In This Time of War: The Muses Refuse Silence

Philip Metres
From the May/June 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Having worked on peace and justice initiatives for Palestine and Israel for twenty-five years, and published poetry on the subject, I’ve been devastated in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s assault on Gaza. The former killed about twelve hundred people and took more than two hundred fifty hostages, and the latter, as of this writing, has killed more than thirty thousand people and injured at least seventy thousand. The truth is that I’ve worried I’ve been too temperate in my response. For years I have weighed each word, each sentence of my work, for its impact on readers. I know enough of the trauma and pain of my Palestinian and Jewish friends to try to avoid worsening their hurt and fear. My sister married a Palestinian man twenty years ago, and I’d made a promise to do what I could to educate myself, my students, and readers about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, particularly about what Palestinians have had to endure—the expulsions, the indefinite detentions, the checkpoints, the wall, the expropriation of land. Since 2006 I have taught a course on Palestinian and Israeli literatures, founded on the idea that writers offer a prophetic witness of the depredation of war and oppression as well as a vision of a shared future, something that U.S. politicians and corporate media have failed to do. It has been, I’ve hoped, a way to invite students into seeing themselves as participants in movements for a just peace. After publishing Shrapnel Maps, my book of poems on the Palestine-Israel predicament, I had been disappointed by what I’ve called the “Wall of Silence”—the ongoing effort to demonize, ban, or chill speech that is deemed pro-Palestinian. Later, after yet another bombing of Gaza in 2021, I’d written “Remorse for Temperate Speech” (published in Poetry and later in my new book, Fugitive/Refuge), an apology to my friend Mosab Abu Toha, a Palestinian poet, for the times my words had been too measured about the unendurable realities for Palestinians. But my apology wasn’t enough. In October 2023 Mosab’s house in Gaza—along with his lovely library—was destroyed by a bomb. He and his family fled south and finally found shelter in Egypt, but not before Mosab was taken by Israeli soldiers and beaten. Only a massive political effort—online and backdoor—secured his release in November.

“When the guns roar, the muses are silent.” That’s what a Russian poet once told me, when I lamented the silence around the slaughter perpetrated by the United States during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. It’s hard to be human right now, knowing what humans can do. And it’s hard to be a poet, knowing what words cannot do. In the enormity of the unfolding horror since October 7, I’ve struggled to balance my life as a writer, academic, and activist. I began by organizing a few silent peace walks at John Carroll University, where I am an English professor, believing that if we, the campus community, could grieve together, we could live together. On the first outing, about thirty of us gathered—faculty, staff, and students—and walked silently around the main quad. The faculty chairs of the Jewish Studies and Islamic Studies departments walked together; between them walked a Palestinian student wearing his keffiyeh draped over his shoulders, under his backpack. It was something, but it wasn’t enough. Each walk had fewer participants; the autumn rains came, and the peace walks stopped altogether.

I thought back to 2020, when I’d brought a group of Jewish and Arab poets together as an experiment in dialogue across difference. We met first on Zoom and then started to write e-mail letters to one another, exploring how we were surviving both the isolation of the COVID-19 lockdown and the rise in racial hatreds in the U.S. But we had to talk about Palestine, about Israel, and about the future. In one beautiful moment, the American Israeli poet apologized for what her country had done to a Palestinian poet’s country. Now, four years later, our conversations seem to have taken place in another century. It hadn’t been enough.

As the bombs fell in October, I reached out to the Palestinian writers I’ve mentored through We Are Not Numbers, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to nurture young writers in Gaza: Ahmed Dremly, who’d written a story about his passion for horses and how the horses had endured the suffering of four wars in Gaza that preceded this one; Lubna Abdelwahab Abuhashem, who’d covered the poor medical treatment offered to Palestinians in detention; and Asmaa Rafiq Kuheil, who’d written a poem in 2021 about a baby named Omar who was rescued from the rubble after a bomb killed both of his parents. I asked if they had anything that I could pass along to the world outside. All of them thanked me, apologized for their short messages and dying electronic devices—then went silent. Reaching out was doing something, but it wasn’t enough.

