‘We lost our homes and country, but we also lost our books’
Baynatna, an Arabic library in Berlin, is popular among the diaspora and refugees whose own stories could fill novels.
Berlin, Germany – On Friday evenings in Mitte, Berlin’s central district, the sound of an oud travels up from the public library’s ground floor.
The Middle Eastern string instrument is being played in a room in Stadtbibliothek, Berlin’s municipal library, where Baynatna has found a home.
It is the first Arabic-language public library in the German city.
An Egyptian couple browses bookcases filled with Arabic novels, poetry and non-fiction. A small group of young Syrians and Palestinians chat in low voices over coffee. Others work on laptops.
“It’s a place for everyone,” says Muhannad Qaiconie, one of the library’s founders.
Baynatna, which means “between us” in Arabic, is entirely run by volunteers. There are often music performances and poetry readings.
A former student of literature and translation, Qaiconie had his own library in Aleppo, Syria, but was forced to leave his books behind when he fled the war-torn city in 2013.
Germany has been home to a large community of Arabic-speakers for several decades. But over the past five years, the number has more than doubled with the arrival of people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.
“We lost our homes and our country,” Qaiconie tells Al Jazeera, “but we also lost our books which used to be an important part of the lives of many people.”
He said most organisations supporting refugees focus on food and shelter, often neglecting cultural and intellectual needs.
When Qaiconie arrived in Germany, he contacted Berlin-based literary scholar and journalist Ines Kappert.
Feeling unstimulated at the refugee shelter, he asked Kappert where he could find Arabic books and was disappointed to find out there were no Arabic libraries or bookshops in Germany.
In 2016, Qaiconie met Ali Hassan, a Syrian musician who also missed reading in his native language.
The idea to establish Baynatna emerged from their shared longing for Arabic books.
They began a mission to collect books and Kappert, with her extensive network in the German cultural scene, started looking for a space for their project.
They were later joined by Jordanian architecture student Dana Haddad, who worked with her university to design and donate furniture for the library.
“I contacted publishing houses and asked on social media for book donations,” says Qaiconie.
Books started to arrive from several countries. Many were donated by strangers. A few families gave books that belonged to loved ones who passed away.
An Iraqi donor whose father was a playwright brought two entire bookcases of Arabic plays. An Italian couple donated around 20 books that belonged to their daughter who was studying Arabic; she had died in a car accident.
“Some of the books still have her annotations,” says Qaiconie.
In just a few months, he managed to collect around 700 books. Now holding around 3,500 titles, the library continues receiving donations and the collection keeps expanding.
For Qaiconie, the support confirmed the need for Arabic books.
The books they left behind
When Hiba Obaid left Syria in 2013, the Palestinian-Syrian journalist and writer brought with her only one book: The Butterfly’s Burden by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Exile, longing and displacement are the central themes in Darwish’s work.
Obaid, who studied Arabic literature in Aleppo, considers him her main source of inspiration.
“I started writing a book in Aleppo. I lost the draft after the war started, but the stories are still with me,” says Obaid, in Baynatna.
She found a new home in Berlin, which is now a hub for Arab writers and artists.
“I go to the Arabic street, buy my groceries there and smoke shisha. It’s like being in Aleppo.”
In July, she attended an event at the Arabic library for a children’s book about the Old City of Aleppo by Syrian writer Khaldoum Fansa.
“A lot of Germans came to the event because they wanted to know more about Aleppo before the war,” she adds.
Now based in the US, Fansa wrote the book for the children who didn’t know the old city before it was destroyed in battle.
We need an Arabic library in Berlin because we need a space where Arabic-speakers can feel welcome and comfortable. We need a place that can bring Arabic and German speakers together.
Baynatna offers books and games for children, as well as regular storytelling events.
Some of the library’s visitors also work with Back on Track , a project for children who had no access to school because of war and displacement.
Parents also flock to Baynatna because they worry that their children have lost contact with their native language. Many mix Arabic with German, or with the Turkish and Greek they learned on the refugee route, before arriving in Berlin.
Making sure his seven-month-old child maintains Arabic is a priority for Dellair Youssef. The Syrian filmmaker and writer used to read Arabic poetry to his daughter when she was still in her mother’s womb.
A frequent visitor, Youssef came to the library to return an Arabic translation of Kafka he had borrowed and to work on the design of his latest book.
The large library he left behind in Damascus is now locked up and covered in dust.
Youssef fled Syria in 2011 with a small backpack and two books by the Syrian poet Nazih Abu Afash and Lebanese writer Nadim Mohsen.
“I loved these books back then but taste changes,” he says.
The Kurdish-Syrian novelist Salim Barakat, who has not yet been translated into English, is now his favourite.
When he moved to Berlin, he tried to rebuild his library.
“I built the bookshelves myself. It’s still small, with only a few hundred books. But it is slowly growing”.
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.
“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.”
At a time when intolerance and mistrust are spreading across Europe, Baynatna challenges misconceptions of the “other” by focusing on what brings people together.
“There is no ‘other’,” says Dana Haddad, the Jordanian architecture student and cofounder. “There is only us, and ‘between us’.”