Gaza’s first English library one step closer to reality

Mosab Abu Toha managed to raise more than $15,000 in a crowdfunding campaign in just a month – and hopes he can open the library in Gaza by summer.

Mossab Abo Toha, who is collecting english books for his Library and Bookshop for Gaza project, reading English books with children in the garden at his family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on February 20, 2017. Mohammed Abed/AFP
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A 25-year-old book-lover from Gaza is one step closer to opening the Palestinian territory’s first English-language library after raising more than US$15,000 (Dh55,093) on a crowdfunding website.

Mosab Abu Toha, an English language teacher from the northern town of Beit Lahiya, set his target as $15,000 when he launched the campaign on Indiegogo in March.

But he was surprised when the campaign actually surpassed that amount last month.

"Maybe I didn't expect to get the whole sum of money, maybe I expected to get $7,000, $8,000 maximum," he told The National.

After receiving backing from some high-profile supporters, including the American writer Katha Pollitt and American academic Noam Chomsky, Mr Abu Toha said more people began donating.

He also attributes the campaign’s success to friends who helped promote it, and to his own passion for words.

“Before I managed to start the campaign, I wrote English poems and some English short stories … So my background as a reader and a writer encouraged people to support the idea,” said Mr Abu Toha, who lists his favourite authors as George Orwell, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen.

The campaign seemed to capture the hearts of many. “A meaningful and necessary campaign,” wrote one of the project’s 254 backers on Indiegogo, while a supporter on Facebook said: “Very happy for you Mosab, you are one of those heroes”.

The crowdfunding campaign, which closed for donations at the end of last month, is just the latest stage in Mr Abu Toha’s efforts to open a library dedicated to English books in Gaza.

He first had the idea back in the summer of 2014 when the English department at his university, the Islamic University of Gaza, was hit by an Israeli air strike.

“I saw many books that were on the ground, under the rubble, and that scene affected me ... after that I thought of building a library for Gaza, especially for English books,” he said.

A place where “people meet, speak English, meet English people, maybe, talk to them on Skype, or meet journalists or activists who come to Gaza”.

And so the English language and literature graduate began expanding his personal book collection. He later set up a Facebook page and website, asking strangers from around the world to donate new and used volumes for the library.

Books of all stripes began coming in – novels, collections of poetry, children’s books, and non-fiction books on everything from philosophy to Palestine.

Deliveries have been severely delayed by the Israeli blockade; Mr Abu Toha said books that donors say should not take longer than 14 days to arrive, can take more than seven weeks to reach him. And for several months last year, Israel completely suspended the postal service to Gaza, meaning that no books could get through at all.

But despite this he has so far received more than 800 books.

He now plans to use the $15,900 raised on Indiegogo to rent a space for the library, furnish it, buy a generator to cope with Gaza’s chronic electricity shortages, and hire two members of staff. If all goes to plan, he hopes to have it open by the summer.

To get the library up and running will no doubt take a lot of hard work.

Last month’s crowdfunding campaign is likely to be only the first of many – Mr Abu Toha said he plans to run such campaigns every year to help pay the library’s staff.

But, for him, the written word is an important cause.

If Gazans are able to write their own books in English then they can teach the world outside about the situation in the territory, he said.

“Writing and fighting with pencils is better than fighting with the guns,” he added. “It’s better than taking a life.”​