son, who will turn 8 soon, and the youngest Zeina.

My mother has decided to ration the food, preparing two meals a day instead of three.

I feel very saddened when I enter my library room on the third floor. I have chosen many books and placed them in order to read before the end of the year. I even counted how many books I have in my room and calculated how many years I need to finish them if I read daily. I need 56 years from now to read the books I have, provided I read 80 books a year. But with every Israeli bombing campaign, with every killing of civilians they carry out, the chance that I will finish even one book in my life becomes very slight.

Intellectual life in Gaza has been crippled not only by the ongoing siege and the constant bombing of houses, but also by the invisible trauma that has been inflicted on our souls and bodies, and on the streets and buildings that house our tired forms. It can take a Gazan years to write about his wounds. I was injured during the 2008-9 assault on the strip. I was 16 then. I was only able to write a poem about that traumatic experience in 2021. But it was still fresh. After 14 years the detailed images and feelings of shrapnel hitting my forehead, cheek and shoulder proved to be ineradicable.

These days with Israel’s mad bombardment, the hope that there will come a time when I will be able to write about my trauma and that of my children and large family feels faint.

War plays tricks on the mind. In Gaza, you feel that the plumes of smoke from adjacent bombings compete over which can be tallest in the sky, which is blackest. But I would give the prize to whichever bomb did not explode, or the one that stayed in the factory, or the one whose parts return to their elemental nature.

I’m disturbed by how other countries are evacuating their citizens from Israel, and supporting Israel with arms and medical supplies, as if Palestinians’ lives are of no value. Do they not know that we have the same number of eyes and ears, the same number of body parts? That we all came into this world after our mothers gave birth to us? That we laugh at the same jokes in different languages and curse when our favorite team loses? That we have fears and tears?

I wish the West, instead of militarizing Israel more and more and allowing Israel to cut humanitarian aid flow to the Gaza Strip, would think seriously about what led to such actions on the part of Palestinians led by Hamas. What makes young people cross the border, knowing they will not return to their families? What can be done to achieve justice for the Palestinian people, who have long endured the brutality of military occupation and siege?

These are very serious questions that cannot be delayed. It’s not only the deprivation of political rights and economic devastation that Palestinians have been suffering from. It’s the human side that is the most important. They are treating us like stones. If they believe we are human beings, they would not be bombing a multistory building on the heads of families. We have no shelter, no sirens, no defense forces, no airports, no seaports, no hope at all.

I was born in a refugee camp, and so were my parents. We are living right now in a prison cell with no window, with only bomb smoke as our uninvited guest.

On Thursday night, a bomb demolished the building next door to us in the Jabalia refugee camp, where we had relocated. I saw a woman and daughter, alive, dangling from a floor with its walls bombed away. Others were surely under the rubble.

Humanity is under the rubble.

Mosab Abu Toha is a poet, a short story writer, an essayist and the author of “Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems From Gaza.” He is also the founder of the Edward Said Library in Gaza.

Source photograph by Ahmad Salem, via Bloomberg.

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