ISTANBUL— Far from the hustle and bustle of the center of the European side of Istanbul, a Syrian couple chose a restored wooden house in the Fatih neighborhood to be the first major Arabic bookstore in Turkey. They named it Pages Bookstore Cafe, or Safahat in Arabic and Turkish.
The project, which Samer al-Kadri and Gulnar Hajo began last June, aims to be a cultural center for Arabic readers in addition to giving a different perspective on the Syrians increasingly filling the city.
“People view us negatively, as murderers and fleeing refugees, so we wanted to show our true culture,” said al-Kadri. “This new generation reads—this didn’t exist before, and there isn’t much reading material in Arabic. We want to change that.”
As the number of Syrians in Turkey increases, four people—three Syrians and a Qatari friend—decided to open the bookstore in Istanbul. They are personally supporting it in the hope of presenting a fresh Arab cultural perspective and contributing to the spread of Arabic and translated books. The bookstore will “rent” some books as well as selling them, allowing those with limited means to get access to what they want to read.
“In addition to Syrians, there is a huge Arab community here, with very limited access to Arabic books,” al-Kadri said. The bookstore isn’t just there to sell or loan books, but also organizes lectures and cultural and artistic events.
“It’s not just a bookstore. It is a space where people can find each other and talk away from any political polarization,” al-Kadri added. He has had offers of investment by organizations with political viewpoints but has turned them away, as he doesn’t want the bookstore to be seen as pushing any particular political or religious viewpoint.
Al-Kadri and Hajo, who are also graphic designers, illustrators and painters, designed every floor of the four-story building to ensure a home-like ambiance. The first floor consists of a library, and the second floor is where books with Arabic, Turkish, English and French titles can be found. A small garden cafe sits on a second-floor balcony. A children’s section is on the third floor, and colored tables can seat children for weekly drawing and reading workshops. The fourth floor is for exhibitions, workshops, film screenings and discussion space.
The bookstore is not intended to make a profit, Hajo says, just to support itself, and all events, seminars and exhibitions are free.
“People can check out books or buy them for affordable prices,” she said. Under the new borrowing system, customers can borrow a book for two weeks for 7 Turkish Lira ($2.30). Pages has more than 2,000 titles of modern and contemporary literature, poetry, social sciences, religion and even medicine. Novels and political books are popular among the bookstore’s customers. Al-Qawqa’a [The Shell], a Syrian novel by Mustafa Khalifa, is the best seller for now, according to al-Kadri.
Pages also arranges for special shipping services from Arab and international publishers to facilitate access to books. The bookstore collects orders from potential buyers for books that it doesn’t have in stock. Once it has a critical mass of orders for an individual publisher, it buys in bulk to save on shipping costs. “Till now, there is no censorship on the books we bring. We are working with complete freedom, which we did not have before,” al-Kadri said.
Before the war, the Syrian couple ran Bright Fingers, a Damascus-based publishing house for children’s books. “In 2012, our storage was completely destroyed and we had to leave,” al-Kadri said. The couple moved to Amman for one year before choosing to settle down in Istanbul. “We want to stay close to our homeland, so we can go back once the war is over,” al-Kadri said.
Until that happens, the Syrian couple is busy at the Istanbul store. They have live music every Saturday night, and on Tuesdays and Fridays a children’s painting workshop. Al-Kadri and Hajo are also working now on a project to provide books to every Syrian school in Istanbul as a first step with 100 books for each school in Arabic, Turkish and English.
In the long term, they hope to open a branch for their library in Germany, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are living.
It seems that there is no place for despair at Pages bookstore.
“Believe in what you want to do from inside, and do it,” al-Kadri said. “It will eventually succeed, if you really believe in it.”