“The Great Book Robbery”, a 2012 documentary about the looting of some 70,000 books from private Palestinian libraries during the 1948 war.It vividly chronicles the large-scale cultural pillage and dispossession of Palestinian literary archives. Directed by Benny Brunner, a Dutch-Israeli immigrant and self-described former Zionist, the film left the 40 or so attendees in awe. Adding to the poignance, the audience was gathered in a centre named for a famous Palestinian poet and scholar whose own book collection had been looted.
“Farewell, my books! How much midnight oil did I burn with you…” Al Sakakini wrote these words shortly after Jewish soldiers swept through Jerusalem’s affluent Arab neighbourhoods of Qatamon, Musrara and Baq’a, “collecting” 30,000 books, newspapers and documents. The haul included works of immeasurable historical or religious significance, such as hand-written copies of the Koran and Hadith, emblazoned with gold leaf. Some 40,000 other books were seized from abandoned homes in urban centres such as Nazareth, Jaffa and Haifa. In writing, Al Sakakini wonders if his treasured possessions were looted or burnt. “Were you transferred, with due respect, to a private or public library?” he asks, or “did you find your way to the grocer, your pages wrapping onions?”
The theft took place largely unnoticed amidst the tragedy and chaos of the war. Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian who features prominently in the documentary, says the looters were either individual thieves who took their spoils home, or official operatives who took the books to Israel’s National Library, where at least 6,000 of remain today. Many of the books were recycled as paper; others were marked “AP” for abandoned property. Part of the tragedy, the documentary reveals, is that Palestinian prisoners were forced to pillage books from each other’s homes. In one especially moving scene a Palestinian named Mohammad Batrawi recalled being forced to loot his own home. “The appropriation…of the spiritual essence of the Palestinians is…no different than the appropriation of the land,” observes Mr Pappé. The film ends with Batrawi calling for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The documentary showcases a vibrant pre-1948 Middle East: one where Haifa had a rail link to Cairo and Damascus, and the Palestinian cultural scene was abuzz with literary cafes, cinemas and theatres. In lieu of tests or graded assignments, students and teachers discussed politics and philosophy under trees. It is this storied legacy of Arab culture and intelligentsia that “The Great Book Robbery” pays tribute to.
Source : Economist