Iconic Gaza bookshop bombed by Israel, reopens

The newly reopened Samir Mansour bookshop in Gaza MOHAMMED ABED AFP

The famous Samir Mansour bookshop, gutted in an Israeli airstrike last May, opened its doors to customers on Thursday in the blockaded Gaza strip.

It was destroyed during the 11-day violence, which killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel.

“I was devastated when the shop was destroyed and our friends and loved ones have boosted my morale. But today I was born again, today is a new birthday for me,” Samir said.

The bookshop reopened, lifting the spirits of its ecstatic owner and a large crowd of well-wishers celebrating the moment, The New Arab reported.

“It is a historic day,” owner Samir Al Mansour told AFP during the opening. “I am very happy that we have been able to reopen the bookshop.”

Dancers performed the dabke as the doors opened, with happy shoppers streaming in to see the new-look shop — a phoenix from the ashes of Gaza’s most recent war.

Hundreds of people, including writers and the Palestinian Authority’s culture minister Atef Abu Seif, witnessed the reopening.

“The Israeli occupation can demolish a building… but it cannot break the will of the Palestinians,” Seif said.

The new Samir Mansour bookshop stands meters away from the original site. Covering 1000 square meters, the two-story building holds four times the volume of the old building. It is stocked with 400,000 books. on topics including culture, education, recreation, religion and legal matters. They are split over three stores — one for children, one for fiction and another for English-language books.

The bookshop was founded by the Palestinian Mansour 22 years ago and was a beloved part of the local community. Samir Mansour’s library served for many years as a primary intellectual source for Palestinian authors, researchers, and students. Prior to the destruction of the library, a reader could find an endless list of books, whether scholarly books, religious volumes, or a large number of translated international works – Russian literature, English novels, or South American authors.

Samir Mansour, the bookshops’ owner, said a fundraising operation by a British group called 3DC brought in donations from all over the world, which he has added to by buying more books to sell.

He said 50,000 books had been donated so far, but getting them into Gaza past Israeli authorities had been an extremely arduous process.

“Because of the siege, the books take one month to reach Gaza instead of one week and this cost us more,” Mr Mansour told The National.

“The language of the books that are donated is English. There are some types of books we were in need of and they managed to send them to us, like the Harry Potter novels.”

Human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith led the campaign but could not make it to the colourful reopening.

“The blockade and border restrictions made that difficult. However this beautiful new library and books are a testament that our friends in Gaza are never alone,” the pair said in a statement.

“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,” Rukhsana said to The Guardian.

The loss of the store was not just a tragedy for book lovers and Mr Mansour. It also served as a publisher and distributor for works by Palestinian writers. Novelist Noor Abu Shaban, 31, perused the shelves in the gleaming shop until she found her book, Dream Wings, published by Mr Mansour’s company.

“I am happy to see my book on the bookshop’s shelves again,” Abu Shaban said. “My book was published a year ago, and was inside the previous bookshop that was destroyed.”

In the early 1980s, Mansour was only 15 years old when he assumed his first job, helping his father with the library. In 2000, he developed his father’s project further by establishing a publishing house, which later became an essential outlet for Palestinian authors and educators, especially after the hermetic blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2006. The bookshop was a go-to for everything from school texts to the Koran to Arabic translations of European literary classics.

Mr Mansour, who refused to ask for any compensation after the destruction of the bookshop, said he was ready to publish any writer from Gaza.