In Gaza, first English-language library opens window to world
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In Gaza, first English-language library opens window to world

Asserting that 'freedom begins when one frees one's mind,' two Palestinian friends use Facebook to collect books from across the globe

Mossab Abo Toha, who is collecting english books for his "Library and Bookshop for Gaza" project,  at the library in his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Mossab Abo Toha, who is collecting english books for his "Library and Bookshop for Gaza" project, at the library in his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

GAZA CITY (AFP) — Mossab Abu Toha has never actually left Gaza, instead devouring books as an escape. Now he is struggling to open the first English-language library in the beleaguered Hamas-controlled territory.

“Send us books in English, new or used,” says the 24-year-old reading enthusiast on his Facebook page.

Abu Toha, like so many Gazans effectively trapped in the Palestinian enclave as a result of Israeli and Egyptian security restrictions, dreams of traveling.

“Freedom begins when one frees one’s mind,” said the young graduate in English literature from the Islamic University of Gaza, who shares his passion by teaching Shakespeare at a United Nations school.

“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.”

Mossab Abo Toha, who is collecting english books for his "Library and Bookshop for Gaza" project, reads english books with children in the garden at his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Mossab Abo Toha, who is collecting english books for his “Library and Bookshop for Gaza” project, reads english books with children in the garden at his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Since the bloody Hamas ouster of Palestinian Authority forces in 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza with the Strip’s Egyptian border also largely closed. Those who manage to take advantage of the rare Egyptian openings never really know when they will be able to return.

In a territory where even the delivery of basic necessities is anything but simple, literature is also a victim of politics.

“There are few books in English,” Abu Toha said, and they “arrive well after their publication because of the blockade.”

Even the idea of falling back on electronic versions is problematic.

“The electricity cuts all the time,” said Shadi Salem, who is helping Abu Toha set up the project.

Gaza receives only a few hours of power per day due to chronic energy shortages.

Bombed bookshop

Since the July launch of their “Library & Bookshop for Gaza” page, which has nearly 2,500 followers, the two friends say they have collected more than 200 books, including from American and European donors, as well as $2,000 in donations.

But delivery has again been an issue.

For months in 2016, Israel blocked the arrival of parcels into the Gaza Strip. Israel says it restricts deliveries to the Strip because of fears its Islamist Hamas rulers, who are openly committed to destroying Israel, could use the postal service to receive equipment for weapons.

The transfer was restored in December, with Abu Toha announcing joyfully on Facebook: “You can now send your books.”

Good evening from Gaza! New books have already arrived.Please send your books when you can. It takes a month or so to reach Gaza.

Posted by Library & Bookshop For Gaza on Monday, 16 January 2017

For the time being, the 200 books received and his personal library — about 400 — stand on shelves in the family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza.

The goal is a thousand more books.

Of all his books, he highlighted three from American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who sent them to him personally.

Mossab Abo Toha shows the signature of American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who personally dedicated some books to him, in the library at his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Mossab Abo Toha shows the signature of American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who personally dedicated some books to him, in the library at his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

In 2014, Israel launched its third military operation on Gaza since Hamas came to power in 2007. Hamas had dug terror tunnels under the border, and fired thousands of rockets into Israel. Among the sites hit in the Israeli operation was the Islamic University, with its English bookshop badly damaged.

“I was shocked: The Israeli army, backed by the West, bombed books in English,” recalled the young man, who sports a trim black beard.

According to Mohammed al-Sherif of the Hamas-run culture ministry, around 30 libraries were partially or totally destroyed during the three wars.

There are 18 libraries in Gaza, with the vast majority of books in Arabic.

“Israel has allowed books to be imported into Gaza for the past year, but political books, for example, are still banned,” Sherif said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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