From the world to Gaza, Mosab Abu Toha's books paint a rainbow of hope in one of the most disputed and tormented places on the planet, a land where life has become a dramatic experience, almost at the limit of human possibility. Mosab is a young Palestinian poet. A few years ago, after the 2014 Israeli bombings, he established two public libraries named after the writer Edward Said, one in the city of Beit Lahia, north of the Strip, and the other in Gaza City. In both libraries the books were sent from foreign countries.
Mosab Abu Toha lives in Gaza. In October 2019 he was a visiting poet and librarian at Harvard University. Later, in the fall of 2020, he was admitted to the MFA program at Syracuse University. He recently came back to visit his family in the Strip while remotely attending his second semester.
Libraries were supplied with books sent from abroad by many people who supported the project of the young Palestinian: a way out from the isolation in which Gaza is locked up and a chance for the people to meet in a quiet place, read, discuss and exchange views.
In Gaza it is not easy to access the few existing libraries. Most people can neither use nor borrow books. This right is reserved to those who study and work at the university. The libraries established by Abu Toha, open five days a week, eight hours a day, offer various activities, from reading clubs, English book shelves to children corners, from literary events to art and music lessons.
In each library there is a computer lab, where children and adults learn to use computers for educational, social and personal growth purposes. A reading room, furnished with shelves full of books in both English and Arabic language, was set up, as well as some areas dedicated to children, meetings and artistic activities.
"Libraries still receive books from abroad, although less than before due to the crisis caused by the epidemic - Mosab says - even before the pandemic, the delivery of international mail to Gaza was always very slow and often unreliable due to the Israeli occupation and siege on the Strip".
Numerous people with different backgrounds and ages visit and use the library services. School groups and university students wanting reference books turn to the two cultural centers of Beit Lahia and Gaza City, which also host youth initiatives and community group meetings. "A few months ago, a young poet presented his new book in the Gaza City library - Abu Toha explains - due to the pandemic, only about thirty people could attend the event. Music was played and then a literary critic introduced the author and his work, proposing the reading of some poems".
Normally nearly 500 people a week visit the two libraries to borrow books, take part in activities and meet people. "I'm so glad to see that my community found a new place where everyone can access knowledge and culture sources - Abu Toha notes - I am satisfied when I see children reading new stories and then telling their peers and families about their journey with books. Furthermore, seeing children and adults' drawings and paintings is fascinating and this is quite an achievement".
The pandemic also has affected libraries. Currently no more than 15 people are allowed to enter at the same time. Visits must be organized. Since 2019, the project promoted by the young Palestinian has been sponsored by the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a non-profit organization based in the United States. The aim is to open new branches of the libraries in the coming years, but the crisis changed the plans: "As for funding, we expect to get the full budget by this year. We launched a fundraising campaign which is still ongoing. We have reached $ 11,800 but the target is $ 20,000 and we may need more money". This is the link to donate and contribute to the campaign: http://bit.ly/BiblioGaza
Sometimes, when there is a lockdown, librarians work remotely. Due to the continuing shortage of electricity and the very slow internet connection, it's difficult to work from home. Abu Toha recalls that several people have been hired to run as many activities as possible and allow users to participate in various meetings held online.
The situation in Gaza is dramatic. The small Palestinian enclave has been under siege since 2007. Electricity cuts for more than 12 hours a day are now the norm (sometimes, for example in winter, electric power is only guaranteed for four hours a day). Border crossings are rarely open and the Palestinians don't control them. Hospitals lack medicines and equipment, the sea is not safe for fishermen and the sky is noisy due to the Israeli drones and warplanes. "The pandemic has added to the other difficulties - Mosab recalls - if someone is sick and cannot be treated in the Gazan hospitals, he has to get an Israeli permit to go to the West Bank, which is part of the Palestinian Territories, or to Israel. Many people died waiting for authorization. Some received their permits after they had died and were buried".
What role can culture play in a land under siege like Gaza? "In a place where travelling to and from is very difficult, books are a hope and become windows, yet not totally open, onto the outside world".