Books across borders

Rebuilding the Gaza bookshop destroyed by Israel.

Girls browse for books in a bookstore
The Samir Mansour bookshop in Gaza [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
The Samir Mansour bookshop in Gaza [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Gaza, Palestine – At 5am on the morning of May 18, 2021, Samir Mansour was at home watching TV, when he saw a warning that the Israeli army was about to bomb the five-storey building that housed his bookshop and life’s work.

He rushed the two kilometres (1.25 miles) to the shop on Gaza’s Universities Street – hoping to rescue some important papers and his laptop – but stopped 200 metres (650 feet) away. He was afraid to go in and risk being trapped inside when the air raid hit.

A few minutes later, Israeli planes fired two missiles. Samir could only watch as his bookshop collapsed.

“The building that hosted my dreams and achievements for 21 years collapsed in front of my eyes,” he says. “At that moment, I knew the meaning of pain, what it means to lose everything you loved.”

The bookshop had contained around 100,000 books, and Samir says the financial losses were estimated at about $700,000.

The attack was part of Israel’s 11-day assault on the Gaza Strip that killed at least 260 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

“I have no relationship with any armed group or political party. This was an attack on culture,” Samir says.

He has lived through two Intifadas and three wars against the Gaza Strip, but never before had his bookshop been destroyed.

Poster of the destroyed Gaza bookshop
Mahvish Rukhsana saw this poster of the destroyed Gaza bookshop on social media and decided to help [Supplied]

Continents away, human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith saw photos of the debris that was all that remained of Samir’s shop – and came up with a plan. They launched an international fundraising campaign to rebuild it, calling for donations of books and money.

They didn’t just want to replace the books, says Clive, but to do it in a way that is “the epitome of what culture and education is all about, which is reaching across borders”.

The campaign collected 150,000 books from donors, many of whom added inscriptions and their email addresses.

“We wanted to encourage the human interaction between the people in Gaza and all around the world despite the imposed siege,” Clive says.

Nine months after it was destroyed, the new Samir Mansour bookshop opened - three floors with more than 300,000 books on topics including culture, education, religion and law.

Mahvish believes “the success of this project is a testament to the good in humanity.”

“In the face of incredible adversity, thousands of people the world over came together in support and solidarity with the people of Gaza.”

Now, Samir says, the bookshop is “many times stronger than it was before”.

Al Jazeera spoke to some of those who sent or collected books and to those awaiting them in Gaza about what the bookshop means to them.

'I felt I needed to do something'

A man stands in the rubble of a destroyed bookstore in Gaza
On May 22, 2021, Samir Mansour stood on the rubble of his destroyed bookshop [File: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP]
On May 22, 2021, Samir Mansour stood on the rubble of his destroyed bookshop [File: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP]

Zafar Ibrahim – London, UK

Parked outside a semi-detached house in the suburb of Chingford, in east London, sits an imposing black SUV.

“It’s the first car I bought,” reveals its owner, 34-year-old Zafar Ibrahim, who works with his team of mobile opticians to provide eye care services to those who cannot access a shop unaccompanied or who are housebound.

“I bought it second-hand a few years back. I thought I'm gonna buy something different, something that I enjoy.”

Zafar’s love for his car is clear - he’s even created a social media account dedicated to it, so when he saw a social media post asking for volunteer drivers to collect books for a shop in Gaza, he spotted a chance to make use of his spacious vehicle while helping others.

“Destroying a bookshop, a place where people have access to escape from reality, almost, by reading a book, or taking them a world away – when that’s been taken away, I felt I needed to do something,” he explains.

A car filled with books
Zafar Ibrahim's car filled with the books he collected [Courtesy of Zafar Ibrahim]

“I was picturing filling it [the car] with books to help the collection,” he says.

But he wasn’t prepared for just how many boxes of books he’d be collecting – “There were hundreds of boxes, from all over London and outside London, too. The car wasn’t big enough.”

