Of Seeing, the Unseen, and the Unseeable: Technology, Poetry, and “When It Rains in Gaza”

by: Philip Metres

1. I Tap My Cell to See

In the beginning, I did not see but heard: news over the radio about the bombing of Gaza in 2014, triggered by a whole series of events—we say “triggered,” as if history itself were a weapon ready to be fired. Voices untranslated, the tone of panic rising, sometimes breaking into anguished cries, the wail of air raid sirens, and the smooth voiceover of journalists, trying to tuck the adrenaline beneath the language, trying to strike a tone that seems fair and balanced.

Gaza I have never gazed with my own eyes. Only through screens have I seen ةزغ. The G in “Gaza” does not sound like G in Arabic. There is no equivalent to this sound in English, the “ghayn.” It is a voiced velar fricative and involves a tightening and narrowing of the upper palate, a vocalized breathing through that tightening.

Gaza, whose name is written in the military records of Thuthmose III, 15th Century B.C., from the word meaning fierce or strong, also meant “prized city.”

“When It Rains in Gaza” (a poem in Shrapnel Maps) began when I saw photos of a girl in a green hoodie pulling books out of the rubble, her malnourished arms like oversized pencils. Her eyes caught the camera’s eye as she piled the books in the crook of her arm. Not corpses half-buried in dust, but this girl living after the apocalypse—that is what haunted me. Not the dead, but the living who had to pick up after the destruction, to get back to the business of daily life.

Wisława Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning” best depicts the way that girl reminded me of what I could not see:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all. [. . .]

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

No matter the stark image she left, I knew she would not be covered in our American media, addicted as it is to bleeding leads and the next conflagration. She would be left, gathering books, as her family picked themselves up to rebuild.

But I’m thinking about her, how that girl “recalls the way it was.” How, as Simone Weil puts it, “at the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy to the tomb, there is something that goes on expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this, above all, that is sacred in every human being.”

I look outside my window in Cleveland and see dawn begin to arrive. The houses across the street are all intact, secure, and still unlit. I look down at my screen and see her again, looking back at me.

Our screens and cells are at once portals and prisons. We believe them to be portals, but the portals often bring us further into the prison. Screens, cells. They hide and confine as they reveal.

We tend to think of poetry and technology as antinomian categories—poetry being a high art of the mind or spirit, technology with the mechanisms of the world of objects. More broadly, technology refers to knowledge employed for practical or instrumental ends. Yet it comes from two words: tekhn (art or craft) and logos (the word, or the study of). What if we think of poetry (poeisis, a making)—that art of making words—as itself a technology.

What can poetry do, with its crude technology of black marks on a flat sliver of tree, or the span of a voice fugitive in the air, in the face of such disaster?

2. Inside Her Book Is a Tunnel Dug at Night

Gaza itself is often called “the largest open air prison in the world.” At 140 square miles, Gaza is home to nearly two million Palestinians, 70% of whom are refugees, or descendents of refugees, who fled from the 1948 war. One of the most densely populated places on the planet, it has almost no access to the outside world. The Israeli blockade of Gaza began in 2007, when Hamas took control after elections and the military defeat of their Palestinian rivals. Hamas’s resistance to the Jewish state led Israel to withdraw its settlements from Gaza in 2005, and then close the borders to Palestinians—many of whom were day laborers in Israel.

Beset by hard borders on all sides, Gazans resorted to building an astonishing network of tunnels. If technology is both a reflection and extension of human need, then look no further than the Gaza tunnels. Between 2008 and 2013, 1,500 tunnels were constructed to bypass the closed Rafah Crossing into Egypt. The first tunnels were built in 1982, when the city of Rafah was divided by Egypt and Israel, but the total closure of the border and the 2008-2009 bombing led to a furious digging regimen. Some of the tunnels descended nearly one hundred feet into the ground; others extended nearly a mile long. In “When It Rains in Gaza,” I wrote about how the tunnels made it seem

as if people were rodents
no walls could hinder:

computers and donkeys,
brides and coils of rebar, small

arms, rockets, flour—white
blood cells of the stateless.

