In March this 2021, yet another Israeli attack on Gaza brought forth images of death, destruction and grief that flooded the media and the internet. Someone’s aunt, a child, and a bride-to-be, were among the names laid to rest. But there was one incident that was particularly shocking.

On 18 March, Gaza’s biggest bookstore and library, the Samir Mansour Bookshop, established in 2008, as a haven for the enthusiasts of world literature, was razed to rubble by an airstrike. Mansour’s 21-year-old son, an expert in Russian literature, was reported as saying, “They destroyed our book store, but they will never destroy our soul.”

An important distinction: you can destroy the material object of a people’s spirit, yet fail to destroy that spirit itself. Books and money flooded in from across the world to help rebuild the bookshop. These poems are a testimony, and a spirit of hope that unites book lovers across the world, against acts of barbarism.

An Elegy Beginning and Ending with a Bomb

Karan Kapoor

first they took the men
the women & children
the trees the stones

then they came for words

words were all that was left
of the world
the solitary window to look outside

but you get used to all suffering

rows and rows
of books turned to rubble
a colony of ants under a shoe

Darwish, Orwell, Kanafani
Shakespeare with all his sonnets

the word of god crushed

how does one get used
to sounds of explosion

words to wake the dead
words to put children to sleep
words to hide from the war

the air of the city tattooed
by an absence

the mute bodies
of books
tear open to sobbing hands

Books of an Occupied Land

Antara Rao

Books with twisted mouths
lie dispossessed
in a city without a home. Hope lies dog-
eared, stories sow themselves
in skin, the dead becomes warm again.
A bookshop stands stark,
it doesn’t need fuel to burn.
To forget is a kind of freedom too, but
there is no escape in Gaza.
Books of an occupied land are too beaten
to speak; a people are their history –
the shade of clouds when the world began.
Walls crumble and turn into graves,
a poet on page twenty two repeats – you are a thief!
All the screams of Gaza echo in a bookshop,
on its shelves are poets who yearn. And mothers
look for children, in wars full of smoke clouds.
Now the poets, mothers, and the children
are dead once again, the thieves alone are heard.
Those who watch, feel their voice
turn to rubble. Books of an occupied land
carry corpses of all ages.

The Song of Sunbirds

Alolika Dutta

You give the appearance of company,
O passerine, resting under the long eaves
Of a neighbour’s balcony, feeding grain
Into the hungry mouths of your young.
What is a morning but your song?

Winters beget springs, summers monsoons.
You, alone, remain eternal, or do you leave?
Nestless, you stand at their sill, looking into
Their window, scorned as a mother, illuded
As a lover. Why do they desecrate?

My beloved, look at Samir Mansour.
Look, how he stands over the debris,
Holding charred books in his hands,
Listening to voices that linger in the air.
What is Palestine without him?

My beloved, like you, he will remain here.
If not Gaza, Jerusalem. If not today, tomorrow.
But his library will return. Even as you, in
Your smallness, are older than that house,
The library is older than its intruders.

Pages Will Bloom Again

Saima Afreen

Fire’s stitches, strips of flames
a city of birds and words in letters
to devour themselves, to wed wood and air,
create bibliographies in smoke and soot
to sit once more on tongue and teeth.

What’s inflammable can bloom again
in pages and their shadows
held like rosaries between fingers
stacked nicely in four chambers that open
with skies holding thousands of shades
of red. Pressed flowers,
ashen vines
up, leaving empty space, room enough
for a white field of pulp to sizzle and curl
to see
its spool unfurl into milk thistles
to cover the cold bodies,
the wadi and beyond.

I Want to Stitch a Bookshop into this Poem

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

I want to stitch a bookshop into this poem.
They knocked it down like an Olive tree,
To sever it from memory, kept the owner out
Of harm’s way, telling him, stay alive,
Each day, and die a little. They forget, they too shall
Lie buried in The Library of Babel.

I want to stitch a bookshop into this poem.
I want to lift the weight of rubble
From the owner’s heart, remove the stones from
His eyes, his dreams, thin as paper.

I want to stitch a bookshop into this poem.
When Fact & Fiction closed down
In Delhi, it was the end of an affair. The bookshop is
A memory of bees, it shall
Return, with its bitter honey, to Gaza.

I want to stitch a bookshop into this poem.
That place where Hanya Aljamal bought
Man’s Search for Meaning. She cries for Viktor Frankl, for
The death of meaning, for the ruined garden
That gave her people “a reason to live”. She must now
Find that reason within her, and wait.

Karan Kapoor’s poems have appeared in Rattle, Stride, The Indian Quarterly, GSA Imprint, One Sentence Poems, and other publications.

Antara Rao is a poet, writer and journalist, with a master’s in sociology.

Alolika Dutta is a poet whose work has appeared in The Indian Quarterly, Nether Quarterly, Coldnoon, The Woman Inc., and is forthcoming in the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing.

Saima Afreen is a poet and journalist. Her debut poetry collection, Sin of Semantics, was published by Copper Coin in 2019.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political theorist. His latest book, The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown, was published by Copper Coin in 2021.