contributor perspectives

Bringing Syrian Culture to a New Home, Page by Page

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READJun 28, 2017 | 18:13 GMT
Syrian storyteller Ahmad al-Lahham reads from his book at a coffeehouse in Damascus. The Syrian culture is also alive and well in Amsterdam, where a bookstore features the country's visual and literary arts.
Ahmad al-Lahham, a Syrian storyteller, reads from his storybook in a Damascus coffeehouse on June 19, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the place to be on a Monday night in Amsterdam. My colleague and I spotted the crowd assembled on the Herengracht long before we reached No. 603, where a boutique bookstore was opening. Wine glasses clinked. Laughter and cigarette smoke wafted into the dusk above the canal. A bit overwhelmed, the two of us exchanged glances, inhaled and pushed through to the packed interior. The space was bright. Comfy chairs were scattered throughout; a long, hand-rubbed wooden table with bowls of olives and mixed nuts invited guests to sit and talk. The bookshelves were not yet overstuffed, and enormous canvases adorned the walls. The books were in Arabic, the paintings by Syrian artists — some living in exile and some still living at home.

Pages Bookstore Cafe brings the literary culture of Syria to the heart of Amsterdam, by way of Istanbul's Fatih neighborhood and before that Damascus, from which its founder, Samer Alkadri, fled in 2012. Alkadri is a Syrian painter and graphic designer who ran an advertising agency and children's book publisher called Bright Fingers until working in his homeland became too perilous. Today he stocks his stores in Turkey and in the Netherlands with Arabic books imported from Beirut. The shelves showcase modern Syrian literature and children's books, while on the walls, paintings such as "Untitled," by Qosai Aizouz, convey the mysteries of identity or, as in the case of "Connection," by Saif al-Taie, the promise of interreligious harmony despite divisive extremism.

Saif al-Taie's Connection hangs in Amsterdam's Pages Bookstore Cafe, a space bringing Syrian culture to The Netherlands.
Saif al-Taie's "Connection" hangs in Amsterdam's Pages Bookstore Cafe, a space bringing Syrian culture to The Netherlands.


Alkadri's intention with the newest Pages location was to create a meeting place for culture and the arts in Amsterdam that would bring Europeans in direct contact with Syrians and other escapees from war and authoritarian rule. His vision runs in tandem with the mission of the Prince Claus Fund, which made the space available to him. The fund "supports freedom of cultural expression and social change through culture in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean." A brochure poses the questions that have become elephants in so many rooms around the world:

If culture were a luxury, then why suffer for it?
If it were trivial, then why prosecute it?
If it were harmless, then why die for it?

The Damascus of Alkadri's publishing days was a thriving cultural hub, a center for craftsmanship, fine restaurants and narrow streets with flowers cascading from upper story balconies. Then a popular tourist destination, Syria's capital boasted world-famous pistachio ice cream in the souk just across the plaza from the Umayyad Mosque, a 1,300-year-old structure that claims to enshrine the head of John the Baptist. Today, the target young audience for the books Alkadri published probably know more about war and grief than they do about alif, ba and ta.

The Alkadri family's departure from Damascus in 2012 was not the first displacement it had suffered. In 1982, they narrowly escaped their hometown, Hama, which then-President Hafez al Assad ordered razed as punishment for a rebellion, killing an estimated 20,000 people. Thirty years later, the publisher pushed on to Istanbul, where millions of Syrians currently live in exile.

For a while, Turkey was a haven for Syrians, who benefited from the open-door policy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. "He opened the doors for Syrians," Alkadri told The New York Times in 2015. Erdogan has since changed his tune, but before he did, in July 2015, Alkadri opened the first Pages Bookstore Cafe in Istanbul, calling it "a home where Syrian culture greets and meets the world." That's where my colleague Stephanie Saldana first visited Alkadri's shop, and she was eager to see its new manifestation in the Netherlands.


Stephanie Saldana gazes at "Untitled" by Qosai Aizouz, which hangs in the Pages Bookstore Cafe.

Stephanie Saldana gazes at "Untitled" by Qosai Aizouz, which hangs in the Pages Bookstore Cafe. Its founder, Samer Alkadri, worked as a graphic artist and designer in Damascus before migrating to Turkey, then to Europe.

Saldana had studied in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar. There she learned Arabic, spent lots of time at the restored Deir Mar Musa, or Saint Moses, monastery, and met the man she would eventually marry (who at the time was studying to become a monk). Saldana recounts their extraordinary love story in The Bread of Angels, a chronicle of her Fulbright year. Now she writes about displaced Syrians, Iraqis, Yazidis and people of other imperiled communities living in diaspora. She writes to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of that broad region we call the Middle East, which today faces the threat of war, climate change, mass migration, ethnic cleansing and unchecked urbanization. In her project, Mosaic Stories, Saldana relays tales from Iraqi Kurdistan and from Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. She's learned that people have fled their homes in Aleppo carrying only seeds for cherished black and purple carrots stuffed deep into their pockets. She writes about refugees who bring the seeds of special eggplants from Syria to Jordan, so they can cook their favorite dishes in exile.

Together we penetrated the reception and perused the shelves, seeking an appropriate moment to speak with Alkadri. Although Saldana describes herself as shy, I saw a different personality emerge once she and Alkadri had gotten past the formalities. "I have trouble 'chatting' in English," she confessed, "but in Arabic I can speak with anyone." They had a lively conversation in colloquial Syrian amid the noise of the reception. Awe shone on Alkadri's face, not only because he was speaking his mother tongue, but also because it was a breezy June evening on his new store's opening night in Amsterdam, and he was speaking in dialect with an American woman who grew up in Texas.

This is one of the perks of life on our shrinking planet: We may meet and mingle with people we'd only heard about or never imagined and whose stories delight, horrify and inspire. We may befriend these people forevermore or never see them again — nor forget them. This shrinking benefits the fortunate, like Saldana and me. It's a greater boon for those like Samer Alkadri who are even more fortunate to have survived the journey from war to safety, to have made it across the Mediterranean alive; people who don't live in overcrowded refugee camps or hostile detention centers, who made it to the opening of Pages bookstore on Amsterdam's Herengracht on a balmy Monday evening in June. Most have not been so lucky.

A little more than 5 million people are registered refugees of the Syrian civil war. Almost 3 million of those are in Turkey. About 32,000 live in the Netherlands. Just over 18,000 were resettled in the United States between 2011 and 2016.

"I started Pages so that we could learn not to judge each other before we know one another," Alkadri told me in English toward the end of the evening. "Pages is a small step, and each of us must make small steps."


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