Home is Where We Keep Our Books

My backpack is heavy today. I had to carry all the six Arabic books that I finished reading to change them with new ones at Echo Mobile Library without having to pass by my home after work. The library van stops for an hour in different squares in Athens city and I have to run to catch them downtown at Victoria Square. Beka, the founder of the library, promised a collection of new books, and again she will allow me to borrow six books at a time, not just two.

 

I reached the square just in time. Beka was there with her warm smile. I sat inside the van checking the new books collection, and suddenly my eyes caught a familiar title. I held the book in my hand and closed my eyes and prayed to find the missing pages 190-198 still there. Pages I had been looking for since I was a child. Then I began to remember.

 

Everything started with a rock. It was 2001, in Gaza city. I was 12 years old, the twin towers in New York had just been attacked and the second intifada (uprising) had already broken out around Palestine. I was in the UNWRA-run school at 11:00 am when a rock broke the glass window and rested at our teacher Omar’s feet. I liked teacher Omar. It is amazing how much teachers can impact our lives; each one of us has a favourite teacher who we will always remember. I still can recall the smell of his cologne mixed with tobacco and the way he always smoked in class while walking between the rows of students, hiding the tip of the cigarette in the palm of his hand like a soldier in the battlefield. His hair was always shiny and neat and somehow he managed to wear ironed shirts even when the electricity was out for days.

 

Everything started with a rock that rested at Mr Omar’s feet. By the time the whole class turned their heads to see what was going on outside, there were another 20 rocks flying in the air towards us. These rocks came from the older students’ demonstration against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The older students were demanding to let us out to join them but Mr Omar tried hard to stop us from leaving the classroom. We could hear the Israeli army’s Apache helicopter fighters dropping their bombs in the distance. Mr Omar took the scared students who did not want to join the demonstration and led us to a safe room in the basement. He said: you stay here until I go and talk to the other teachers and bring the keys to the room.

 

This basement room was the school library that no one visited. Everything was dusty and old; we opened the windows to let the light in so we could see. The bookshelves looked like a cave wall and there was a nice smell of leather and oak wood, I thought: how I did not know about this room before? how come no one took us to the school library before or even told us that the school had a library?

 

I was fascinated by the books; something about the atmosphere that day made me fall in love with libraries and books forever. I stood there reading the names of the books and the authors and everything around me started to fade: the shouting of student’s demonstration and the sound of the helicopters bombing. And in that moment on a higher shelf, I found some books that changed my life and made me who I am today.

 

I pulled a chair and stood on it and reached a big volume poetry book by Mahmoud Darwish, one of Palestine’s most famous poets. I opened it at random and I started reading:

 

“Between Rita and my eyes

There is a rifle

And whoever knows Rita

Kneels and prays

To the divinity in those honey- coloured eyes

Ah, Rita

Between us there are a million sparrows and images

And many rendezvous

Fired at by a rifle”.

 

Mr Omar and the other teachers kept going back and forth with more students until the whole library was full. But at this point I didn’t care; I was body and soul already sunk in Darwish’s poetry. All I wanted was for the chaos and bombing to last a bit longer so I could stay more. I asked if I could take the book and the teacher said: no, you can’t but you can come back to read it in your free time.

 

After that day our school and all UNWRA schools stayed closed for 10 days due to the high numbers of Palestinians who died in the Israeli attacks.

 

We went back to school, and the first thing I did was to go to the headmaster and suggested I could clean the library. The headmaster smiled, showing a line of yellow and missing teeth and gave me a copy of the keys. It was the first set of keys I ever carried for something I really love. I start gathering students who loved books and reading, and together we cleaned all the shelves, tables and chairs and reorganised all the books. I discovered Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani (Men in the Sun and A World not Ours) and Ghada Al-Saman and the Lebanese poet Adonis. I would spend hours there, missing out on lots of classes just by sitting and reading books in this place: my new home. Every Friday when everyone goes to the big prayer at the mosque, I would jump over the school wall and hide in the library, losing myself in the stories.

