April 14, 2017
Gaza needs books
by Ian Dreiblatt
From the beginning: The Gaza Strip is an area of about 140 square miles, bordered by Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. It’s home to just under two million people. Its political status is contested: while the governing Palestinian Authority and most nations consider it part of the independent state of Palestine, the world’s wealthiest countries, generally (and with exceptions like Qatar and Iceland), do not, instead recognizing Israeli rule. The disagreement has not been peaceful: in the most recent major flare-up of tensions in 2014, about 1,500 Gazan civilians were killed, a third of them children. Travel into and out of the strip is tightly restricted; the words “open-air prison” are often used to described the situation of residents.
Gaza has also proved inhospitable ground for books: collections are sometimes destroyed, and poverty and violence have reduced librarians and booksellers to nostalgia for what Salama Abu Shaaban, overseer of the venerable Hashemite Library in Gaza City, has called the “sweet memory” of better days. The 2014 assault alone destroyed seven libraries outright, and severely damaged several others. And when journalist Entsar Abu Jahal came calling at Gaza’s libraries in late 2015, she found many of them devoid of patrons. Foreign governments have periodically attempted to help, but the going is tough. Book shortages have been widely reported; e-books don’t offer a good solution, because electricity is highly unreliable. Some Palestinians have described the overall situation as a kind of de facto censorship.
As Katha Pollitt writes in the Nation this week, “There are as many opinions about Israel and Palestine as there are minds and mouths (and fingers to type a tweet), but here is something everyone can agree on: People in Gaza need more books.”
Enter native Gazan Mosab Abu Toha, a twenty-four-year-old scholar of English literature who, because of the travel restrictions, has never been outside the strip. Not physically, at least. “Freedom begins when one frees one’s mind,” Abu Toha told the New Arab earlier this year. “I have read dozens of books in English, and with them I can travel to every country in the world and through all periods. I feel like I am in another world.”
As Merisha Gadzo wrote a few months ago for Al Jazeera, Abu Toha went digging through the rubble of his university after the bombs of 2014 had stopped falling, and found a still-intact copy of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It gave him an idea.
The young scholar set up a Facebook page requesting donations of both money and books to build a library and bookstore in Gaza City, and, sure enough, they began rolling in. Late last month, he upgraded to an Indiegogo, which so far has raised close to seven thousand dollars. He has his eye on a space that will cost $15,000, so, while the progress is good, he has a ways left to go.
Besides Pollitt, the project has found another prominent supporter in notorious sweetiepants/smartiepants Noam Chomsky, who told Gadzo the library is a “wonderful idea,” and has sent a number of books, some of them autographed. (He has also provided Abu Toha with a statement, in which he acknowledges another one of the hurdles the project must overcome: between periodic, deliberate blockades and the generally degraded state of Gaza’s infrastructure, the shipments “often don’t get through.”)
For now, Abu Toha continues gathering books and accepting financial donations — if you can, you should send both. He has also published a list of the books he most wants and—not that this really matters here, but—the guy’s got taste. Besides obvious choices like Chomsky and Edward Said, and crowd-pleasers like Harry Potter, he’s also looking for titles from the likes of Toni Morrison, Primo Levi, Evelyn Waugh, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, and Elie Weasel.
Abu Toha requests that anyone donating books by mail also send him an email at [email protected] to let him know. Packages should be addressed to:
Mosab Abu Toha
Zip code 00972
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.