Those of us denouncing the decade-long siege on the Gaza Strip can help alleviate its impact, even as we continue to organize to bring an end to it. One way we can do this is by supporting the Edward Said Public Library, an oasis of escape, creativity, and cheerfulness in an otherwise gloomy environment.
The Edward Said Public Library is the brainchild of 25-year old Mosab Abu Toha, an avid reader, book-lover, and graduate of the English Department at the Islamic University of Gaza. The university was hit by a missile during Israel’s 2014 assault, which killed thousands of innocent civilians and further devastated the besieged strip’s infrastructure. Abu Toha’s own house was also hit during the war, and his small library was destroyed. Friends pitched in, offering replacements for Abu Toha’s books, and as more books came in, he thought about opening a public library, so as others could benefit from the generous donations.
The entire Gaza Strip, with a population close to two million, has fewer than fifteen public libraries, most of which are affiliated with some organization or association, and thus open only during business hours, and not readily available to the broader public total to enjoy. Abu Toha’s idea was to create a public library that is open as many hours as possible. He was soon joined by a close friend, Shadi Salem, and last year, they launched a fundraiser, and received $15,000 in donations in one month, allowing them to rent a small space, build some shelves, and initially stock them with Mosab’s own books. With the very slight lessening of restrictions on what can enter the blockaded strip, individuals (including Noam Chomsky and Katha Pollitt) have been sending books to Abu Toha. The friends also approached government and non-governmental agencies for support, but received none, making them completely dependent on individual contributions for the running of the project.
“The library is something that can lessen the negative impact of not being able to travel abroad and get higher education in a place that is under occupation for a long time. It is a kind of a limited freedom, where traveling through the pages of books is possible,” Abu Toha wrote me.
“The library hopes to serve the local community by offering as many books as possible for the thirsty readers. It hopes to run some activities that aim at promoting reading critically, and also helping children understand English not as a school subject but as tool of exploration. In fact, one of the highest goals of the library is to be a theater for writers, thinkers and critics to spread their thoughts and experience through conferences and lectures,” Abu Toha continued, elaborating on his vision for the space.
The Edward Said Public Library has now been open for three months, and has fast become a popular and much needed space for Gazans, young and old alike, who go there to browse books, or simply bask in a quiet atmosphere bathed in world culture. Over the past three months, the enthusiastic library staff organized many activities, ranging from visiting schools and kindergartens, to hosting lectures and musical performances, to helping students with their research projects, and taking regular visitors to other libraries and historical places within Gaza. Many more such cultural activities are planned for 2018.
But they cannot happen without funding. The Library is now housed in a small two-bedroom apartment in northern Gaza, which is already proving too cramped for the patrons and planned events. Hence Abu Toha has launched another fundraiser, in hopes that the library will receive $15,000 to pay the rent for a larger apartment, the salaries of two employees for all of 2018, and to acquire more shelves, computers, a projector, and the all-important power generator.
This is our opportunity to honor Edward Said’s legacy, support the selfless vision of a young book-lover, and alleviate the isolation of thousands in the besieged Strip.
Finally, for anyone following up on the status of the book delivery from Canada, which I wrote about last month: the books are still “in limbo” as the Canadian donor has filed an official complaint about FedEx with Canada Post, who said they were “looking into it.”