 

I became the person who oversees the school library. one of my duties was choosing the themes for the morning school assembly. After singing the Palestinian national anthem and raising the flag I would read aloud short stories and poetry and political articles that I did not really understand fully at the time. I started to be known by the students and the teachers, to become more popular and more students wanted to be my friends and that feeling made me happy and contented.

 

One day I overheard my elder sister Asmaa and her best friend Iman talking about a sex scene in a novel by Hanna Mina called Hikait Bahar (A Sailor’s Tale). The next day I went and looked for the book in the school library. I was very excited when I found it. I took it and went to the sea. When I reached pages 190-198, they were all torn out of the book, I realised that they must by the sex scene pages. I could not sleep, I was so disappointed. I went to another school library looking for the book. I looked for the book in every bookshelf I saw everywhere I went. I started reading all the novels I found by Hanna Mina and I really liked his stories, his simplicity and his beautiful metaphors. But I could not forget about pages 190-

 

  1. Another day I went with a small group from our school to visit the national library of Gaza city. It was the biggest library I had ever entered. It had two big floors with thousands

 

of books in Arabic, English and French languages, lots of tables with nice lamps and a beautiful garden. There was a free hot tea with sage or mint and my school made a membership for all the group so we could come back and borrow books. Of course, I started looking for A Sailor’s Tale. I found it, but this time the lines of pages 190-198 were crossed out with black ink. I tried to read through the black ink but I couldn’t. I was able to read only one sentence which drove me even more crazy, and it goes like this “And then he closed her mouth with his hand to lower her loud moaning and carried her, and pushed her back against the wall, her legs were crossed behind his back”. I went many times to reread the sentenceand try to read more, but with no success.

 

I become a regular visitor to the national library, and one day while I was looking through the English section I stumbled on a medical book, and while going through the pictures in the book and reading the comments under them, I found a whole chapter with coloured, black and white pictures about women’s bodies. It was the first time I saw a woman’s full naked body, the first time I see a woman’s breasts and private parts. I felt like a thief and that everyone in the library knew this book and knew what I was looking at. My face blushed, my ears were so hot and I felt something became alive down there stopped me from leaving the table. When finally, I pulled myself together and decided to put the book back in a hidden place only I could find, I realized that my jeans were wet. I felt very embarrassed and I left the library in a hurry.

 

In the following weeks, I went many times to check the book and the pictures, I began to have more confidence and feel that I was not doing anything wrong. I started to discover my own body, my own desires, feeling, and sensitivity. I began to grow up with the library books. Books and wars made me grow older fast, make me wiser and make me want to listen instead of talk. It is strange how beauty and ugliness can influence you in the same time in the same place.

 

The national library of Gaza was taken over by the Hamas government in 2007 and sadly most of the interesting books, including my hidden secret books, were removed or censored by the library. Sadly too, our school was bombed and destroyed by the Israeli army in 2008. Later, a big part of the library was destroyed by another Israeli army operation in 2014, rebuilt and destroyed again in 2023. I sometimes wonder what teacher Omar is doing right now, if he still alive or dead, if he left Gaza or he is still there. I wonder what happened to all the books of my lovely school library which was my second home through my primary school years.

 

A chanting of a demonstration passing by Victoria Square brought me back from my memories. I am still sitting in the library van holding A Sailor’s Tale, I opened it at pages 190-198 and I was happy to finally find them intact! I used to struggle the first couple of years in Athens to find Arabic books, but now a few multilanguage libraries have been created, that give me the pleasure of enjoying a book in my native language. It is seven years now since I moved here. Athens has been so generous giving me a home, friends, a new language and most important the freedom of movement that I never experienced before. I was born in Gaza strip as a refugee from a refugee family. I miss my books that I left behind in our family house in Gaza city that was bombed and destroyed in the devastating war that is ongoing as I write in 2024. I have always been a refugee wherever I go, moving from place to place. Libraries are home because home is where we keep our books.

 

 

3

 

“Even the wind wants to become a cart

Pulled by butterflies.

My wishes are flowers

staining my days.

I was wounded early, and early I learned

that wound made me.

I still follow the child

who still walks inside me.

Now he stands at a staircase made of light

Searching for a corner to rest in

and to read the face of night again

I was born in a village,

small and secretive like a womb.

I never left it.

I love the ocean not the shores”.

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