For decades, it was the place to go for books in the blockaded Gaza Strip, from school texts to the Holy Quran to Arabic translations of European literary classics.
But last Tuesday, owner Samir al-Mansour watched in disbelief as the bookshop and publishing house he had poured his life into went up in smoke.
“Forty years of my life were obliterated in less than a second,” said the man in his 50s, a cigarette between his fingers, staring at a mound of concrete, paper and squashed plastic chairs.
“There are 100,000 books under this rubble,” he said.
At around 5:00 am on Tuesday, Mansour was at home watching television when the channel reported the Israeli air force was about to hit the building housing his bookshop.
Mansour rushed over, but came to a dead stop some 200 metres (220 yards) away from the building, just in time to see a missile obliterate his life’s work. The latest deadly clashes lasted 11 days and saw Israel launch air strikes in response to a rocket barrage by Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other Islamist groups.
“I have nothing to do with an armed group, a political faction,” Mansour told AFP.
“It’s an attack on culture.”
Never happened before
Mansour started working in his father’s bookshop in the 1980s, when he was just 14 years old, then took over in 2000 and soon branched out into publishing.
As rescue workers continue to look for bodies and survivors in the rubble after the military conflict, Mansour was mourning all that he has lost.
Buried in the rubble were copies of Islamic religious texts, children’s picture books and a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”.
*🇵🇸Palestinian Ministry of Health-Gaza*
*21-5-2021 10:00 PM*
*Two hundred and forty-eight (248) Palestinians have so far been killed, including 66 children, 39 women, and 17 elderly people*, while 1948 are injured due to the Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip. pic.twitter.com/kzeDqFDgTo
— Dr. İbrahim ALTAN (@dr_ialtan) May 21, 2021
Israeli strikes on Gaza since May 10 have killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and have wounded over 1,900 people, the Gaza health ministry says.
Rockets and other fire from Gaza have claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, an Israeli soldier, one Indian, and two Thai nationals, medics say. Some 357 people in Israel have been wounded.
There is controversy about how many of those killed in Gaza were combatants, and how many were civilians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s bombing campaign had killed “more than 200 terrorists” in Gaza. Mansour said he had lived through two Palestinian uprisings and three Gaza wars.
“But this had never happened, my bookshop was never destroyed,” he said.
His son-in-law Montasser Saleh had arrived in Gaza from Norway to visit the family just before the conflict started, and was with him when his life was turned upside down.
“We were at home, watching television,” Saleh said.
More than a bookshop
He recounted how on the TV channel Al Jazeera “they said there had been a warning shot on the building containing the bookshop”.
He too said they immediately rushed over to the building.
“Samir wanted to go and grab some papers, his computer, but he was too scared to go in and be hit by a missile, so we stayed outside,” he said.
Around 3:00 this morning, there was some quiet in Gaza. I managed to get some sleep. I woke up to my sister's message, "they caught us by surprise. very heavy airstrikes now". They destroyed the biggest bookshop and main publishing house of Samir Mansour. I'm shattered.
— Malaka (@MalakaShwaikh) May 18, 2021
Mosaab Abu Toha, a poet and the founder of the Edward Said library started after the Gaza war in 2014, said the Gaza Strip had lost “one of its main cultural resources”.
“Mansour was more than a bookshop,” he said. “It was a publishing house publishing Gaza writers.
“The books were printed in Egypt — some to come back to Gaza, but others to stay there and be circulated around the Arab world.
“It was a way to lift the siege on Gaza through literature,” he said of the blockade on the Palestinian territory in place since 2007.
For Gaza readers, the publishing house had printed around 1,000 copies of the works of local authors such as Ghareeb Askalani or Yusri al-Ghoul.
Mansour is not the only book or stationery shop destroyed in the latest Israeli bombing campaign.
Nearby Iqraa was also levelled, and the Al-Nahda stationery and bookshop was reduced to a pile of pulverised cinderblocks.
In front of what remains of Al-Nahda, a poster assured loyal customers it would re-open soon.
“Ideas do not die,” it read.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk