GAZA CITY — Escaping the besieged Gaza Strip, often described as "the world's largest open-air prison," is a nearly impossible dream for many of its two million residents. But 24-year-old Mosab Abu Toha has found a way to free himself — through books.
"Freedom is a state of mind. With books, you're liberating yourself by living in an imaginary world where there are no boundaries. If I choose to be free, I can be free through my writing, through speaking," Abu Toha says.
As an English literature graduate, he has a thirst for books that has been difficult to quench in Gaza, where new English books are hard to find. Downloading PDF files is not a great alternative as Gaza suffers from frequent, lengthy power cuts.
"Whenever I go to a bookshop or library, I rarely see English books especially books by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky — these intellectuals who write in English," Abu Toha said, noting that translations into Arabic take about three years.
By relying on friends from abroad to send him books over the years, he has amassed a substantial collection on the shelves of his third-floor apartment in Beit Lahia.
By delving into the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Paine, Orwell, Hemingway, Huxley, Finkelstein, Chomsky and Said — and by writing stories and poems of his own — Abu Toha can, at least for a little while, escape the confines of Gaza.
Now he is trying to take that further and share these works throughout the besieged territory. After the 2014 war, as he was rummaging through the rubble of his university's bombed arts department, he found a survivor — the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and an idea was born.
Abu Toha realized that Gaza needed a safe home for English books and a space where people could come to read and socialize rather than hang out in cafes or watch TV. He decided to open Gaza's first public library of English books.
He set up a Facebook page last spring calling for people worldwide to donate books. So far, he has collected more than 100, including a few autographed books by Chomsky himself. He is also collecting donations to rent out a space for the library, where he hopes to host lectures by international guests.
"With books, you're liberating yourself by living in an imaginary world" — Photo: Library & Bookshop for Gaza
"It's a wonderful idea," Chomsky told reporters via email. "I did send several books … I am now collecting others."
The Israeli postal service suspended its service to Gaza from June to December but it's now running again. Although it takes a while, the books eventually reach their destination in Beit Lahia.
Leroi O'Picasso, a history teacher from Chicago, said that he mailed some books to Abu Toha after seeing a photograph of him holding a book in the midst of a bombed-out library.
"The image reminded me of others I had seen that depicted a Nazi book burning, only on a scale of our current time," O'Picasso said.
"Mosab's request also struck me as an extremely urgent one, especially after reading reports of kids in Gaza suffering from PTSD. I am not a doctor; I cannot prescribe pills or therapy. I can send books because some contain ideas of hope or share narratives of the struggles in life. It's a way to tell a kid that in no way are you alone."
Supporters can send their purchased books with free shipping through the website Better World Books, or via snail mail, which can often cost around $100.
The goodwill of strangers is what amazes Abu Toha the most.
"It's expensive to send. I wonder how these people can afford to send their books to Palestine, even though they don't know me personally nor do they know Palestinians. So they're good people — I respect them," he said.
According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Palestinian Museum, 21 libraries of the 41 that initially stood in Gaza closed over the years and seven others were destroyed in the 2014 Israeli assault.
The Shujayea Club Library lost all of its 6,000 books during the war, while 10,000 books were destroyed at Beit Hanoun's library in northeastern Gaza.
In the libraries that are still functioning, the books are mostly outdated and opening hours are usually only until 3 pm.
University libraries also struggle to provide updated books to their students. The Islamic University of Gaza has not been able to import any new books in Arabic since the Egyptian military took over in 2013.
"For 10 years, we were going to Cairo to purchase books but for the past five years we can't go because of the security situation and because of the bad relations between Hamas and the Egyptian government," said the university's library director, Mamdouh Firwana.
When books in Arabic are ordered online through the Nile and Euphrates website, the Arabic equivalent of Amazon, the books never arrive, Firwana said. English books purchased on Amazon eventually arrive, but owing to financial difficulties the number they can afford is limited.
Abu Toha is determined to keep the books coming, noting that they serve as a vital lifeline to the outside world and a way to connect with others.
"Books are very important. We can learn about other cultures, how other people think, how we can communicate with them, how we can understand them," Abu Toha said.
"Language is what makes us all human. We all have languages; we use our mouths, our minds to communicate, so there is something common between us. It's books."