In November, after my failed attempts to get my fellow professors to commit to a teach-in, our university held an educational event called My First Visit to Israel/Palestine. Colleagues and I shared our diverse experiences of visiting or living there. The conversation was respectful even when we disagreed about the root of the problem: violent extremism or colonial violence—or both? Occupation or Zionism itself? I’d hoped we’d modeled a way to passionately yet peacefully hold different views. But the ongoing quiet on campus disheartened me. Perhaps we’d been too balanced, too complex. It wasn’t enough.

To be a peacemaker—if it means being silent during a genocide—is not enough. In January the International Court of Justice made a preliminary ruling that Israel was plausibly committing genocide and called upon it to halt acts that would violate the international Genocide Convention. I’ve had to get over my own self-protective fear, my own intemperate temperance, to stand up unapologetically for and with Palestinians at this time. To call for a cease-fire was not difficult for me since, as the child of a war veteran, I deplore war. To call for a cease-fire also means caring about the Israeli hostages and their fates and to condemn the Israeli government’s collective punishment of Palestinians as a war crime. But the harder work is to recognize that Hamas’s attacks—as deplorable as they were—did not come out of nowhere. Moreover, they were the only thing that drew the world’s attention to the plight of Palestinians. Why is it that the U.S. responds only to Hamas’s violence and not the slow, dehumanizing grind of occupation and colonial dispossession?

A new generation of writers, journalists, and activists has arisen to document not only the massacres of Palestinians, but the larger context, speaking out with an uncompromising moral fierceness on social media and in the halls of power, both on the ground in Gaza and throughout the world. In the U.S., my friend the Palestinian American poet Fady Joudah—after being devastated by the killing of more than fifty members of his extended family in Gaza—appeared on ABC News and Democracy Now! In a fever of writing in late 2023, Joudah wrote a whole book of poems called […], published by Milkweed Editions in March. At this year’s annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Kansas City, Missouri, the board of the Radius of Arab American Writers made a creative intervention, sending every panel moderator an e-mail inviting them to read a land acknowledgement statement that would also recognize “an active genocide taking place in Gaza” against Palestinians. On the Friday of the conference, Tariq Luthun—who has family in Gaza—led a rousing protest through the book fair and on the streets. Writers have also staged boycotts of literary organizations that have been neutral, silent, or suppressive of speech about Palestinian rights, including 92NY, the Poetry Foundation, and PEN America. I’m also particularly in awe of the moral courage of Jewish Voice for Peace in standing in solidarity with Palestinians and engaging in acts of civil disobedience. All of us who wish for peace and justice for Palestine have been e-mailing and calling our congressional representatives, leaving voice messages with versions of the same demand—a call for a cease-fire, for ending arms shipments, for increasing humanitarian aid, for freedom for Palestinians, for what must be a shared future between Israelis and Palestinians.

Closer to home, in Cleveland, I joined poet and cultural worker Naazneen Diwan and the group of people—Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and Jews—she gathered for a poetry reading in support of Palestine. We called it Sumud, an Arabic word that means “steadfastness,” a characteristic of Palestinian endurance despite oppression. The violence in Palestine has been going on for a century. The British promise of a Jewish homeland, articulated in the Balfour Declaration in 1917, never acknowledged the political rights of Palestinians, including their right to self-determination. About 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, or the descendants of refugees, turned out of their homes during the 1948 violence that established the state of Israel, an event of ethnic cleansing referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

Seventy people gathered in Vessel City, an art studio on Cleveland’s West Side, to listen to the poetry of Sumud. Kicking it off was Shereen Naser, a Palestinian American who has been leading a weekly demonstration during Cleveland City Council meetings calling for a cease-fire. As Naser read her own poems, her young daughter crawled around her mother’s legs and into her arms, offering her own words lisped into the mic: Free Palestine!

