Bookstore, cultural icon of Gaza, destroyed in the Israel-Hamas war
The call to seal Samir Mansour’s bookstore for destruction came early in the morning.
For days, Gaza was the target of Israeli bombardments, a relentless air attack that in an instant turned towers, boulevards and shopping districts into rubble-filled craters. Now, according to the voice of the Israeli soldier passing through Mansour’s cell phone in accented Arabic, it was the turn of the six-story Kuheil building, which had housed Mansour’s bookstore and publishing house since 2008. It had 10 minutes to go out.
Mansour, 53, was not there. He was home, a little over a mile away, and watched, as if in a trance, a live broadcast of the first missile hitting the building. He dressed and walked over to the bookstore, thinking he might still have time to save some of the over 100,000 books inside, or at least recover from his computer’s hard drive. the drawings of manuscripts that he would soon publish.
Upon arriving at the scene, he saw that the rear of the building had already collapsed. Then, as he passed a line of spectators, a second missile struck, demolishing the rest.
“It was like I had my child there,” Mansour said. “As if my soul is coming out of me.”
A week after the 11-day armed confrontation between Israel and Hamas ended in a difficult truce, the 2 million people sardonized in this impoverished coastal enclave are trying to trace a Gaza Strip still transformed by war. Among the litany of losses – at least 248 dead, tens of thousands more displaced, more than 1,000 homes and business units damaged – is the destruction of the Samir Mansour Bookstore, a place that was for many here a cultural mecca.
“It’s a crime,” said Yusri Ghoul, a Palestinian novelist from Gaza who has had four of his books published by Mansour. “The occupation wants to send the message that ‘even your books, even the Palestinian narrative, we will destroy’.”
The bookstore’s location on Thalatheeni Street, a short walk from Gaza’s best universities, has made it an essential stopover for thousands of students, said Ali Abdul Bari, a Gaza-based social activist.
“It is in the memory of everyone who went to university here,” said Abdul Bari, adding that he often goes there to buy books on culture, literature and economics, for him- even or as gifts for friends.
For Mansour, who began his apprenticeship with his father at 14, the store was his way of further diversifying, of building a reputation beyond the family edition.
“The loss is indescribable. … I climbed the ranks step by step, and now I have come back to zero, ”he said.
He opened his first bookstore in 2000 on Wahda Street in Gaza, a small store that still exists today. He didn’t have a lot of capital to start up, he said, but after eight years, with an eye on student trafficking from universities, he opened up what he came to see as the main branch, expanding to occupy the first two floors of the Kuheil building – a space of 1,700 square feet – with a workforce of 16 employees. He eventually made up 70% of his business.
His favorite place was his office. There, Mansour would meet with authors to discuss their new works, draft contracts or look into the details of the book layouts.
“The smell of a book, its title, the cover of the drawing… everything has a memory for me,” he says.
He eventually built a list of over 100 authors. But he also spent much of his time on the road, collecting books in Arabic and English that – with Gaza under a crushing blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007 – couldn’t be found anywhere else.
“I remember my father, when I was a child it was always two weeks here, two weeks in Egypt. He always came and went, ”Mansour’s 21-year-old son Mohammad said.
“I gave my work the attention I should have given my children. I should have traveled with them, shown them things, ”Mansour said.
“Instead, I worked. And now it’s gone.
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Another prominent bookstore, Iqra’a, was also destroyed. Refaat Areer, professor of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza, said that half of the books in the original library of any inhabitant of Gaza are likely to come from these two institutions. Mansour’s store was particularly good at stocking titles and bestsellers in English.
“For many young Palestinians, it is a blow to their favorite places,” Areer said. “When we started our book club 10 years ago, the first thing we did was go to Mansour and check out the English books he sells so we can plan our reading lists accordingly. . With the disappearance of these bookstores, it means that fewer books are coming to Gaza and fewer people will read books. “
A week after the airstrike, Mansour went to where his store once stood. The force of the explosions had invaded all six floors. Only an elevator shaft remained standing, its green doors at the top comically still in place, portals to nowhere. Already, men in dust-covered overalls were rushing up the rubble mountain, picking up and throwing whatever they could sell on a nearby donkey cart before the municipality cleaned it up.
Mansour walked around the wreckage, fishing for the remains of tattered books – one teaching beginner-level English; “Curtain” by Agatha Christie, the latest case of detective Hercule Poirot; some pocket anthologies of the Palestinian poet Ghassan Kanafani.
“I’ll keep them. It will be a kind of museum piece, ”he said.
In the days before the missiles arrived in Mansour’s bookstore, the neighborhood had suffered several airstrikes, one of which hit the road directly in front of the Kuheil building. Yet, Mansour said, he had never expected his store to be a target.
“I am someone with no relation to factions or parties. I have nothing to do with politics. I take care that the books I receive have nothing to do with politics, ”he said. “So why should it be destroyed?” This is what I don’t know.
The IDF said the building was targeted because Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, used it as a site for intelligence gathering and weapons production. This was news for Mansour and others who worked or lived there.
“When the doorman called me after the IDF warned him, I asked if he was sure it was the correct Kuheil,” said Ramadan Najili, 35, who owned a printing press in the city. the basement of the building and had lived in one of the apartments. since 2015.
He pointed to the United Nations compound across the street. “I thought it was safe here thanks to the UN, I was going to tell my family to come and take shelter here during the conflict,” he said.
News of the destruction of Mansour’s store spread to book lovers far beyond Gaza. A GoFundMe page created by two human rights lawyers raised more than $ 176,000 to reach its goal of $ 250,000 to rebuild the store.
“We saw a lot of support. I have had cultural places that bear my name and people come into contact all over the world, ”Mansour said. “But whatever I get, that won’t make up for the time it took to build it.” It has another taste, another feeling.
Still, he plans to start rebuilding soon. At first he thought he would choose another location. No more.
“I sacrificed so much to create this. He has a special place for me, ”said Mansour. “Our solution is to restore things to what they were.”
Gaza City Special Envoy Hana Salah contributed to this report.