Zafar and his brother Fahim had to hire a van, but the boxfuls of books they’d collected from schools, shops, people’s homes and garages, and places of worship had filled the van before midday. So they had to drop off their collection and return for more, roping in friends who hired another van to help them.

“I just remember getting home in the early hours; it must have been 2 or 3am. Really tired, but it was amazing,” says Zafar.

'Books have a healing quality'

Samir Mansour in his Gaza bookstore
Samir Mansour prepares for the reopening of his bookshop on February 17 [Mohammed Abed/AFP]
Samir Mansour prepares for the reopening of his bookshop on February 17 [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

Maria Panouklia – Tripolis, Greece

Maria Panouklia sits beside one of the fir trees that line the road outside the two-storey house where she lives in Tripolis in southern Greece sharing stories about the time she volunteered to teach refugee integration classes in a local junior high school.

The 33-year-old physics teacher by profession taught basic maths to 13 to 16-years-olds from places such as Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

She witnessed their "struggles, pain and sadness".

“I heard their personal stories, I experienced their loss along with them, I’ve been haunted since,” she says.

“But Greece has been receiving refugees from Palestine for many years now, and we don’t consider the area far from us, actually it’s right in our ‘neighbourhood’ and its people are part of our lives.”

Her interest in her new neighbours, she says, led her to start reading books by Palestinian writers and poets. The Book of Gaza: A city in short fiction, edited by Atef Abu Saif and, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan allowed her “to better understand the situation” from a Palestinian perspective.

Piles of books
Left: Maria Panouklia, who donated books from Greece [Courtesy of Dimitra Panouklia] Right: Some of the thousands of books collected in the UK [Courtesy of Mahvish Rukhsana]

“People there struggle every day to survive and things considered as constants in our lives such as freedom, peace, living in an official state don’t really stand for them.”

When she heard of the attack on Samir’s bookshop, “the image of the shredded books and their pages scattered in the ruins” became imprinted on her mind.

The book collection drive gave Maria the chance to collect a handful of books from friends, while also adding a few more she had bought herself.

“It was important to me for them to be brand new because I wanted people to have the joy of smelling the ‘woodness’ on their pages. Being a booklover and an avid reader myself, I always find this smell comforting,” she says wistfully.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Ancient Greek classics like Homer were among her personal contributions, as was another personal favourite, Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s a title probably better known for the soundtrack of the same name by Mikis Theodorakis, but the book is a story about “seeing life from different perspectives”, Maria explains.

“The image of a heartbroken Samir holding one of his destroyed books reminded me of the iconic end of this book - the two protagonists dancing after having lost everything. Life goes on and we have to find a way to move forward, haven’t we?”

“Books have a healing quality,” she adds. “I really hope the rebuilt bookshop becomes a significant landmark in the area, a shelter from the outside world.”

'Everyone should have access to books'

People browse in a bookstore
People look at books in the newly rebuilt Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
People look at books in the newly rebuilt Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Haffeera Cader Saul – London, UK

Mohammed Huzair Abdul Cader was 46 years old in 1983, when war broke out in his native Sri Lanka. Though living in the UK at the time, Huzair Cader as he was known, would hear the news from back home in horror, of Tamils being stripped of their citizenship, and of the government taking ownership of Muslim-owned businesses.

He would recount these injustices to his daughter Haffeera Cader Saul, who would later travel to her parents’ homeland as a 10-year-old.

“Even though the war was still prevalent, everything seemed normal,” she explains, “shops and hotels open, people walked on the streets. There was a military presence on the road, at stop points, as well as curfews.”

Her father learned of people fleeing the country because of fear of persecution based on their religious beliefs and ethnicity. Her young eyes, she says, had been opened to the pain war can cause.

“War affected people's everyday lives, even though it seemed as if everything was normal. These things upset him, as he felt everyone should be able to live on this earth with no fear.”

