‘More than wonderful’ … Gaza bookshop to reopen after unexpectedly successful global campaign

The ruins of the Samir Mansour bookshop in May 2021 (Marcus Yam - LAT)

Alison Flood

The Guardian  /  January 28, 2022

After it was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, Samir Mansour’s beloved book store has been rebuilt and restocked, as tens of thousands of books flood in from around the world

Tens of thousands of donated books have started to arrive at the new location of a Gaza bookshop that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes last year, and owner Samir Mansour now plans to reopen its doors next month.

The two-storey Samir Mansour bookshop, which was reduced to rubble last May, had been founded by the Palestinian Mansour 22 years ago and was a beloved part of the local community. Its destruction during the 11-day conflict, which killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel, prompted a campaign that raised $250,000 (£187,000) to help rebuild it, plus donations of 150,000 books. The Israeli military has said that the store was not its target, claiming that the building that housed it also contained a Hamas facility for producing weapons and intelligence-gathering.

Mansour is now preparing to reopen as both a bookshop and library, in a new location less than 100 metres from the original site. The new building, which cost $340,000, needed to be gutted and remodeled, and Mansour spent $70,000 of his personal savings building wooden shelves, tiling and installing electrical supplies. All funds generated by the campaign, which was launched by human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith, have gone towards the project, with the blockade imposed on Gaza sending costs spiraling.

Rukhsana, an American human rights lawyer working at 3DC in London, said that book donations had flooded in from around the UK, as well as from abroad, with the first cargo container of 50,000 books arriving in the Gaza Strip last week. Shipping of the remaining books will follow.

“I was so happy when I saw the first shipment had arrived … I felt like a reborn phoenix,” said Mansour. “I did not expect all this support. But it was something beyond imagination and something more than wonderful.”

“He lost approximately 90,000 books in the bombing and our goal was to collect 100,000,” said Rukhsana. “We were immediately flooded with books and volunteers who wanted to donate time, vans, cargo trucks, money, and lots of books.”

A volunteer from Peterborough, Rabea Zia, helped Rukhsana manage 70 regional book drives across the UK; there were 20 book drop-off locations in London alone.

“It started in volunteers’ homes. This became a challenge because garages, kitchens and living rooms were fast flooded with books. Some people held drives in restaurants and coffee shops, which also were flooded quickly and had to be cleared regularly,” said Rukhsana. “We made an appeal for vans. Volunteers borrowed cargo vans and began clearing homes. Central storage units were rented to accommodate the growing number of books. Our garage in Ascot was fast filled with about 30,000 books. Another 20,000 came in from Scotland. Another 20,000 from Leicester, Manchester, Croydon. And small publishing houses donated new books.”

The lawyer said that any time it started to feel like too much for the volunteers, they would find a solution. “A cargo company approached us via social media and volunteered to put the books on pallets and stack them with forklifts in a warehouse. From there, another wonderful company called Awesome Books volunteered trucks to pick up from storage locations around the country. They sorted by genre and packed into storage containers,” she said. “It was challenging because of the Brexit-related trucking shortage, but everyone worked together patiently. It was amazing to see how a global community came together and wanted to support this project. Over 4,800 donors gave money from around the world to support his fund.” Rukhsana also explained how donors were encouraged to write messages inside the books, leaving their email addresses so that the books’ new owners can get in contact should they wish.

The only request Mansour made was for Harry Potter books, because they are so popular with children in Gaza. Many people bought new Harry Potter box sets for the drive, said Rukhsana, with one volunteer selling cupcakes and baked goods for a month to raise money to buy JK Rowling and Roald Dahl book sets.

One man from Santa Barbara spent over $300 shipping three boxes of books to the drive, and more books were shipped in from Greece, France, Italy, UAE, various US cities and Singapore. “There were multiple requests to hold book drives internationally. We had to decline drives because we exceeded our target fast,” said Rukhsana. “Volunteers worked until 1am driving and collecting books and then thanked us for the opportunity to be involved in a tangible way.”

