Travelling the world through books
Librarian Mariam and Volunteer Raghad look after the Municpal Library in Battir, a small village on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank. It is a beautiful village but life can be hard.
Many Palestinians cannot travel freely between West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Even within the West Bank, checkpoints and roadblocks make even getting from one town to the next fraught with potential difficulties. Added to this, restrictions on trade make it hard to import books, creating a sense of isolation.
We talked to Mariam and Raghad about how books are changing lives in their community.
Tell us about your library
MARIAM: The library is in Battir, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the community around Battir is an agricultural one. The library has been operating since 2003. It was an idea of the youth of the village – they wanted a safe place to discuss books. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) helped to fund the project and World Vision helped to build the library. Book Aid International and other international institutes send books to the library.
What is your average day at the library like?
MARIAM: We discuss books with the people who come to the library, especially with children. We encourage them to read what they like and to come by making activities – like singing, drama and dancing. Our vision is to make Battir a community that reads.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the challenges you face under occupation?
RAGHAD: Here in Palestine, the situation is extremely bad economically, politically, even for education.
MARIAM: The children want to live, they want to achieve their dreams.
How do you see books helping with these challenges?
RAGHAD: Our only hope is the children and youth. They can make the change. If they are educated in the correct way, they will improve our country, they will make a change in our country. Books are very good for them to know more.
Here in the library, we teach children how to analyse. We don’t just give the children a book to read and bring back. We discuss the book with them – the meanings, the significance of the book. This kind of discussion doesn’t happen in school – there is so much to do, teachers don’t have the time to discuss these things with pupils.
Books are good for discovery. Sometimes we don’t understand others – people with other languages, other religions. But books teach us about different cultures, how other people think, so we respect others.
What part do books from Book Aid International have to play in this?
RAGHAD: Since living here is very difficult, books from Book Aid International can help children to travel all over the world in their minds, discover new things, new people.
MARIAM: Book Aid International books give our children the opportunity to find what others think. Okay, they can read a writer from Bethlehem but they want to know what Shaun Tan [an author] from Australia thinks. Some of the children would like to go to Germany but they can’t. But if they found a book about Germany here in the library, they can go to Germany by book. By reading this book, you can discover everything about Germany without going to Germany. We made a reading passport for the children. They write in what books they read and the places they visit in the books.
We have a train line running through Battir and we can’t use it. The children ask me “why can’t we use the train?” I can’t find the words to explain. Book Aid International sent a Thomas the Tank Engine sound book and I used it to take the children on an imaginary trip by train. As we turned each page, we discussed what we saw on the journey. For example on one page we saw a zoo and we talked about why it’s dangerous for animals to go across the train tracks. The children pressed the horn button to warn the animals the train was coming. They really liked it.
What do you think would be different if the children of Battir didn’t have access to the books in this library?
RAGHAD: Here in the library, kids start to think in a different way. That’s what I see. Even for me, when I go to a new place, meeting new people or even reading a new book, that means a new life, new experience. That helps to open the mind to new things. So the library helps people, especially children, to share their feelings, their ideas, what they want.
MARIAM: The children start to decide here. We run a kind of democratic system. When we have book discussions, everyone’s point of view is valuable. It is okay to have different opinions and we discuss the different opinions. They learn about a more democratic lifestyle in practise, not just hearing about it. Our hope is that at home and in other areas of life, the children will begin to have more democratic ways of life.
What are your hopes for the future of your community?
MARIAM: To have knowledge, to be good readers and discover the world that they have found in books.
We are proud to have supported readers and libraries in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1988. If you would like to find out more about our work there, please take a look at the links below.