Robin Beth Schaer, active in the Cleveland chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, proclaimed that “as a Jew, I care about Palestinian liberation because we are kin, because I carry expulsion and genocide in my bones and cannot bear expulsion and genocide committed in my name, and because I want to see a free Palestine in our lifetimes.” She shared her friend Nathalie Handal’s poetry, including her words that poetry “has always played a fundamental role in freedom and democracy. It leads us to pose necessary questions, not steeped in rhetoric but in instinct and invocation. Poetry is inquest and rumination—it’s the narratives of our transformations.”

I read, among other poems, “End of a Talk With a Jailer” by Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim, translated by Nazih Kassis in Sadder Than Water: New and Selected Poems (Ibis Editions, 2006). It begins:

From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.

I can’t help but be awestruck by how Palestinians in Gaza, in their utter imprisonment and oppression, have seemed freer than our hand-wringing politicians, who can’t seem to say what should be plain: We must do everything in our power to stop the slaughter of civilians. And understand that this genocidal campaign is part of a long-standing effort to erase Palestinians entirely. (Hauntingly, Israel’s Likud Party and Hamas may be said to share a parallel dys/utopian fantasy of erasing the other “from the river to the sea.”) In their relentless energy to document the vicious attacks on them and to try to change global policy, Gazans have shown us what hope against hope looks like. When the bombs roar they will not accept their murder quietly. They dig with their bare hands to excavate their people from the wreckage, and they will not allow us to look away. They will expose the truth that empires try to bury.

The Sumud event concluded with journalist Samer Badawi. First he read “Write My Name” by Palestinian American poet Zeina Azzam, which she wrote after learning that parents in Gaza were writing their children’s names on their legs in case they needed to be identified after being killed. That poem, originally published by Vox Populi in October before going viral across the world, ends:

Write my name on my leg, Mama
When the bomb hits our house
When the walls crush our skulls and bones
our legs will tell our story, how
there was nowhere for us to run

Badawi then shared that when he was covering Gaza after the 2014 war, he and a stringer reporter he was working with went to visit a recently bombed house. Inside, two teenage boys picked through the remains of their former home. When their guests arrived, they pointed to a wall, saying, “The couch was there.” They weren’t recounting the floor plan but rather worrying that they had nowhere to offer their guests a place to rest. From the debris they somehow extracted a Fanta and two cups, pouring them for Badawi and the stringer. These two boys’ parents may have been dead, but they wanted their guests to feel at home. That’s the Palestine I have known.

As of this writing the war continues. Even Hamas’s offers of a cease-fire have been rejected by Israel. In February I printed out the names of Israeli hostages and a list of Gaza’s dead children to try to bring the devastation closer. To say their names. The list published by Al Jazeera in January came to one hundred full pages of names, beginning with children under the age of one. At the end, it read: “These are the names of only half of the children killed.” More than thirteen thousand of them had been slain as of February 29; thirty-six Israeli children were killed on October 7. The numbers addle the mind and assault the heart. Even one life lost is too many.

This mass death reminds me of the maxim about the silence of the muses, the one shared with me by the Russian poet all those years ago, and how it echoes Cicero’s adage “Silent enim leges inter arma”—or, “In times of war, the law falls silent.” The killing continues, with full U.S. backing and weaponry. The wildness of this violence, and the silence of the powerful—particularly the U.S. government, which could stop this almost instantly—is almost too much to bear.

Poetry alone was never enough. “In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political,” Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul writes, “I must listen to the birds / and in order to hear the birds / the warplanes must be silent.” Who knows what will be enough to end not only this war, but the slow-moving devastation of Palestine. No one can be sure what knock will bring down the wall, open a door. At the end of the day some of us, at least, know we have knocked (and knocked), when even hope fails inside this obdurate empire—by putting words on the page, by calling Congress, by boycotting, by demonstrating, by gathering over words; perhaps the knocking is all we have.


Philip Metres has written twelve books, including Fugitive/Refuge (2024) and Shrapnel Maps (2020), both published by Copper Canyon Press. Winner of three Arab American Book Awards, a Guggenheim, and two NEA fellowships, he is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

Photo credit: Heidi Rolf