Palestine Is a Story Away: A Tribute to Refaat Alareer

Mosab Abu Toha in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Palestine is a story away.” This is what Refaat Alareer wrote on my copy of the short story anthology he edited in 2014, Gaza Writes Back.The contributors were his students at the Islamic University of Gaza.

When I published my poetry book, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, in 2022, the first person I gave a copy to in Gaza was Refaat. I signed the copy by writing, “Palestine is a poem away.” Now Refaat is a world away. He was assassinated on December 6 by the Israeli army. The only weapon in his Gaza apartment was an EXPO marker. If the Israeli soldiers were to raid his house, he said, he would throw it at them, while crying, “We are helpless.”

Refaat and I loved strawberries. We used to go to Beit Lahia in North Gaza, pick strawberries, then sit and eat. He would not forget to bring a lot of strawberries for his mother and wife and children. We would also sit in the open and play pun games. He would not fail to tease me and our third partner, Waleed. I remember that, in June 2015, Refaat messaged me, asking if he could recommend my name to join the recently founded We Are Not Numbers, which aims to mentor and train young people in Gaza to become writers.

I had sent him one of my early poems, to which he responded, “Mosab, I read your poem. It’s very good. With more writing, more reading, more practice, you can write amazing stuff.”

In 2017, I told Refaat about the Edward Said Library that I managed to create in North Gaza. I showed him the picture I used to raise funds for the project and spread awareness about the situation in Gaza. It was of me holding a copy of The Norton Anthology of American Literature that I retrieved from under the rubble of the English Department at the Islamic University of Gaza back in 2014, after Israel bombed the administration building. Refaat told me it was his book. I would later think of Refaat as the co-founder of the Edward Said Library. The status of the two branches during the war remains unknown.

Refaat and I were huge fans of FC Barcelona. He would get mad whenever Barcelona was defeated. He would start blaming the players, saying, “Why have they bought him?” And many times he would say, “The coach must resign.”

Refaat loved to play ping-pong. He loved John Donne more than any other poet. He loved to teach Shakespeare as well as Palestinian literature. More here