The name of the store, when it opens on 12 February, will remain the same, Samir Mansour Bookshop. “I think the community will support the idea of the new bookstore, especially as it is close to the same place that was destroyed,” said Mansour. “We are in a very bad economic situation. So we are hoping for the best and we will see what happens in the future.”

Rukhsana said that she and the other volunteers were “really proud to see the books now arriving in Gaza to people who are truly in need of literature and escape.

“When Israeli war planes bombed this bookshop it was a further attack on the community’s access to knowledge. This campaign was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to restore dignity and the fundamental right to books,” she said. “The large-scale global outpouring of support was unexpected. Also unexpected was the intense desire so many had to be tangibly involved in making this right.”

Alison Flood is The Guardian’s books reporter and the former news editor of the Bookseller

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Donations flood in to restore Gaza bookshop destroyed by Israeli airstrikes

Alison Flood

The Guardian  /  June 21, 2021

Appeal has so far raised more than $200,000, after the two-storey Samir Mansour bookshop, containing tens of thousands of books, was bombed in May.

Donations of money and books from around the world have flooded in to help rebuild one of Gaza’s largest booksellers, the two-storey Samir Mansour bookshop, which was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in May.

Founded 21 years ago by Palestinian Mansour, the shop was a much-loved part of the local community and contained tens of thousands of books in various languages covering everything from philosophy and art history to fiction and children’s books. It was reduced to rubble on 18 May, during the 11-day conflict that killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel.

Now a fundraiser managed by human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith has raised more than $200,000 (£141,000) to help rebuild the shop, while tens of thousands of donated books have been sent from all over the world to help Mansour restock.

Rukhsana said the response from the international community had been overwhelming.

“Dropping bombs on Samir Mansour’s bookshop is not the worst tragedy to have hit the people of Gaza – but this particular air strike targeted access to books. It was an attack on the knowledge and literacy of this community. Samir lost almost 100,000 books and served schoolchildren and adults alike,” said Rukhsana. “I knew hospital and roads would receive funding, but secondary cultural institutions such as libraries are often overlooked but equally critical to the community.”

Rukhsana said they are aiming to replace all of Mansour’s 100,000 books and rebuild his bookshop. They also aim to help him establish a new project: the Gaza Cultural Centre, which would be a new library next door, from which readers could borrow books without paying.

“[In Mansour’s shop], people were allowed to stay, have tea and read his books for as long as they wanted free of charge without an obligation to purchase … he has decided to use all gently used and some new books to create a true library,” she said.

In a written comment to the Guardian, Mansour said his “heart was burning” when he realized missiles had hit the building containing his shop.

“The Israeli airstrikes bombed half of the building and my bookshop was in the other half. I wished they would stop … My feet took me a few steps forward, towards the bookshop. The last missile came and destroyed the building,” he said.

“It was six in the morning. I didn’t know what to do. I started searching among the rubble for anything related to my library. But everything was under the rubble.”

He searched for an hour as he tried to make sense of what had happened, before going home. “I sat thinking about why my shop was bombed,” he said. “I did not publish, write, or attack any country or person in my life. I did not spread hatred but spread culture, science and love. I did not find answers to my questions.” But he vowed that he would “rebuild all over again, no matter what it took from me”.

UK-based online children’s bookseller Books2Door has donated 1,000 books to the campaign to rebuild Mansour’s shop, with founder Abdul Thadha describing the situation as devastating.

“Without any hesitation I knew we could help,” he said. “We were kindly informed by the fundraisers that Samir had a diverse, eclectic collection, so we hope we have done him proud.”

Rukhsana and Stafford Smith said the donations would help the bookstore “rise as a phoenix from the ashes”.

“With this kind of support now all we need is some humanitarian cooperation from the Israeli and Gaza authorities,” they added.

A ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinian militants was agreed on 21 May. But Israel launched further airstrikes on the Gaza Strip on 17 June, in response to Palestinian militants launching incendiary balloons into Israel. This came after Israel allowed far-right Jewish nationalists, some of whom chanted “Death to Arabs”, to march through Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem after the ceasefire.

Alison Flood is The Guardian’s books reporter and the former news editor of the Bookseller