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Bookshelves laden with Arabic works are pushed aside, chairs and cushions rearranged and microphones tested. In a loft above the Berlin rooftops, Muhannad Qaiconie and team are preparing their unique library for a reading event.
By sunset, a crowd has gathered to hear readings by Syrian and Levantine poets with accompanying German translations. It is standing room only. The event is typical of those hosted by Baynetna, or “Between Us”, Berlin’s newest library, offering literature in Arabic, German and English.
The library is the brainchild of Muhannad, a Syrian student who runs it with an international team of academics, writers and publishers. “There are many writers, authors, musicians coming to Berlin,” says Muhannad, 30. “They need this stage, a place to introduce their work.”
A former student of English literature, he had to abandon his own library when he fled his home in Aleppo in 2013. The loss of his books weighed heavy on him during the years he scraped a living in Lebanon and Turkey.
“I didn’t have a single book in my hand at that time,” he says. “But studying was always in my mind, because I missed it so much. In Syria, I bought the books to read and make my own library, my own education.”
“If there’s such thing as integration, that’s it. You learn from me, I learn from you.”
Muhannad left Turkey in 2015 and set off across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece. Soon, he found himself waiting in a shelter in southern Germany for his asylum application to be processed, bored and craving a good read.
“It’s horrible to lose everything,” he says. “But it’s not just the need of food or money, there are the needs of the mind. You need your culture, your books.”
Before long, Muhannad struck up an online friendship with a Berlin-based literary scholar and newspaper editor, Ines Kappert. She asked him what she could give him to help him pass the time in the shelter.
What he really wanted, he said, was access to an Arabic library. However, Ines told him she did not know of any in the country. “That stayed in my mind,” he says. Muhannad moved to Berlin and won a scholarship to study at a liberal arts college. However, something was still missing.
Together, Ines and Muhannad discussed the idea of creating a library, a space to showcase Arabic-language literature. Before long they found a venue – the top floor of a former high-rise hotel now used as accommodation for families from Syria and Iraq.
Then they set about filling the shelves with donated books on politics, religion, history and science, in Arabic but also in German and English. “The library is for everybody -- it’s an exchange of culture,” said Muhannad. “We can learn from each other, it’s not just one side. If there’s such thing as integration, that’s it. You learn from me, I learn from you.”
Since it opened in February, the library has won support from a wide range of literary and cultural groups. Muhannad and Ines were joined by Jordanian student Dana Haddad, Syrian publisher Maher Khwis and Syrian musician Ali Hasan. The team opens the library four days a week for browsing, discussion and research. At night, regular events showcase authors from Berlin’s blossoming Arabic-language literary scene.
“Lots of people they feel they are home now here, because it’s their culture, their people and their discussions,” said Muhannad. “We fill that gap.”