He passed away in 2019, but Haffeera carries her father's strong sense of justice and his love of books. He is the reason she became a writer.

Books in boxes
Left: Haffeera Cader Saul donated books from London [Courtesy of Starlighthcsaul] Right: Boxes of books collected in Leicester, ready to ship to Gaza [Courtesy of Mahvish Rukhsana]

He championed education and literacy for all, she says, believing “everyone should have access to books. He taught us the value of how literature helps us to understand our history; encouraging us to read books like The Story of Lanka, by LE Blaze and, A History of Sri Lanka, by KM De Silva.”

When Haffeera was a child, her father would take her and her brother on monthly trips to the bookshops in central London. They were allowed to buy one book each and would save up their pocket money for the rest of the month in order to pay for their next purchase.

When she was young, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was a favourite. Later, it was A Diary of a Mad Man, by Nikolai Gogol – “I loved the insight into a diplomatic society and how the main character Axenty Ivanovich narrates his descent into madness,” she says.

Her father had also been a supporter of human rights and the Palestinian cause. So when she heard about the collection, Haffeera donated a copy of her first children’s book called, Are you there? Buzzed the Busy Bees. It is filled with colourful illustrations of birds, zebras and sloths, creatures that she hopes will capture the attention of children visiting Samir’s bookshop.

“The book is about bees looking for animals they think have disappeared. But to their surprise, they are still around and begin introducing their unique characteristics,” she explains.

Her book ends with these lines: “Here we all are, We are animals you and me, We belong in the trees, We belong in the Seas, We belong on this land – it belongs to you and me.”

“It illustrates, with a glimmer of hope that some things that disappear may still be there. Good things can happen,” she says.

'Books allow you to lose yourself'

People browse in a bookstore
The Samir Mansour bookshop on the day it reopened [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
The Samir Mansour bookshop on the day it reopened [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Samantha Knights – Devon, UK

Samantha Knights has been walking her dog - a Bedlington Whippet called Clovis - through the woodlands close to her home in the village of Shute, in rural East Devon. The barrister best known for her work on human trafficking founded the Shute Literary Festival in 2016. Reading, she says, “opens eyes into worlds that are not our own”.

“Books allow you to lose yourself and be transported to somewhere different, it doesn’t matter where it is,” she says. “They offer a way of switching off from whatever the reality is of the world around you.”

When she heard about the attack on the bookstore she felt anger but also a desire to do something tangible to help those who could no longer access the escapism books offered.

“A rocket launch on the only bookshop Gaza had, it brings it home to you, just how senseless this war is when they blow up a bookshop,” she recalls thinking when she heard the news.

Books in boxes
Left: Books donated in Scotland waiting to be shipped to Gaza [Courtesy of Mahvish Rukhsana] Right: Samantha Knights from Devon, UK, who donated money to the campaign [Courtesy of Bijan Omrani]

Samantha donated funds towards the rebuilding of the bookshop in the hope that it will allow “the community to engage with books, reading and literature once more”.

As we speak, she recalls a book she has been meaning to buy, and adds it to her online basket. It was written by Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh who would go on walks “as a form of therapy”, she explains, to walk away from the difficult cases he might have been dealing with during the day. “You do law in the day and then you go for a walk,” Samantha muses.

The book, Palestinian Walks, takes the reader on six different walks with the writer as he shares glimpses into life in the West Bank, while also documenting the disappearing landscape around him over a period of 26 years.

“Books and bookshops are so important in storytelling, they are the very foundation of the human condition,” Samantha reflects. “We understand life through the telling of stories.”

'When the library was bombed, I felt pain'

A young woman reads through a book
Dina Shanon reads a book at Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
Dina Shanon reads a book at Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Dina Shannon – Gaza, Palestine

“My beloved hobby is reading,” explains Dina Shannon, a 20-year-old media and communications student who says she reads 30 books a year.

Her love for the written word started at a young age, when her mum first took her and her brothers to a library.

