Mosab Abu Toha has found a way to free himself — through books

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.

Palestinians browse through books on a stand at a book fair, in Gaza city — Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images/ZUMA

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."

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La Sagrada Familia Delayed Again — Blame COVID-19 This Time

Hopes were dashed by local officials to see the completion of the iconic Barcelona church in 2026, in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its renowned architect Antoni Guadí.

Work on La Sagrada Familia has been delayed because of the pandemic

By most accounts, it's currently the longest-running construction project in the world. And now, the completion of work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882, is going to take even longer.

Barcelona-based daily El Periodico daily reports that work on the church, which began as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. But a press conference Tuesday, Sep. 21 confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin).

El Periódico - 09/22/2021

El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world.

One tower after the other… Slowly but surely, La Sagrada Familia has been growing bigger and higher before Barcelonians and visitors' eager eyes for nearly 140 years. However, all will have to be a bit more patient before they see the famous architectural project finally completed. During Tuesday's press conference, general director of the Construction Board of the Sagrada Familia, Xavier Martínez, and the architect director, Jordi Faulí, had some good and bad news to share.

As feared, La Sagrada Familia's completion date has been delayed. Because of the pandemic, the halt put on the works in early March when Spain went into a national lockdown. So the hopes are dashed of the 2026 inauguration in what would have been the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.

Although he excluded new predictions of completion until post-COVID normalcy is restored - no earlier than 2024 -, Martínez says: "Finishing in 2030, rather than being a realistic forecast, would be an illusion, starting the construction process will not be easy," reports La Vanguardia.

But what's a few more years when you already have waited 139, after all? However delayed, the construction will reach another milestone very soon with the completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years and the second tallest spire of the complex. It will be crowned by a 12-pointed star which will be illuminated on December 8, Immaculate Conception Day.

Next would be the completion of the Evangelist Lucas tower and eventually, the tower of Jesus Christ, the most prominent of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated 13.5 meters wide "great cross." It will be made of glass and porcelain stoneware to reflect daylight and will be illuminated at night and project rays of light.

La Sagrada Familia through the years

La Sagrada Familia, 1889 - wikipedia

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