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Berlin's first Arabic library a place of culture and comfort for refugees

Berlin's first Arabic library a place of culture and comfort for refugees

Earlier this year, Berlin officially opened its first Arabic library as a way to help meet the cultural and intellectual needs of refugees living in the city. With around 3,500 books and growing, the library, Baynatna, is popular among the diaspora and refugees in the city, many who have fled to Germany from wars in Syria and Iraq. While most efforts and organisations supporting refugees tend to focus on food and shelter; language, culture and literature are often overlooked, something which the library hopes to address. 

Baynatna began in 2015 with a former student of literature and translation, Qaiconie, who was forced to leave his personal library behind when he fled his war-torn home of Aleppo, Syria, in 2013. While living in a German refugee shelter, Qaiconie reached out to a Berlin-based journalist, Ines Kappert, to find out why there were no Arabic libraries or bookshops in the city.

‘We lost our homes and our country,’ Qaiconie said in an interview with Al Jazeera, ‘but we also lost our books which used to be an important part of the lives of many people.’

In 2016, Qaiconie and Kappert met Ali Hassan, a Syrian musician who also missed reading in his native language. Together they began a mission to collect books and started looking for a space for their project.

In 2017, the library was located in a refugee shelter and, in just a few months they managed to collect over 700 titles. This has since grown to almost 4000, and the collection was consequently moved to the ground floor of Berlin’s central library earlier this year.

Courtesy of Marta Vidal, Al Jazeera 

The library continues receiving donations and the collection keeps expanding, confirming the widespread longing for Arabic books and culture.

Baynatna offers books and games for children, as well as regular storytelling events.  Parents also flock to Baynatna because they worry that their children have lost contact with their native language. 'Baynatna is more than a library. It's a centre for art, music and cultural exchange,' says cofounder Ali Hassan.

The aim of the library is not only to provide Arabic-speakers with books in their native language but also to make German and English translations of Arabic works available so that Berliners can learn more about the Arab world's rich literary tradition.

Courtesy of Marta Vidal, Al Jazeera 

‘We need an Arabic library in Berlin because we need a space where Arabic-speakers can feel welcome and comfortable,’ says cofounder Kappert. ‘We need a place that can bring Arabic and German speakers together.’