“After that, I used to borrow books from the library in my school,” she says.

As Dina grew so did her passion for books.

“I found Samir Mansour’s library which was very close to my house.” She would visit the bookshop regularly, she says.

One of her favourite books is The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. “Although the novel is about 500 pages long, I finished it in a single session,” she says with a smile.

“It was a mixture of myth, art and thriller. I used to put my mobile next to me because I was constantly searching for everything [mentioned in the book], and I was fascinated by it.”

Dina says she was a “faithful client” of Samir’s shop for a long time before it was bombed. She used to visit it with her father, she says, and Samir would always recommend new books for her.

A man cuts a ribbon at the reopening of a store in Gaza
Samir Mansour cuts the tape at the reopening of his bookshop on February 17, 2022 [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

“When the library was bombed, I felt so much in pain. Everything disappeared in a moment. All my memories with my friends in every corner of the library disappeared,” she says.

“It was a terrifying night, as my house is near the library.”

Dina believes that Israel intentionally targets cultural life in Gaza. “Samir Mansour wasn’t the first cultural place to be bombed; Israel bombed the Said al-Mishal Foundation for Culture and Science (a cultural centre for events with a public library) a few years ago,” she says.

“Israel targets the Palestinian identity and culture in an attempt to kill the joy in the hearts and minds of the Palestinians.”

At the store’s reopening, Dina viewed the new books with joy. But she worries about the deteriorating living conditions in Gaza and how this may affect people’s ability to buy and enjoy books.

“I believe there is no economic progress without culture. The economic situation in Gaza is bad. Therefore, culture is generally negatively impacted,” she says.

“When someone is not able to provide the bare minimum to live a decent life, how will he think of educating himself or his children?”

'I always encourage my children to read more'

A man holds a book
Fawaz Helles, who has a small library in his home, believes books are vital in Gaza [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
Fawaz Helles, who has a small library in his home, believes books are vital in Gaza [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Fawaz Helles – Gaza, Palestine

As Fawaz Helles walks through the corridors of the newly rebuilt Samir Mansour bookshop, he describes how his passion for reading started at a young age.

The 45-year-old academic and researcher has created a small personal library in his own home to encourage his five children to read, as his father had done before him.

"I am convinced that culture and reading are skills that must be inculcated and developed from a young age. Therefore, I always encourage my children to read more,” he says placing a book back onto a shelf.

Fawaz sees Samir Mansour’s store as a Palestinian cultural establishment.

"Libraries play a vital role in reviving the cultural situation, especially in the Gaza Strip, in light of the ongoing siege and the need of citizens to keep pace with global and cultural development,” he says.

Fawaz takes time away from our conversation to continue skimming the latest publications in the field of international law; a field he has been working in recently and where his research topics are concentrated.

People look at books in a store
Customers browse the newly reopened Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

After a short tour, he chooses a book, titled Public International Law by Youssef Alwan and begins explaining the topics covered in the index. “It is an interesting book that talks about the rules of international law and its sources, and the principles of justice and equity,” he says.

Fawaz believes it is very important for Palestinians living inside the Palestinian territories to have an awareness of international law, given the political reality they face.

"The continuous Israeli violations, the continuation of settlement activity, the Judaization of Jerusalem. All these practices go against the United Nations resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention agreements."

"People should know that,” he adds.

Fawaz had last visited the old shop just days before it was bombed. “I went there to agree with Mr Mansour to print my PhD thesis and publish it in a book, and that was under preparation. But then the library was bombed,” he says.

'It held memories and important books'

A family looks at books in a store
Ahlam Samir browses books with her children at Samir's bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
Ahlam Samir browses books with her children at Samir's bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Ahlam Samir – Gaza, Palestine

Holding her youngest daughter, with her husband and three other children nearby, Ahlam Samir talks light-heartedly about what she calls her “former” passion for reading.

