Bookseller Samir Mansour: ‘It was shocking to realise I was a target’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Bookseller Samir Mansour did not get much sleep the night in May this year that changed his life: he had stayed awake watching the news for updates as Israeli bombs fell on Gaza City.

Around 6am, the Al Jazeera anchor said that the busy downtown street home to Mansour’s business was under attack. His instinct was to rush to the area in an effort to save his collection. Instead, he arrived just in time to see two missiles smash through the glass storefront as the building collapsed.

“I knew it would be difficult but I had to try and save some of the books, some belongings,” he says. “Twenty years of my life, everything I worked for… I saw it destroyed right in front of my eyes.”

In Gaza we have grown up under war, but I still never expected this

The loss of the Samir Mansour Bookshop was by no means the greatest tragedy in the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip’s two million residents. More than 250 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel were killed in the 11-day-war this year, the third round of fighting since 2007 when the militants wrested control of the coastal enclave.

The destruction of this cultural institution, however – beloved as a place to get lost in a book and escape the hardships of life under Israeli blockade – ripped a hole through Gaza’s literary community. Together with the targeting of nearby Iqraa library, as well as two other smaller bookshops, the bombings dealt a significant blow to the cultural lifelines that keep besieged Gaza connected to the outside world.

Mansour’s main branch had served as a bustling library-cum-meeting spot for students and readers of all ages, who spent happy hours browsing and drinking tea or coffee with cardamom. No one was ever turned away for curling up and reading as long as they wanted, and Mansour’s small publishing house, set up to “preserve Palestinian culture for future generations”, gave a platform to 50 local authors.

“It was very shocking to realise I was a target,” he says. “I’ve worked with books my whole life, starting with my father when I was 12. I don’t have any political affiliations. In Gaza we have grown up under war, but I still never expected this.”

In the days after the strike, the help that poured in from both the local and international community touched Mansour deeply. Dozens of volunteers helped him retrieve some of the 100,000 books buried under the rubble, even if most were unsalvageable; an online campaign raised more than $243,000 (£183,000) to help replace the lost stock and rebuild, and promises of book donations have flooded in from all over the world.

The blockade on Gaza means building materials are often in short supply and subject to high inflation. But Mansour is determined not only to bring the shop back to life, but to improve and expand the space, and to establish a new Gaza Cultural Centre library next door.

After seven months of painstaking work, reconstruction is now 90% finished, and Mansour hopes to reopen by the end of the year.

“I didn’t even know they were doing a fundraiser at first. I was honoured. I am very grateful to everyone who has donated and helped us rebuild,” Mansour says. “I decided to start running again at full capacity as soon as possible, to keep my staff employed. The new shop will be three times bigger.”

Life in Gaza remains hard, and gets harder every day. The Israeli and Egyptian blockade has created what aid agencies dub the “world’s largest prison”, with sky-high unemployment, water that isn’t safe to drink or wash with, and rolling power cuts. The healthcare system had already collapsed before the emergence of Covid-19, and to date just a quarter of the population has received at least one vaccination dose.

But Mansour dreams of the day the siege will lift, and he can export his books by Gazan authors to new readers around the world.

“Even despite the embargo, we manage and survive,” he tells me. “Imagine if we had room to breathe and travel and not just in books.”

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