Two important Palestinian library projects are looking for your help:
The first is the “مطلوب” or “Wanted” project, which launched this month, an initiative of the Librarians and Archivists with Palestine (LAP), in partnership with the Tamer Institute. The idea behind Matloub is to gather requests for books from eleven libraries in the West Bank and six libraries in Gaza, and to post the requests on their website. Supporters from around the world can then “donate the cost of a book and its shipping,” and Matloub organizers will “coordinate delivery of the book to the requesting library.”
You might notice that the cost of some books on this site is significantly higher than the list price for the title. This is because Palestinian libraries in the West Bank and Gaza cannot simply order a book and expect it to arrive quickly and reliably. Israel’s “enemy state” designation prevents literature from being sent directly to Palestinian libraries and booksellers if it has originated in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and sometimes other countries. This is a particular problem with Lebanon, a major hub of Arabic-language publishing. As a result, Palestinian libraries often contain more books originally written in English, Swedish, and other languages, than in Arabic.
The Edward Said Library in Gaza
The second project is a more time-sensitive one: the Gaza-based Edward Said Library, founded by Mosab Abu Toha, where their lease is up at the end of January.
Abu Toha said that, to date, imaginative literature has been his only way of leaving the tiny Gaza Strip. Last year, he was invited to take part in a cultural week in Italy to talk about his experience as a founder of the Edward Said Library. Unfortunately, he said, “My plan to leave Gaza was turned down after I discovered that in order to travel anywhere, I needed to have my travel application at least one month ahead of the appointment, which I failed to meet.”
The idea for the library came to Abu Toha four and a half years ago, during the 2014 Gaza War. “Our house was critically damaged,” he said over email. “My personal library books were scattered on the floor, with shrapnel next to them. I never imagined that war would also be about losing books.” He added that he also lost two close friends.
When a truce was declared in August, Abu Toha headed back to his university. There, he found the English department was badly damaged, and it wasn’t safe to enter the building. “So I was very careful in my steps. The first scene that shocked me was the books under rubble. I never saw that in my life. I couldn’t imagine that even books could be harmed.”
Among the broken objects, he found The Norton Anthology of American Literature, covered in dust. “I cleaned it and embraced it. I thought about taking it home, but then I decided to hand it to the university security men. He was particularly struck by the sight of that particular book, he said. Great English and American literature “attacked by weapons manufactured and shipped from those two great countries.”
When he got home, Abu Toha posted a photo of the book on social media, and another photo of his destroyed home library. Many of his friends, he said, asked if he needed books. “They started to ship books to me. Many other people from my friends’ circle began to send books.”
In time, he said, he’d gathered many books, which sparked the idea of creating a public library to share them with other Gazans. “There are two million people in Gaza,” Abu Toha said, and “most of them are young. Most Gazans, if not all, went to school, and a large number of them are holders of a university degree.” Yet, for this literate population, there is a relatively small number of libraries. Abu Toha wanted to set one up to focus on English books, and he started to develop a collection that ranges from Shakespeare to Foucault to Roald Dahl.
Once he’d reached 600 books, he invited friends to donate money so they could rent a space and buy shelves, tables, and chairs. “Near the end of 2016, I was in the process of collecting books for the library. Prof. Chomsky sent a dozen of his books.” But then, “The Israeli authorities stated that all mail to Gaza should be stopped, saying that Gaza military groups were getting materials that could be used for military ends. … A lot of book boxes did not pass to me in Gaza. Prof. Chomsky’s were among them. I had to wait until January of the following year. Some books arrived in bad condition because of the weather while on the Israeli side. I felt sad for them. But at least they had made it.”
Throughout Palestine, English is taught to schoolchildren, and there are many Gazan students and graduates who improve their English through reading. Yet in Gaza, Abu Toha said, “English books can only be found in the university libraries, which one can either read inside the library or borrow for a few days. These books can only be borrowed by the university’s own students.”
He felt that English is an important language, both instrumentally — for getting jobs, studying abroad, and communicating about Palestinians’ struggles — and creatively. Abu Toha himself writes poems and short prose.
The current and future space
The Edward Said Library is currently housed in 150 square meters in the north of Gaza. It’s a four-room space that includes a reading room, a teaching space, and a children’s room. On its shelves are more than two thousand books. Anyone can visit. If a visitor wants to borrow a book, Abu Toha said, “they need to fill a membership form and hand in a personal photo and give their mobile phone number. Any member can borrow books, but needs to give them back with three weeks. They can extend their reservation for one additional week.”
The library has also sponsored a reading club as well as outside events.
Why are organizers now looking for crowd-funding instead of funding from internal sources? “Due to the notorious rift between Hamas and Fatah since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been marginalized,” Abu Toha said. “It does not receive it share of funding for cultural and developmental projects.” Also, he said: “Most of the NGOs, if not all, have their own programs.”
As to the future, Abu Toha said it’s his hope to expand the library to include a section for music and arts, as many emerging artists want to find a place to practice and to show off their talents. Another thing he’s hoping to do is to form “a writer’s workshop for the young writers in Gaza. I think having a forum like this within a library would be a privilege.” He added: “I really encourage international writers and others who are interested in mentoring young writers in Gaza to contact me for future projects.”
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All photos courtesy Mosab Abu Toha.