Samir Mansour’s Bookshop
Polity of Literature (35/51)

Samir Mansour’s Bookshop

In a vibrant urban neighbourhood the loss of a beloved bookshop is always hard to bear—worse when it’s destroyed by enemy missiles.

Books have been the target of anti-Palestinian animus and military operations for as long as there has been a state of Israel. The Nakba that came with Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 included follow-up teams of self-described “looters” from the Israeli universities, backed by armed military units, that confiscated all of the books left behind by the highly educated, mostly middle-class Palestinians who fled their homes to save their lives. Tens of thousands of volumes were taken—irreplaceable historic and private libraries—and at least 6,000 of them remain in the collection of the National Library of Israel. They’re kept in a separate research-only section and are labelled AP—for “abandoned property.” The librarians say they are safekeeping the books, in case their rightful owners ever show up to claim them. In late-May this year, the Israeli military targeted several schools and at least four bookshops in the centre of Gaza City. They launched missile strikes against two bookshops. The largest and most venerated of them, Samir Mansour’s Bookshop, was completely buried under the rubble of the six-story building where it occupied the bottom two floors. Its destruction—and the dangerous, painstaking labour of trying to rescue any of the nearly one hundred thousand books the shop held while bulldozers comb through the rubble—have played out vividly in pictures circulating through social media. A GoFundMe campaign set up by sympathetic writers and lawyers has, as of this writing, raised $200,000 of the $250,000 needed so that Samir Mansour can rebuild his shop precisely as it used to be, and exactly where it used to stand. The violence of May did not end with the “ceasefire” of June. Hostilities are ongoing.

Many people, especially writers or poets like me, have lost a favourite bookshop: seen its owners grow old, its rents rise, or business disappear into the pockets of Amazon. We’ve protested against their decline, fought to keep them alive, and, too many times, ended the fight with an essay like this one—mourning what we’ve lost. It’s different in Gaza. In Gaza our largest bookshop (run by Samir Mansour since 2000) did plenty of business. Between their internet access, research services, their publishing house, and the sale of books that people didn’t simply read entire while hanging out at the shop, they always paid the rent, restocked the shelves, published new books by Gazans, and kept Samir’s employees and family alive. Amazon was never a threat to the Samir Mansour Bookshop because who counts on next-day delivery in Gaza?

We lost the Samir Mansour Bookshop on a sunny morning this year, in May, when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) aimed a missile at the shop’s glass storefront and turned to fire, rubble, and ash more than a hundred thousand books, the shelves to hold them, a scattering of chairs, tables, and carpets on which people sat reading, the children’s book corner, a publishing house, several high-speed copiers and a dozen Internet-publishing terminals, receipts and records from decades in the book business, the cardamom-infused coffee that Samir served to friends who were reading, and quite a few of my fondest memories. However unusual or horrifying the reasons for losing my favourite bookstore, this loss should be mourned.

Writing utensils rain down from flying books in a rainbow sky.

I first visited the Samir Mansour Bookshop in February, 2012, when I was a student of English literature at Alazhar University. Growing up in Gaza I’d had other favourite bookshops, usually because of their proximity to where I lived in Northern Gaza when I was child; I used to go to small, local bookstores to print papers or buy this or that book I wanted as a schoolkid. But Samir Mansour’s shop was Gaza’s largest; and it was well-known to the students I joined at Alazhar University, located nearby down the crowded thoroughfare of Althalthini Street. Students also called this Almaktabat street, meaning “the bookstores street.” 

My first visit to Samir’s was at 8 AM on a late-summer morning, on my way to classes at Alazhar. I’d heard about their vast collection of English novels and poetry, a resource more useful than the university’s libraries, which were less accessible and never as up-to-date. Like many of my fellow literature students, I didn’t refer to Samir Mansour’s business as a “shop,” but usually called it “the library,” or “Samir’s.” The six-story concrete building it was part of had been built in 2000 as a community centre. When Samir moved his shop there in 2008 that purpose was not lost so much as it was translated into the form of books and publishing—reading and writing.