“As you see, I don’t have enough time because of my endless responsibilities towards my kids,” she says after pausing our conversation to soothe her crying child.

The 31-year-old’s interest in reading began with children’s stories when she was young. When she became a mother, she started taking her children to Samir’s bookshop, encouraging them to choose books that help them with their studies.

“I always try to think outside the box and not be satisfied with the curriculum. I like to bring interactive books that simplify scientific materials,” she says, pointing out a book to her 10-year-old daughter.

Her five-year-old daughter interrupts to show her a book she has chosen. The title is On the Farm, and there are cheerful graphics on the cover. “This is similar to what they take in kindergarten, she had a lesson about animals on the farm, so she chose this book,” Ahlam explains while looking through it with her daughter.

“The beautiful thing about this library is that it is almost the only place that brings rare books, such as children's books that are interactive with sound and cloth designs,” she says, adding that such books cannot be found anywhere else in Gaza.

A worker packs bookshelves in a store
A worker arranges bookshelves ahead of the reopening of Samir Mansour bookshop [Mahmud Hams/AFP]

Now, Ahlam and her children can find stories about characters that they normally only see on TV.

“I try to develop my children’s interest in reading, especially in light of the spread of smartphones, YouTube and the internet,” she says.

She feels sad, she says, that the children are unable to find the things they see on the internet in Gaza.

She believes reading will offer an entryway into other cultures and new horizons and hopes it will help bridge the cultural gap between her children and the outside world.

She is grateful for the bookshop as it “contributes to the revival of culture” in Gaza.

“Wars, poverty, restrictions on travel. Many obstacles face people here,” she says.

She remembers how the offensive last May made her fear for her children. “The bombing was everywhere,” she says.

When she learned about the bookshop being bombed, she “felt great pain”.

“There were many memories and ancient and important books in it,” she adds.

“But we thank God that it came back stronger and better than before.”

'We must not lose the battle of thought'

A man reads a book in front of a bookstore
Palestinian writer Nasser Shabat browses in Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]
Palestinian writer Nasser Shabat browses in Samir Mansour bookshop [Mohammed Salem/Al Jazeera]

Nasser Shabat – Gaza, Palestine

Nasser Shabat grew up in a family interested in science, culture and knowledge. This played a big part in inspiring the Palestinian writer and leftist social activist’s intellectual ideas.

He has a love for literature, especially Russian literature.

Browsing the shelves of the newly reopened Samir Mansour bookshop, Nasser pulls out a book on the works of the 19th-century Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, his favourite author.

He believes the reality of life for Palestinians drives them to learn more about culture and to acquire more knowledge. It helps them to face the occupation, he says.

“Russian literature inspired us about freedom, societal justice and free thought. We have come to believe in the importance of culture to us as Palestinians,” he says.

But it isn’t only Russian writers he is interested in. Nasser lists the names of Palestinian authors who have influenced him: Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Ibrahim Toukan and Moin Bseisu.

These writers, he says, have helped to “consolidate the pillars of Palestinian culture” and have reflected “the Palestinian suffering” in their work.

The outside of Samir Mansour bookshop in Gaza
The newly rebuilt Samir Mansour bookshop reopened in Gaza on February 17, 2022, nine months after it was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

When the bookshop was bombed, Nasser says he felt sad because it had helped many new writers refine their craft and supported a new generation.

“There is hardly a house in the Gaza Strip that does not contain a book from this library,” he says.

“One of the tools of the occupation in obliterating people’s identity and heritage is targeting libraries, as they reflect an emotional connection with the land and identity,” he adds.

Walking around the bookshop, Nasser stresses that every corner of the library contains a human and historical story, each one available for readers to connect with.

“My message to all Arab and Palestinian youths is all fronts may fall; we may lose all social and military battles. But we must not lose the battle of thought, awareness and literature, as they are the roots of citizenship, authenticity. We must preserve them.”

Source: Al Jazeera