June 28

The Prisoners’ Library

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve become interested in the role of writing and reading to contemporary Palestinian identity. I’ve been seeking out book-related stories to write, and was excited with someone told me about the Prisoner’s Library in Nablus.

In 1996, the Israelis closed down two prisons they had maintained in the West Bank. The Municipal Library in Nablus obtained the books from the prison libraries and gathered them into a special collection of 7845 books and 800 notebooks and diaries. The subjects of the books offer an view into the interests of Palestinian political prisoners of the First Intifada era. Many books are about Marxism and Socialism – philosophies popular with Palestinian movements of the time. There are also books about various other independence movements and subjugated peoples around the world, from Natives in the United States to the decolonization of Namibia. I even found a book of songs written, in Arabic, celebrating Nelson Mandela who was also still a prisoner at the time. The collection of English books consisted mostly of the expected classics. Dickens. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Well-worn translations of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. (Alas, I did not spot anything Canadian)

I was more interested in the life of the books themselves, as objects, than the writing they contained. I found drawings in the margins of many books, often the sort of crude scribbles of flowers or birds a child might make. Others doodled the Palestinian flag, or handwrote snippets of poetry. Many had been given new covers made of cardboard flaps and pages from discarded magazines. These additions to the books gave them a sort of meaning in a particular place and time. They become relics.

One book, though, made me the most excited. The librarian showed me a heavy textbook that had been hollowed out to pass contraband letters and notes between prisoners. The book still contained the original smuggled letters written in impossibly tiny and neat script. Lacking stationary, the prisoners wrote on paper they peeled from the reverse side of the foil in their cigarette packages. To hold these letters and the hollowed-out book in my own hands gave me a strange thrill. I felt like a co-conspirator.