The big windows of Samir Mansour’s storefront were crowded with books turned face-out, a sea of covers that blocked the view in and also kept out the bright glare of daylight. The street outside was always busy and chaotic; a vendor selling peanuts was often parked near the door. In the middle of the storefront a steel-framed glass door—also filled with book covers—opened beneath a yellow sign announcing the Samir Mansour Bookshop. Inside it was shadowed, and a little bit noisy because so many students used it as a gathering place on their way to school or between classes. I can still smell the room as the door closed behind me: the salty sweetness of old books; the warm musk of PC hard-drives whirling; the coffee we drank, rich with cardamom; and the smell of incense always burning at the front desk. The main floor was crowded with two-metre-high shelves that roughly divided this open room into distinct spaces for different parts of the shop’s catalogue. The shelves were full of books from every corner of the world, mostly translated into Arabic. This room led up, via a narrow stairway, to a kind of mezzanine level that was the building’s second floor. On the second floor we found the shop’s English-language books, and in the back was the Internet access and much of the printing and scanning machinery that let students use the bookshop as a research station.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the vast range and frequency of life-changing events that transpired in those few hundred square metres of “commercial space”—there was the small carpet I sat on to read most of Oliver Twist; there was the poetry section with its narrow spines tightly packed, which I surveyed with my head close and turned sideways, to find Emily Dickinson, a revelation; and there was the Internet kiosk that had the fastest processor, the one able to download all of the summaries of Victorian literature that I needed, in time for me to bring it to class for my class presentation; there, on a slower connection, was where I saw the Facebook posts of my friend’s gathering in Jerusalem, the one I couldn’t attend because I could not be sure of making it through the military checkpoints; and over there was where I heard a man break down in tears of relief when his son who’d been grabbed by the Israeli police texted to say that he was free. As a home to books and digital writing and reading, the Samir Mansour Bookshop was also home to the community that shared the books and writings. [Editor’s note: a polity of literature.]

Samir’s bookshop hosted all age groups: children, old people, students, and every class of literate person. It was close to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) primary and elementary schools, so young kids came by before or after school in their blue tee-shirts with their heavy backpacks to take a look at the kids’ books. They’d buy what they could, if they had any money. But no one ever stopped any child from reading as long as they cared to. On entering the bookshop, the kids’ section immediately caught my eye because its covers were so colourful and the children sprawling there were so engrossed in their books. Like every other adult customer I liked to imagine bringing my young nieces and nephews to the shop someday—to offer them this beautiful place. It was mesmerizing, and made me yearn for my own childhood every time I passed this section.  

On Tuesday, May 18, 2021, two missiles launched by Israeli forces struck the ground floor of the Kuhail Building, destroying the entire building and burying the Samir Mansour Bookshop, which took up the bottom two floors. Some parts of the rubble caught fire, but most of the bookshop was simply blown to bits and buried. Thousands of books were still intact, buried “alive,” and in the days after the attack Samir Mansour and his friends sifted through the dangerously unstable bombsite to rescue whatever books they could find. One of them told me of a book that he pulled intact from the rubble—Ghassan Kanafani’s novel Returning to Haifa, which tells the story of a Palestinian couple who goes back to Haifa after the 1967 war. They go in search of their now-grown child, who’d been left behind when the young parents were forced to flee in the war of 1948. The recovery of this title carried a clear message of survival and return to me, and perhaps to all Palestinians—still on our long journeys home.

Many of the memories that I lost in the targeted violence of the missile attack were shared with my friend Linda Afana, an English literature student who was a few years behind me at Alazhar University. Like me, Linda is now a Palestinian in exile. I’m in Istanbul and she is in Dubai, UAE, where she works as an English, Arabic, and Russian translator. We both learned of the May 18 missile attack through social media, soon after waking on that awful morning, and we immediately talked via Skype, asking unanswerable questions, gathering whatever scraps of information we could, recalling our memories of the bookshop, and wondering how much more of our lives would burn away along with the city of Gaza. 

As usual, Linda had a great story to tell, so I asked her to write it down and send it to me:

The first time? It was in 2013. An excited yet immensely frightened me hops on a bus and goes to get myself registered at Alazhar University. After months of preparing for and then going through high school exams, it’s needless to say that like any other 17-year-old girl in the Gaza Strip my sole dream was not to get to a prom in a fancy dress, but to just get enough sleep. Dear reader, let me allow myself the frivolity of rambling a little bit more about the horrors of Gaza high-school times. Imagine more than 1000 pages of valuable information taking the form of stones that you would have to carry on your back while all your ancestors, dead and alive, watched you. Of course, the majority of parents were sympathetic. They admire our taking on the difficulties of this ritual. Nevertheless, you cannot quite escape having doubt after everything is done.  Sometimes I ask myself, did I go through high school sleeplessly just because I wanted to have a good answer when I was asked about my grades, eventually; or did I really care about passing the exams? I guess I’ll never know as I have now lost interest in that subject. Anyway, I registered at the Alazhar University, and as a way to celebrate I decided to buy myself a novel (social media did not poison my life back then). It’s not easy being a kid (even in whatever a “normal” life is) and my escape was always into the great realm of books, where only our imagination has absolute power (as cliche as it may sound). So as not to bore you with my story I’ll jump back to the main topic: my memories of the Samir Mansour Bookshop. As I said, at Alazhar I signed up for the Faculty of English Literature (because I’d already read Jane Austen’s books, and I thought that studying them was what I wanted to do with my life) and then I returned to buy my reward at the store. I didn’t expect much. I thought, it’s going to be a dull room with a collection of boring books, not a “real” bookstore, but I was entirely wrong. I entered the shop and it was everything I’d hoped for: one floor of books in Arabic, and a second floor of books in English that I never thought I’d be able to find in the middle of Gaza. That moment of recognition still exists in my memory as a warm blanket that I happily cover myself with, whenever I feel the oncoming chill of terminal displacement. The Samir Mansour Bookshop was the ultimate time machine. I’d always forget how long I’d spent in there, how many books I had become lost in, even though it was not that big of a store. I picked up a copy of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (for 35 shekels; yes, I still remember these details), smelled the pages, read a random passage, and said: “yup, you’re the one.” As it turned out, within two years I took a course called “Victorian Literature,” and guess which book that course focused on? Yes: Jane Eyre.  It almost felt like the bookshop had taken care of me. As it always did. Until it was gone. If I was in Gaza now I’d take care of it, too. I’d volunteer to gather the ripped-up pages from under the rubble because I owe it that. At least that.

A person lies sleeping under a giant opened copy of "Jane Eyre."

The Samir Manour Bookshop was the desired destination for many readers in our locked-up city of war and misery. As I mentioned, it is close to a couple of universities, including Alazhar University, Islamic University, and Alaqsa University, which are the largest universities in Gaza, so students would come and pick a book to read, or ask about a book they wanted, or else a kid returning from a UN school would pick a story to read at home. The atmosphere in the bookshop was unique and mesmerizing. Now it’s gone, by the force of aggression. And the kids in Gaza can’t find a park to go to or a bookshop to even pass by, let alone to buy a book from. Even the university students have nowhere to go now, only the horrible scene of the destruction, rubble and smoke, and the task of recovery. I’m in Istanbul now, far away from home. I look at the TV and see the owner, Samir Mansour, wearing his blue shirt and standing in front of the rubble of his bookshop. He’s in shock and cannot believe his eyes, like all of us. He describes that morning, May 18, receiving a phone call that the building housing his shop had been targeted, and still not knowing that his bookshop itself was the target. He went running to find it destroyed and the missiles still coming. Hoping to rescue some of the books intact, he rushed forward to sort through the unstable rubble, trying to save the books that could survive a bomb. There were many.

The world seems not to realize that Samir Mansour’s Bookshop wasn’t the only bookstore that was targeted by Israel in Gaza. The nearby Iqraa Library, too, was targeted. And the Nafha Center, for teaching Hebrew; and the Alnahda and Alroya bookshops, also attacked. At least four Gazan bookshops were targeted, including Samir Mansour’s, which I loved enough to mourn publicly, here. Now it will become harder for the students in Gaza to find an educational centre where they can learn.

Drawing of Samir waving his arms wildly while bombs drop around him.

Scanning for any news, for any hope, I read that in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, sympathetic neighbours, themselves still under siege by the Israeli military and settlers, have created a small library (just a few shelves of books open to whomever needs to read or borrow them) and named it “Samir Mansour.” This is a grand gesture by the beleaguered people of Sheikh Jarrah. More powerful allies in other countries—journalists, writers, lawyers, and poets, many of them exiled Palestinians from Gaza, like me—have started a GoFundMe page that is nearing its goal to pay for Samir Mansour to rebuild his bookshop. A bomb is very small, much smaller than the world inside a bookshop. Reading and learning is power; access to it is a human right. We want to be part of the rebuilding of Gaza, not just bricks and valuable books, but also rebuilding hope and peace. As a young Gazan poet and founder of the Gaza Poets Society, I hope this city will be brimming with libraries and bookshops for everyone, so we can again read whatever we want to read, and stay in the bookshops as long as we want to. I want new bookshops for the kids who miss their special corner in Samir Mansour’s store. This very special bookshop hugged me when I needed a hug, warmed me when I was cold, comforted me every time I was exhausted or worn out from siege, from despair, from loss, from having nothing to do in Gaza except to read and write and walk around inside the walls of this open-air prison. Another morning will come, and the bookshop will be livelier than ever.

A stanza of poetry by Emily Dickinson, with letters obliterated by explosions.

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