I was in awe of the technology, born out of desperation and sheer force of will, that Palestinians employed to transport “fuel, gas, cement, construction materials, raw materials, pesticides, seeds, agricultural tools, preservatives, packaging material, spare parts, livestock, zoo animals, food, medicines, clothes, car parts, building supplies, weapons and luxury items.” A 2013 story in National Geographic even told how bride Manal Abu Shanar was transported from Egypt to Gaza to live with her husband, Emad al-Malalha. The tunnels accounted for two-thirds of consumer goods entering Gaza, and accelerated the rebuilding process after the devastating war. Of course, many also died constructing the tunnels, including children who, because of their height, were conscripted to work in them. By 2013, though, Egypt had constructed an underground barrier so deep that even the Palestinians could not descend beneath it. Israel has been doing the same, to eliminate tunnels that Hamas created to breach Israel’s border.

The walls descend into the earth, far past the depths of graves.

3. And Inside This Bomb Is Rahed Taysir al-Hom

If technology is an extension of the human capacities to perceive and to act in the world, then perhaps Donna Haraway was right, that humans are rapidly becoming cyborgs, “a hybrid of machine and organism,” with our pacemakers, Lasix, iPhones, and Google Glass. But that doesn’t make it any easier to be human. We are not a TED Talk away from total fulfilment. Technology may extend some capacities, but our hearts lag behind, caged behind our ribs.

Too often, the fever of technological advancement overwhelms the ethical urge to consider, to brake. This is nowhere as clear in the human capacity to create weaponry. Yet how much easier it is to make a bomb than to stitch a body back together.

Rahed Taysir al-Hom, who for years took apart bombs and missiles in Gaza, is one of those patient “makers” whose job it was to unmake. According to an article in The Guardian, “He had some training from international experts but gained most of his skills ‘on the job.’. . . He had no protective clothing and used basic tools—screwdrivers, pliers and cutters—as he worked to make everything safe, be it Hamas rockets which had fallen short of their mark or bombs dropped by Israeli warplanes.”

Poetry is also a technology—but can it be a technology that dilates our hearts, returns us to a compassion that heals us from our fear and defuses our explosive wounds? In my imaginary genealogy of poetry, I place shamans and midwives— the healers whose words opened doors to the spirit world and closed wounds— at the foundation, alongside bards, griots, prophets, and scribes.

4. When It Rains in Gaza, the Tin Roofs Clatter

Sometimes it rains in Gaza, but not enough to mitigate the impending catastrophe. Due to a variety of factors including the blockade, 98% of the water is undrinkable. There isn’t enough electrical power for more than a couple hours per day, and desalination plants can’t produce enough drinking water. The UN predicts that, by 2020, Gaza will be unliveable.

Pro–Israeli critics say, why doesn’t Hamas use its money to build hospitals instead of rockets? Why don’t they build water filtration plants instead of tunnels? Pro-Palestinian critics say every people has a right to resist its own oppression, a right to freedom and self-determination. In 2014, according to Mohammad Omer, Israel targeted water and sewage infrastructure, crippling an already-underdeveloped system.

Israel blames Hamas, Hamas blames Israel. If war is a technology of child sacrifice, then blame is one of its principal fuel sources.

5. Inside the Slurry Is Anger

How strange that the resistance groups in Gaza build makeshift rockets out of metal, farm fertilizer, and melted sugar—a frighteningly simple technology. Those rockets fall into the land where the fighters’ families once came from. The technology of return is fueled by grief, grief transmogrified to anger.

Seamus Heaney has argued that poetry “does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.”

I would like Heaney to be right. After all, living in Northern Ireland, he knew the damage that instrumentalized ideologies of liberation can do. And there is beauty and possibility in creating that space of attention, in a world of distraction and oppression.

I’m just not sure that’s enough.

