Tucked in a corner across from Istanbul’s Kariye museum is a haven for young Syrians who want to do one simple thing: read. Pages, a bookstore and cafe, represents one man’s ambitious quest to change the lives of Syrian youth.
“I’m incredibly happy,” said Samer al-Kadri, 42, founder of the first Arabic bookstore in the city. “I get to meet this generation, between 18 and 25 years old. This generation is surprising me with their understanding, their openness, their dialogue.”
More than three million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian, live in Turkey. With Pages, Kadri hopes to create a space for young Syrians curious about the world, who want to escape the isolation of refugee life, and, for a fleeting moment, pretend they are back in their homeland.
The tunes of the Lebanese singer Fairuz waft through the air of the cosy interior, books lined along shelves that Kadri built with his own hands, a labour of love that has meant he hasn’t taken a holiday for nearly a year.
Here young children can come and read all the books available for free, or borrow as many as they want, for as little as 20 lire (£4.80) a month. Syrian men and women drink coffee as they write, study and read under the sunlight streaming through the windows, and in the evenings they attend music performances, movie nights, workshops and exhibits.
“It’s a place where we can have conversations as Syrians with each other once again, to have dialogue, to accept each other, to change our mentality that was closed in on Syria only, and didn’t see the outside world,” said Kadri.
For all the tragedies of the Syrian war, with more than 400,000 dead in five years of conflict and half the country’s population displaced at home or abroad, Kadri sees a small silver lining.
“Despite all the tragedy in Syria, there was one aspect that I think is positive for Syria’s future,” he said. “It let Syrians emerge from this shell that they were living in. A lot of things changed. A lot of young men and women have changed their way of thinking, and this new generation, some of it has been destroyed and some have been changed or are growing up in a different way, more open. Syrians have learned a lot more about the world.”
Kadri was just eight when the forces of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current president, stormed his home city of Hama in 1982, levelling it with extraordinary brutality in less than a month as collective punishment for a brief rebellion.
He recalled an episode where government troops lined several men in a neighbourhood against a wall, shooting one and letting another survive, and the scene as his family trudged out of the city, with bodies lining the streets.
After moving to Damascus, Kadri graduated with a fine arts degree and became a graphic designer, setting up an advertising agency and a publishing house dedicated to children’s books, called Bright Fingers.
When the revolution erupted in Syria in 2011, he spoke abroad about the people’s struggle and their oppression by the Assad regime, though he stayed away from demonstrations.
While on a trip to Abu Dhabi in 2012, he learned that security forces had raided his publishing house, accusing him of supporting terrorist activities, a common charge against those opposed to the government. He moved to Amman, and fell in love with Istanbul during a short visit to the city.
During the Guardian’s visit, he was interrupted by a group of young children who had been touring the bookstore. “We made this place for you,” he told them. “It’s a place that you can always come to.”
One of the children replied: “I felt like I was in Syria with all these Arabic books, and you can read them all for free.” One teenager asked Kadri to stock books about astronomy because he loved space, and another asked for a biography of Khalid ibn al-Walid, one of early Islam’s legendary warriors who led its early conquests in Asia.
“The purpose of this visit is so they can read and to impress on them the importance of libraries,” said Jihad Bakr, who teaches Turkish to Syrian children at a local school and was supervising the visit. “They need to know a different face of the society, to see their own Syrian community from a different perspective. Syria is not just war and what their families know. We have art and culture.”
It is a common theme for Kadri, who sees little hope in changing the mentality of his own generation but believes there is potential for instilling a love of learning and curiosity among the young clientele who visit Pages, where he works 11 hours a day for seven days a week.
He also sees it as a way of removing those who sought refuge in Istanbul from the isolation of refugee life, to introduce Turks to a different perspective on Syrians (many Turks and Kurds also visit the bookshop, which stocks Turkish and English books) and to show the international media that Syrians should not be defined just as victims or perpetrators of violence.
“I’m tired of this view that Syrians are Daesh [an Arabic term for Isis], are murderers, or are just starving,” he said. “There are a lot of victims and people who are starving, who have lost everything. But there’s also another side that people don’t want to see. We want people to write about something different.”
Among the most popular books at Pages are translations of Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which tells the story of the legendary Persian poet Rumi, as well The Shell, a memoir by the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa detailing his torture and detention in the notorious prison of Palmyra.
The translated works of George Orwell are also popular, particularly Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian fictional worlds of which bear a striking resemblance to Assad’s police state.
“In the end this is a huge tragedy and you can’t really escape it completely,” said Kadri. “You can’t write about love without linking it to the catastrophe in Syria. It’s your daily life and occupies every moment of it.”
Kadri is hoping to start a branch of his bookstore in Berlin to cater to the refugee community there, and is setting up a new publishing house that will be dedicated to debut novels by young Syrian and Arab writers to be sold throughout the Middle East, and he is working with Turkish publishing houses to translate the novels into the local language. None of the ventures are profitable.
But though it is hard work, what matters to him more is the effort to mould a new generation. “We are not able to change, but we can help the next generation change for the better,” he said. “My message to the world is don’t judge Syrians as one bloc. You wouldn’t want us to judge an entire society as one. Look and observe well, and determine the reality for yourself.”
Originally published by The Guardian.
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