A new chapter in the Syrian literary scene

Etana Books

“For me, it’s not only a library and bookshop: it’s a shelter,” says Maan Abdulsalam about Etana Books, his recent cultural project. Tucked into a beautiful stone house in the heart of Shaalan, it is a hybrid space, part lending library, part bookstore, part café, and, above all these, “spirits gathering.”

It’s also a place, “where you can find one book, one chapter, one poet, one phrase, that gives you a bright soul,” Abdulsalam continues. To give this search scope, Etana covers a wide range of subjects: social studies, anthropology, history, psychology, philosophy, literature, religious studies, mythology and art.

“For me, it’s not only a library and bookshop: it’s a shelter.”

“The library is too small to bring everything,” says Abdulsalam regretfully. In spite, or because, of this limitation, Etana is laid out so as to maximise reflection, with sofas arranged in three cozy nooks downstairs, and tables and chairs for studying on the second floor. There is also a division of purposes: the downstairs is the shop, with shelves crammed floor to ceiling with books for sale; the upstairs is the library, with a selection of books in Arabic and English.

“We have a policy,” Abdulsalam explains. “When we started, we distributed a list of many books from many publishing houses to forty writers and intellectuals, people who are readers, and we asked their opinion on what they’d like to see.” After collating the responses, they stocked the most recommended titles.

Besides books, there is an audio-visual library of music and newly released DVDs, along with viewing and listening stations. The café serves coffee — Turkish and Italian — and an assortment of baked goods. For 75 lira per day, or 750 lira per month, library users can bask in this calm atmosphere from 9am to 9pm, Sunday through Thursday.

Etana also hosts cultural events for all ages, with poetry readings and discussion groups in the evenings, and children’s activities every Saturday from 11 to 1 and from 3 to 5. Neighbourhood kids get free access to the shelves, and they stop in regularly to choose their next book, their eyes as wide as if they were picking out candy.

“It’s fun, but it’s serious. It’s not entertainment, it’s a need, and that’s why we are doing it.”

The library’s collective organisation and collaborative procedures are a far cry from business-as-usual chains that blindly follow best-seller lists. And that’s deliberate. “It’s what we think is useful to help and support and give the right direction when people are looking for intellectual entertainment,” Abdulsalam explains. Too many people “are not used to being interested in culture; it’s something they’re alienated from.”

So Etana’s mission is to make culture a popular priority, and “we are really serious with this,” he insists. “It’s fun, but it’s serious. It’s not entertainment, it’s a need, and that’s why we are doing it.” Happily, it is not just readers who are responding to this opportunity, but book producers as well. On a typical afternoon, Fadi Ableh, artist and illustrator of several of the books for sale, is browsing the stacks as well. His face lights up when he starts flipping through art books.

“There aren’t enough art books in the country,” Mohammed Abash exclaims, and Ableh agrees. Recounting his days in art school in the late 80s, he says, “we were told that money wasn’t everything. But people learned that you couldn’t live from culture, so it wasn’t needed; and so it was excluded from the community.” Now, he says, as opportunities for artists increase, “the new generation is more in need.”

For now, Etana is making headway towards that goal by providing books whose value transcends their prices. Because in any good book, as Ableh puts it, the joy of the producer is somehow transferred to the reader, “so another kind of joy will be received.” And, he adds, “I’ve never seen a kid who resisted a good book.” Now, with a little practice in the cool quiet of Etana, readers of all ages can remember the same ease.

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