6. Al-Awda Means Return

In 2014, Israel bombed an ice cream and sweets factory called Al-Awda. Al-Awda means “return,” the fundamental longing of Palestinian refugees languishing in Gaza. Rami Almeghari interviewed the owner, Iyad al-Tibani, who said, “It was such a horrible and rather shocking moment for me—I stood helpless in the face of what was happening.” Almeghari notes that “[al-Tibani] pointed to the place where modern, western-made machines were buzzing just a few days ago, but which have been replaced by silence and destruction.” I wanted to hold a space for al-Tibani’s voice, his grief, and the only way it came to me was in lines:

It smells of burning plastic and butter.
How would it taste, the sweetness of return?

Because there was no room in morgues,
babies curled in ice cream freezers. And every day,

the sea churned a white froth, salting the air,
lapping the sand as if there were no war.

Why bomb an ice cream factory? Why store dead children in ice cream freezers, except that the morgues were too full, and one needs time for burial?

7. Above the Tub, Salem Saoody Leans

One of my favorite photos after the 2014 bombing is of Salem Saoody bathing his daughter and niece in a tub. I love the joy in their faces.

Above the tub, Salem Saoody leans,
grinning and palming the frothing water

over niece and daughter, their hair slicked
with soap, their bodies gleaming in the brisk

delight of being bubble-wet and clean.
Pull back. Around the tub, the ceiling in piles—

the walls just a few columns and open.
The whole neighborhood a roofless ruin,

a movie set for apocalypse. After.
Welcome to the desert of the real.

Just the tub survives this Operation
Protective Edge. So focus in: laughter

and water, froth and a father’s smile.
The heart will break what the eye can’t swallow.

I love the joy in their faces, even as I can also see the ruined building that houses the tub, and the whole neighborhood of ruins around them. Even as I know that 60% of Gaza’s children are anemic, 50% have PTSD, and 7% have stunted growth from malnutrition.

8. When it Rains in Gaza, Children Run Out

It rains in Gaza, but not enough.

9. A Jellyfish of Smoke

During the 2009 bombings of Gaza, Israel employed white phosphorus weaponry. As I saw in photos online, it sometimes looks like a jellyfish of smoke. Those photographs of exploding white phosphorus shells are almost universally beautiful, like sprays of white fireworks. It’s a technology used to identify enemy targets and hide troop movements, but it has been banned for use in civilian areas. If it comes into contact with flesh, it burns right to the bone. The photos of flesh burrowed through with white phosphorus are not beautiful. From a distance, though, war looks beautiful.

How to write a poem of war that does not blind with beauty, but opens our eyes to what is beneath its inhuman force?

10. A Sky’s Eye, Tracking By Heat of Body

Israel’s military blockade extends in every dimension, especially in the sky, where drones monitor every movement and occasionally engage in targeted killings. Every new technology promises greater accuracy, to reduce civilian casualties, but they always fall well short of perfection. Whether it’s technological or human error, it doesn’t matter to the families who bear the loss. There is a difference between the seen and unseen, the seeable and the unseeable. The drones, it is said, buzz like lawnmowers. Israel calls its strategy of counterterrorism “mowing the grass.”

What does it mean to write poetry in a world where metaphors are weaponized, and people erased in them?

A week into Operation Protective Edge, on July 16, 2014, Israeli drone strikes killed four Palestinian boys (between the ages of nine and eleven) on a beach in Gaza. They had been playing soccer at the time. In his New York Times article, Tyler Hicks wrote that

There is no safe place in Gaza right now. Bombs can land at any time, anywhere. A small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas militants, the Israel Defense Forces’ intended targets. Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters, either.

Their names were: Muhammad, Zakaria, Ismail, and Ahed Bakr.

Salwa Bakr, the mother of Muhammad and Ismail, can’t forgive herself for rousing Muhammad to do an errand for her.

“I woke him up to get him killed,” she said to Naomi Zeveloff, who covered the story for The Forward.

