A three-story library in Arabic rustic style, organized also as a café, in the heart of Istanbul’s old town, in the historic district of Ayvansaray in Fatihè, has become a shelter with the warmth of home for many Syrians who come to Turkey fleeing from the war. Over two and a half million. But it hosts also Egyptians, Libyans, and Iraqis.
It’s called “Pages” – despite being officially registered under the Arab name Safahat – and its name itself promises to tell many stories of life and of peace, hosted in books and, through paper friendship also with readers. One floor is devoted to publications for children and another one works as a library. It houses books and daily events, including concerts and journalism courses in three languages: Arabic, English, and Turkish. There is also a cinema.
Samer al-Kadri, the owner of this place is a refugee himself. In Syria he had worked as an editor artist, publishing children’s books. His library, the first one dedicated to Arab culture, is a place of encounter and discussion – he says -, it strives to be a bridge between Syrians, the Turkish, and the myriad of foreigners who visit the city. Al-Kadri’s creation is not only a commendable economic and commercial initiative, but also a project of cultural and community development. In an interview with Yabangee, he said Pages is “a center for culture, not only a place where to sell books. People come here to read for free, without paying. “It works as a cultural embassy. The journey towards happiness and peace passes through information and knowledge. A slap in the face of those who believe that the fate of sufferance is an inevitable condemnation and of those people whose ignorance makes them nurture stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims, as if they were a single and defined entity.
“Right now, there are many ideological divisions in the Arab world and in Syria. Everyone tries to distinguish and separate himself from the other. It is time we start talking to each other. The tensions between secularists and Islamists have peaked. There are many divisions even inside the secular groups, the left and the right. Our goal is to make all of them dialogue. Everyone should be able to listen to voices that are diverse and respect different opinions,” al-Kadri says. Then, there is the question of Western bias against refugees. In the collective imagination, they are always poor and marginalized, and hungry people in search of alms.
The Arab world has an ancient rich culture, which is particularly true for Syria. “I want to transmit an image of Syria to the Western world that is different from the one that portrays the Syrians as hungry refugees – he said -. There are a variety of positive images one could show to the world outside. Syria’s history goes back to ancient times, but have you ever heard about a Syrian writer, artist, filmmaker, or intellectual? The answer is no. People in the West are surprised when they meet me and find out I am not suffering from hunger. Of course, there are many people who are suffering and we have to focus and find a solution to their problems. But there is another side of the story, which has been neglected by the media for a long time. Syria is not only about Assad or Isis supporters, there is another kind of resistance: culture.”
Istanbul is a “crossroads of cultures of the world, yet it is not multicultural. It is remarkably multiracial,” al-Kadri says. Its literary scene is extremely rich and ripe, and the number of readers is higher than in other parts of the world, but it addresses only the Turkish readership. Pages, the first library with 80 percent of the texts written in Arabic, fills an editorial void and provides community service, as well as integration and social peace. Damascus, the Syrian capital, is a truly multicultural city. Nonetheless, bureaucratic difficulties faced by those who want to start a publishing company here – Samer explains – are far more challenging.
Ola Suleiman is one of the employees of the library. She arrived to Turkey from Syria together with her six brothers all of whom work, trying to build a new life. About 80 percent of the Syrian refugees live outside the camps. Whereas, local laws forbid to hire Syrian personnel. Thus, Syrian workers are often exploited and their employers evade tax collection. Suleiman does not have a valid work contract, because she cannot have one, but she has got health insurance. Among the Syrians customers of the library there is Faiz Dakhil who “feels this place smells like home”. And that is the ambition of the library’s founder: make it a home for everyone.
Amnesty International has condemned the fact that Turkey sends Syrian refugees back to their country, which is at war. They seek to integrate into the Turkish community and work hard. But their condition in the 25 refugee camps on the border, especially in the tent city on the Syrian border, is difficult, even tragic in some cases. So much so, that it has pushed human rights defenders to organize international protests. UN’s humanitarian aid has been cut down to 40 percent of the refugees’ needs, whereas World Food Programme has stopped providing assistance to nine fields. Only 20 percent of school-age children receive education. That is why the only hope for many of them is reaching Europe. Initiatives such as Samer al-Kadri’s are worth a thousand diplomatic meetings. The green multicolored and multi-lingual facade of the library is an answer that gives hope to the many stories that are black and white or merely a plethora of shades of soot gray.