Bookseller Samir Mansour didn’t get much sleep that night in May this year, which changed his life: he had stayed awake watching the news for updates as Israeli bombs fell on Gaza City.
At around 6 a.m., the Al Jazeera presenter said the busy downtown street housing Mansour’s business was under attack. His instinct was to rush into the area in an attempt to save his collection. Instead, he arrived just in time to see two missiles pierce the glass storefront as the building collapsed.
âI knew it would be difficult, but I had to try to save some books, some personal belongings,â he says. âTwenty years of my life, everything I worked forâ¦ I saw it destroy itself before my eyes. “
The loss of the Samir Mansour bookstore was by no means the greatest tragedy of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. More than 250 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel have been killed in the 11-day war this year, the third round of fighting since 2007, when militants took control of the coastal enclave.
The destruction of this cultural institution, however – valued as a place to lose yourself in a book and escape the hardships of life under the Israeli blockade – has left a dent in Gaza’s literary community. With the targeting of the nearby Iqraa library, as well as two other smaller bookstores, the bombings dealt a major blow to the cultural lifelines that keep besieged Gaza connected to the outside world.
Mansour’s main branch had served as a bustling library and meeting place for students and readers of all ages, who spent happy hours browsing and drinking cardamom tea or coffee. No one was ever turned down to curl up and read for as long as they wanted, and the small Mansour publishing house, established to “preserve Palestinian culture for future generations,” offered a platform for 50 authors. local.
âIt was very shocking to realize that I was a target,â he says. âI have worked with books all my life, starting with my dad when I was 12. I have no political affiliation. In Gaza, we grew up under the war, but I still didn’t expect it. “
In the days following the strike, the aid that poured in from the local and international community deeply touched Mansour. Dozens of volunteers helped him recover some of the 100,000 books buried under the rubble, though most were unrecoverable; an online campaign raised more than $ 243,000 (Â£ 183,000) to help replace lost stock and rebuild, and book pledges poured in from around the world.
The blockade of Gaza means that building materials are often scarce and subject to high inflation. But Mansour is determined not only to revive the store, but to improve and expand the space, and establish a new library in the Gaza Cultural Center next door.
After seven months of hard work, the reconstruction is now 90% complete and Mansour hopes to reopen by the end of the year.
âAt first I didn’t even know they were doing a fundraiser. I was honored. I am very grateful to everyone who donated and helped us rebuild, âMansour said. âI decided to start operating at full capacity as soon as possible, to keep my staff employed. The new store will be three times the size.
Life in Gaza remains tough, and gets harder every day. The Israeli and Egyptian blockades have created what aid agencies are dubbing the “world’s largest prison”, with very high unemployment, water unsuitable for drinking or washing, and continual blackouts. The health system had already collapsed before the emergence of Covid-19, and to date only a quarter of the population has received at least one dose of vaccination.
But Mansour dreams of the day when the siege is lifted and he can export his authored books from Gaza to new readers around the world.
âEven despite the embargo, we are doing and surviving,â he told me. âImagine if we had room to breathe and travel and not just in books. ”