11. Operation Summer Rains Tomorrow

Israel called the 2014 campaign “Operation Protective Edge.” According to one Palestinian Ministry of Religious Endowments official, 64 mosques were destroyed in that campaign. Another says the number was 73, with two Christian churches also damaged. Israel accused Palestinian militants of launching attacks from mosques, schools, and hospitals, making them legitimate targets.

I write: “You can read all the statistics online. / The heroic couplet cosigns to a lie.”

Prayer comes from precaria, entreaty—and shares the same root as the word “precarious.” What’s the old phrase: there are no atheists in foxholes? And what can poetry do, when sheer numbers numb us to the human dimension?

12. Over the Wall, Other People Stroll

After enduring the brunt of thousands of primitive rockets fired from Gaza over the years, the Israeli city of Sderot now finds itself protected by the Iron Dome missile intercept system. During the 2014, Iron Dome shot down hundreds of rockets. The Israeli citizens of Sderot still live in fear of what can rain from the sky. Like Reagan’s Star Wars, Iron Dome is not perfect. The technology of security constantly butts up against the impossibility of total safety and imperils basic human freedom. Everyone has the right to security. Everyone has the right to be safe.

13. Deema, I Want to Soften the Gnaw of Loss

What I know of Gaza is partly from reading Deema Shehabi’s Thirteen Departures from the Moon. Her poems don’t depict a lunar, bomb-cratered landscape, but a place complexly beautiful, unknowable even to her:

My mother is from Gaza, but what do I know of the migrant earth,
As I enter a Gazan rooftop and perform ablutions in the ashen forehead of sky? As my soul journeys and wrinkles with homeland?

I could tell you that I parted with my mother at the country of skin.

I love her enigmatic phrases that cut two ways at once. In her phrase “the migrant earth,” she calls forth an image of the earth and its migrants and at the same time gives rise to the notion that the earth itself is a migrant in the sky. The earth itself is a body in her poem, with an “ashen forehead of sky,” and her mother’s body is also a country. Poetry is a technology of re-seeing what we thought were the dimensions of countries and bodies, a telescope and a microscope all at once.

Deema’s grandfather was the Mayor of Gaza, but that was long ago now. I wish I could capture the sadness in her eyes and voice when Deema talks of ةزغ.

Whatever Gaza I think I know, it is a Gaza of the mind. Not Gaza.

14. Amal, I Pray You Have Not Folded

The girl in the photo, gathering the books? Her name is Maram. It means Wish.

I learned her name reading Marcello Di Cintio’s Pay No Heed to the Rockets. After traveling to Palestine to meet with poets and writers, he’d gone to Gaza to search for the girl in green. Using the technology of talking to Palestinians face to face, he found her.

He’d contacted the photographer, Mo’men Faiz, who, in 2008, lost his legs to an Israeli rocket attack. Six years later, Mo’men employed the technology of a wheelchair to pull himself through Gaza’s bombed streets, to discover Maram cleaning up. A few years after that, Di Cintio and Mo’men were able to locate her.

In my poem, I called her “Amal,” meaning Hope. She’d seen pages from the Qu’ran blowing on the street, and followed the pages into the rubble. This is how the poem ends:

Amal, I pray you
have not folded

inside phosphorus,
or nestled beside

uneaten ice cream.
There is no us.

There is no them.
That by late light

this night, you read
until you believe

the wall will fall
the siege will end

and missing walls
will rise again.

At the end of his book, Di Cintio writes that the Nakba—the catastrophe of Palestinian dispossession—“is a poem that never ends, persisting and pressing forward.” May this poem, “When It Rains in Gaza,” for all its limits in seeing, its failures to account for what it cannot see, be a technology that slows or even unwrites a little of the seemingly endless poem of erasure.

Philip Metres has written ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon, 2020), Sand Opera (Alice James, 2015), and The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (2018). He was awarded the Lannan Fellowship, three Arab American Book Awards, two NEAs, and the Adrienne Rich Award. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University.

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