City Lights Booksellers and Publishers organized a February 7 group reading of Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha’s Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, published by the San Francisco indie in March 2022. According to City Lights publisher and CEO Elaine Katzenberger, who edited the debut poetry collection, the book has sold more than 10,000 copies, most of them since the attacks of October 7 and the beginning of the latest war between Israel and Hamas.

Abu Toha greeted the audience via livestream from Cairo, and he and fellow City Lights author Ammiel Alcalay read the book’s opening poem, “Palestine A–Z.” During his brief introduction, Abu Toha said, “I have lost so many things in my life, and unfortunately, I think this loss will continue to happen. But I didn’t lose one thing, which is the love of people around me.” He expressed a hope that his words could reach “the people who are encouraging and fueling what is taking away the things that I hold dear to my heart.”

At City Lights Books, 26 poets waited in the wings to approach the lectern one by one. They read the whole book to an overflow bookstore crowd and an online audience that topped 1,000, according to Katzenberger. Although admission was free, donations benefited the Berkeley, Calif.–based nonprofit Middle East Children’s Alliance, known as MECA, a humanitarian organization that has offered community programming for youth in Gaza and the West Bank and now provides medical supplies, winter clothes, children's toys, and shelter items such as tarps to Gazans fleeing bombardment.

Poets Join to Raise Awareness

Late in 2023, with the war in Gaza ongoing, Katzenberger envisioned a group reading of Abu Toha’s work “to provide an opportunity for people to come together. We’d done a similar reading of the entirety of [Frank O’Hara’s] Lunch Poems when we published our 50th anniversary edition, and that’s where the idea came from.”

City Lights poetry editor Garrett Caples curated the roster. “It wasn’t hard to find enough poets who wanted to participate, but of course, it was a complicated job to coordinate everyone’s availability,” Katzenberger said. “That’s a lot of poet-wrangling.”

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear “was conceived during a particularly brutal Israeli bombing campaign that was being carried out in Gaza in the spring of 2021,” Katzenberger recalled. Poet and translator Alcalay approached her with a sampling of Abu Toha’s poems from that time, “and we both agreed right away that making this book was imperative.” Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear received a 2023 American Book Award, a 2022 Palestine Book Award, and the 2023 Walcott Poetry Prize, among other honors.

Abu Toha has become a prominent voice in Gaza and the U.S. With sponsorship from MECA, he founded Gaza’s first English-language library, the Edward Said Public Library; two branches were established, sharing material in English and Arabic, the first in his hometown of Beit Lahia City (2017) and the second in Gaza City (2019). The present condition of the libraries is unknown. During 2019 and 2020, he came to the U.S. as a visiting poet and librarian-in-residence with the Harvard University Scholars at Risk Program, and he writes dispatches on Gaza for the New Yorker and other publications.

In November 2023, Abu Toha became a cause célèbre when he was detained by the Israeli Defense Forces at the Rafah border crossing, where he was departing Gaza with his wife and children. (His son was born in the U.S. and has American citizenship.) International literary organizations called for Abu Toha’s release, and he was set free within days, although, as Abu Toha chronicled in the New Yorker in December, he was beaten by the IDF while detained, and his family’s belongings and passports were not returned.

Abu Toha and his family were granted passage into Egypt. “My family and I are doing fine,” he told PW, “except that our families [still in Gaza] are in danger of getting killed by the Israeli army or dying of starvation. We cannot calm down.” He added that the horrors he chronicled in his Poems from Gaza “are happening again and again, and on a more terrorizing scale.”

The poet added that he is currently “working on a second poetry collection and trying to write more essays." In the meantime, City Lights has gone back to press with Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear.

“It was a real struggle to keep up with a sudden, outsized demand, but now we’re printing steadily and able to keep up,” Katzenberger said. “We haven’t seen a drop-off of interest, and we’re in the process of negotiating contracts for foreign editions. There have been so many requests for permission to print individual poems or groups of poems, and those have been nationwide and worldwide. It’s been very moving to see people responding to poetry in this way, and it’s an affirmation of our initial assessment that Mosab Abu Toha’s voice was and is incredibly powerful.”