Palestine’s Stolen Books
As some of you may know, I am working on a new project about the Palestinian relationship to books and literature. When I was in Jerusalem last year, the owner of Educational Bookshop told me about a documentary titled The Great Book Robbery. The film, directed by Benny Brunner, tells the story of how Israeli authorities confiscated books from the private libraries of Palestinians fleeing violence in 1948. Many of these books are now held in a special room in the National Library of Israel and are marked with the letters AP, standing for Absentee Property. The documentary is excellent. Here it is:
I was happy to find out that one of the families that lost books in 1948 now lives in Canada. I met with the family last week in their lovely Winnipeg home to learn about the books they lost. Anahid Melikian, now nearly 90 years-old, remembers having to flee the home her grandfather built in the Talbieh district of Jerusalem in the spring of 1948. Armed young men with loudspeakers demanded Arabs “leave, or else.” Anahid’s parents managed to save a few items from the house – their carpets, their china tea set – but many of their books were lost. In particular, Anahid remembers a 20-volume German encyclopedia titled Meyers Konversations-Lexikon that belonged to her father. She told me the encyclopedia dated back to 1900, or thereabouts, and had beautiful illustrations that Anahid loved to thumb through as a girl.
In 1970, Anahid returned to Talbieh with an old friend. She told me the story:
We walked together up the Street of the Prophets where our old school used to be. Then down to Jaffa Road, and up King George Avenue. In fact, we stopped in one of the Jewish Israeli cafes and had coffee. Then we continued and we went to Talbieh where we lived. We walked around, and we sat somewhere on a bench, and I said to her “Alexa, we better get up and leave because before long we will forget where we are. We should each one go back to our old home.” And we walked to our home, where my grandmother had planted a jasmine. And the jasmine was in blossom. I walked up the steps on the outside, I picked a few of the jasmine, and I walked back.
For Anahid, the books prove that Palestinians not only existed in 1948, but possessed a rich contemporary culture. They were not simply bearded men herding camels. She said:
You hear Israelis speak about Palestinians in a derogatory way, and what they are thinking is these are poor wretches who are living in the refugee camps. They want you to think that these are the Palestinians. Then I say, look at what was left behind in these houses. Look at the books…. They mean nothing to [the Israelis]. I hope they found a good home. I hope somebody appreciates them. And maybe they will say that maybe those Palestinians were not illiterate after all.