June 1948, Israeli soldiers advance in an affluent Arab neighborhood, now almost deserted, in western Jerusalem. The soldiers are followed by several librarians from the national library. Sporadic gunfire is heard. The men cling against the walls as they arrive in a street with big wealthy houses, their occupants left in haste. Breaking into house after house, the librarians “collect” entire libraries into boxes which are loaded onto trucks. Similar scenes repeat themselves throughout the Arab neighborhoods of western Jerusalem and later on in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth and other places. In total, 70,000 Palestinian books were “collected” in this manner.
In 1948 the new state of Israel used its military power to conquer as much land -designated to the Arab state according to the UN partition resolution of November 1947 – as it could, and to cleanse the newly occupied territories from their Arabs inhabitants. At the time, the books’ plunder affair was a small sideshow of the main events of the war. But seen through a wider historical perspective, the books’ looting together with the destruction of the Palestinian urban centers, constitute the destruction of an entire culture. This is a major outcome of the 1948 war. Thousands of the books were recycled into paper while others were absorbed into the library’s general collection, making it impossible to trace them today. Six thousand of these books were eventually categorized as foreign and placed in the Eastern Studies Department of The National Library, although technically still owned by the Custodian of Absentee Property. The fate of these books is much like that of the Palestinian people: unlawfully taken from their homes, expelled and made foreign in their own land. Baring the label “AP” for Abandoned Property the books are the focal point of The Great Book Robbery project.
In 1997, Benny Brunner became the first director to produce a documentary unveiling the story of the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Today he is the first to make a documentary about the systematic looting of 70,000 Palestinian books during the war of 1948, The Great Book Robbery. The book robbery is a facet of Palestinian cultural destruction that remains largely unknown. However, just as the Nakba became part of the international discourse on Palestine, the importance of Palestinian cultural preservation is crucial to the discussion. The Great Book Robbery is shifting the spotlight back to the books through the making of a documentary, digital library and active website. The project aims to tell this untold story. In the film’s teaser Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, one of the rightful owners of the books describes what this loss meant to him. The digital library lists 500 books with the titles, authors’ and owners’ names translated from Arabic into English. The goal is to list all 6,000 books in an effort to acknowledge their true origins. Finally, the website serves as a space for information and discussion. The latest feature on the website is the Forum a space for academics, librarians, students, journalists, filmmakers and others to share views on cultural preservation.
These stolen possessions still sit in The National Library, like treasured artifacts collected in a far off land thus denying that these books were taken from nearby Jerusalem neighborhoods. In 2008, Gish Amit, a PhD student was the first to discover documents attesting to the looting of the books. Amit researched the orientalisation of the 6,000 AP books in the Eastern Studies Department, which were moved into a socially constructed space to which they never belonged. This project aims at revealing not only the plunder that took place, but the true identity of the books. By exposing this narrative, the project reveals a new aspect of the Nakba.
In the summers of 2010 and 2011 I traveled to Palestine and Israel, hoping to learn about the conflict first hand. Driving through Israel, I was aware that hidden village ruins were remnants of the Nakba. Walking through Jaffa I noticed buildings with arched windows, once home to Palestinians, but now renovated luxury apartments for Israelis. However, I failed to see a similar pattern in Jerusalem. Could it be that in the former Arab neighborhoods of Baka’a, Katamon, or Talbiyeh, 63 years earlier Israeli librarians pillaged private Palestinian libraries? Familiar with the issues of settlements, refugees, prisoners, and the Wall, I had failed to realize the importance of the preservation of Palestinian national culture throughout Israeli occupation. After some self-educating and a lucky discover of The Great Book Robbery on Facebook, today I am proud to serve as the Communication Manager for this project with Benny Brunner.
The Great Book Robbery film is due to be released in May 2012. Aljazeera English Network will broadcast the film and so will, most probably, a number of European public broadcasters who have showed interest in the project. The digital library is always looking for more Arabic and English speakers to help with translation work. The Forum continues to grow as more pieces are posted contributing to the discussion on cultural preservation. I urge everyone to visit our website, learn more about this important project and see how you can get involved. And I will continue to write Facebook posts and tweets, using new media to bring attention to one of the oldest and most important mediums in history, books.