This post is the first by our new author, Palestinian blogger Yasmeen El Khoudary, in which she introduces an initiative set up by a group of bloggers in Gaza called Diwan Ghazza.
It's quite surprising to see that people are quite surprised to hear that there's a book club in Gaza, but I guess that's exactly why we started Diwan Ghazza. Let me tell you our story.
A group of my friends and I are fed up with the way the world regards Gaza (with the usual media coverage on the negative side of life here) and disregards the other face: the historic, the beautiful, the educated, and the inspirational. We decided that Gaza is a city no less capable than other cities, and the fact that we have gone through so much should add to our credit. Gaza breeds thinkers, and the only thing it teaches them is that they should do the thinking themselves. There are no cultural centers, theatres, cinemas or updated public libraries in Gaza, but that wasn’t going to stop us.
So we decided to put our thoughts, time and energy into creating a group that we would be proud of belonging to. Its quite funny actually, that whenever people ask us what “Diwan Ghazza” is, our answer, “we're a group of friends interested in knowledge and in improving Gaza's image in the world”, they don't get it. How can we not be a registered society or an NGO?! Why are we not asking for funding?! How can you not have an office!?
But Diwan Ghazza is much simpler than that. We're not willing to be subject to boring NGO or donor regulations. Why should we seek to become “officially registered” and ask for donations when we can do great work without any money?
Our first activity was the first Gaza Tweet-Up  in July 2011, which gathered about 30 tweeps from Gaza, many of them meeting for the first time. We discussed everything from our role and responsibility as Gaza tweeps to future activities by Diwan. Later, we organized an online tweet up with Frode Mauring , Special Representative of the Administrator in the occupied Palestinian territories. We also organized several meetings between youth activists in Gaza and UNDP and other diplomats, including a diplomatic and cultural mission from Sweden .
Simultaneously, in July 2011, I became the Gaza Coordinator for the amazing Palestine Writing Workshop . We organized several writing e-workshops (generously hosted by the British Council), which were attended by an array of students and professionals who greatly benefited from the experiences of renowned authors from around the globe.
Later, we started the Gaza Book Club chapter with two novels: “Zabelle ” by Nancy Kricorian and “The Road from Damascus ” by Robin Yassin-Kassab. We also had a very insightful discussion about Zabelle with Nancy Kricorian after reading the novel, and are looking forward to a discussion with Robin Yassin-Kassab soon!
Our group started growing, and more and more people became interested in Diwan Ghazza and in the book club. But we didn't want to limit ourselves to English books or to novels, or to a small group of people. Neither did we have an updated library or bookstore option. Thus, we decided to start the Diwan Ghazza Book Exchange Club. And we did.
Our first meeting was in January, and was attended by 18 people, and yielded over 25 books. From books about Gaza's Christian history, to a translated Norwegian novel “Hunger”, by Knut Hamsun, to Charles Dickens, to Sahar Khalife, the books were a beautiful assortment. We met again last week, with more people and more books (we did not count, but the pile was HUGE).
This time, Ahmed Matar's poetry, fresh books about the Egyptian revolution, and Paulo Coelhos’ books were among the collection. We swapped books again, but were left with a huge pile. Thankfully, the place that hosts our events, Almat'haf Hotel  (Gaza's first museum of archeology and cultural house) offered to host our mini library in the hotel's business center. Anyone who's interested can check out our virtual shelf on Good Reads  but our only condition is that you write a book review!
And by doing that, we are slowly building a model to show that a LOT can be done in Gaza without any donations. All you need is genuine commitment and mutual interests. I hope I was able to answer your questions about Diwan Ghazza, our book club and on how we're attempting to restore our Gaza, to which Choricius of Gaza (491-518 AD)  [pdf] once belonged, and established Gaza's School of Rhetoric – a beacon of knowledge during Late Antiquity!
About Diwan Ghazza: we are a group of friends who seek to show the world a better image of Gaza (an image that exists, but has been ignored for so long), by: empowerment through knowledge and by providing a venue for youth to speak out about Gaza's forgotten face. As for our name, the diwan in Palestinian culture is the guesthouse of families, where relatives and friends gather to talk and discuss issues. Our Diwan is a venue for exchanging and discussing ideas, thoughts and knowledge. For more information, see our website , and Facebook page .
Cross-posted from Yasmeen's blog, Gaza, out of the blue .