Catch and Release – Poems by Palestinian Poet Mosab Abu Toha Who Has Now Shared his Harrowing Story of Being Detained at a Border Crossing By Israeli Soldiers in Late November, 2023

Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha

Doves perch on the roof of our hen coop, guzzle
water from rain puddles. In the neighborhood,
ducks and hens pick what the wind has carried and
laid on the earth: a seed, or a dried leaf, or a piece
from a newspaper soaked in a child’s urine.
Universities closed for a long time. Warplanes have
damaged all roads, especially leading to hospitals.
Mother still reads Quran every day and fasts on
Mondays and Thursdays. Father plants eggplant
and tomato seeds while mother watches through
the door, muttering prayers hoping the seeds would
sprout soon, Mother and Father usually share with
neighbours what grows in the little garden.

And the neighbours pray, too.

Mosab Abu Toha, October 30th, 2023, published through NPR and Instagram, January 2nd, 2024

What horrific suffering was unleased by Hamas in the utterly brutal attacks of October 7th, 2023. More detailed stories of some of the depraved atrocities committed during that day continue to appear. And now the horrific destruction of Gaza and death of what Palestinian authorities say is more than 20,000 Palestinians.

Now, a story of Mosab Abu Toha, a 31 year old poet who lived in Gaza for much of his life and through the current bombings, including the destruction of his house now imortalized in his widely circulated poem (see below) What Is Home? And then, while trying to get his family to Egypt including his three year old son who is an American citizen, he was arbitraily detained and by his gripping account, mistreated by Israeli soldiers.

Seamus Heaney famously said: In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank” But for  Mosab, stopped by Israeli soldiers nearby a tank and then taken from his family at gunpoint at a border crossing bewtween Gaza and Egypt on November 19th, 2023 his lyrics may have stopped him from enduring a long imprisonment by the Israeli Army. After an international effort to have him found and released he was sent back to Gaza on the afternoon of Nov. 21st after a nightmarish fifty hours when he was says he blindfolded, beaten, tripped, and then clothed again before being detained further. And later Mosab and his family made it safely through a checkpoint to Egypt where they live, for now, in Cairo.

Other Palestinian poets have not been so lucky. Among other literay figures killed in the fighting in gaza have been the poets Omar Abu Shaweesh (Oct. 7th), Heba Abu Nada (Oct. 20th), Nour Al-Din Hajjaj (Dec. 2nd), Rafaat Alarerr (Dec. 6th) and Saleem Al-Nafer (Dec. 7th). Some of their poems have been widely circulated since their deaths. especially, If I Must Die by Raffat Alateer which has been translated into forty languages. To read Rafaat’s poem please click here.

Mosab told his harrowing story in the New Yorker published on December 25th and earlier today was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered. To hear that eight minute interview please click here.The epigraph poem above was posted to Instagram by NPR and commenting on it today Mosab says the poem was written before his home in Gaza was obliterated in a bombing. A moving testament of unbelievable resilience.

Mosab’s debut poetry collection, Things You Might Find Hidden in My Ear – Poems from Gaza, was published by City Lights Publishers in 2022 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the Walcott Poetry Prize and won the Palestine Book Award, American Book Award, and was a finalist for Walcott Poetry Prize. Without the fame from his book’s success I can only wonder what some other outcomes of his captivity might have been.

When Mosab’s wife alerted the literary community to his detention the response was quick. The next day Lit Hub published twenty-two translations of his poem What Is Home from his debut collection.  He had posted a screen shot of the poem  the day after his house was destroyed on Oct. 29th, 2023.  He asked that it be shared all over. And it was.

What Is Home?

What is home: 
it is the shade of trees on my way to school
    before they were uprooted.
It is my grandparents’ black-and-white wedding 
    photo before the walls crumbled. 
It is my uncle’s prayer rug, where dozens of ants
   slept on wintry nights, before it was looted and 
   put in a museum. 
It is the oven my mother used to bake bread and 
   roast chicken before a bomb reduced our house 
   to ashes. 
It is the café where I watched football matches
   and played—

My child stops me: Can a four-letter word hold
   all of these? 

Mosab Abu Toha from Things You Might Find Hidden in My Ear – Poems from Gaza, City Lights Publisher, 2022

The overall scope of the destruction in Gaza since October 7th is beyond understanding. But this poem with all the small domestic details of the impact on one family brings it front and center on a human scale. Although the scale of the destruction of Gaza in recent months has been astounding other times of attacks and bombing took their dire toll. The poem by Mosab below written after a period of destruction in Gaza in 2008/2009 echoes a poem by Ilya Kaminsky from his remarkable 2019 poetry collection: Deaf Republic which itself was a foreshadowing of the war in Ukraine. Ilya’s poem: We Lived Happily During the War.

Like Ilya’s poem Mosab’s portrays the huge divide between those suffering inside a war and those watching from the outside. We need poets to bring that suffering much clodser to home and hreart. Thank you Mosab.


I want to build my house on a swing.
I don’t want to walk on this earth.

I tell them about houses being shelled,
about bodies
about a noisy sky and
ShAkInG ground.

And they,
they tell me about their concern over the little flowers
they haven’t watered for hours,
over an ailing canary in the cage,
over a TV show they will miss tonight.

Their ears hurt when they hear sirens,
but we are made deaf by explosions.

Their muscles stiffen with fear on their way to the shelters,
while ours are pierced by boiling shrapnel.

Mosab  Abu Toha,  ibid

David Remnck the celebrated American journalist and author wrote a complex and moving story about the October 7th massacres and also the impact of the resulting war in Gaza in an article published in The New Yorker on Nov. 7th, 2023. An interweaving of the huge sufferings on both sides. One of his key Palestinian contacts was Mosab. At a funeral of some of the Oct. 7th victims David chatted with a 16 year old Israeli girl he had met before who knew some of the deceased. Her age reminded him of a story about Mosab when he was 16 and almost killed by an Israeli rocket strike during intense fighting in Gaza in 2008. Mosab wrote about this in a poem from his 2022 collection which David cites from the end of the poem:

from The Wounds,

If, when the rocket fell, I had moved my head a bit
to watch a bird on a tree or to count
the clouds coming from the west side,
the shrapnel might have cut through my throat.
I wouldn’t be married to my wife,
father of three kids, one born in America.

My brother tells me:
Hearing the explosion and knowing you hadn’t
returned home yet, we assumed you were dead.
We began searching for you in the morgue.

I look around me, relatives circle my bed.
I watch them as they chat. I imagine them praying round my coffin.

Mosab Abu Toha, ibid

David ends his article this way:

As I was finishing this piece, Mosab messaged me, describing the nightly bombings in his neighborhood. A ground assault was imminent. “Any moment I may not be in this world,” he said.

Well with some real thanks to poetry Mosab is still very much in this world. And I look forward to more of his poems that put a strikingly human face to war and destruction. We need them.



  1. Mary Ann Moore
    Posted January 3, 2024 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Richard, for sharing Mosab’s poetry and story. May he continue to be in and of this world.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 12, 2024 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Oh Mary Ann. For sure. It does seem as if writers are being targeted in some of the strikes in Gaza. That reality in Gaza. Here it is snow we have to worry about.

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