June 20, 2016

Syrian refugee opens a bookstore and publisher in Istanbul


A scene from Pages bookstore in Istanbul.

A scene from Pages bookstore in Istanbul.

Samer al-Kadri is one of 3 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. A year ago, he opened Pages, the first Arabic-language bookstore in Istanbul, and he even has plans to start a new publishing house.

Kareem Shaheen talked with Kadri for BookRiot, and draws a portrait of a remarkable person offering an invaluable place for other refugees to read and learn.

Kadri himself has been a refugee twice, as Shaheen explains.

In 1982, he fled from his hometown of Hama in Syria, when Syria’s dictator at the time, Hafez al-Assad, leveled it in an effort to crush a brief uprising. Then 8 years old, Kadri marched out of the city to the capital Damascus, observing the bodies that lay in the streets.

In Damascus, after graduating with a degree in fine arts, he created Bright Fingers, a children’s books publishing house. It was raided in 2012 while he was out of the country, punishment for his speaking out in support of the revolution against Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad.

He drifted to the Jordanian capital Amman, and then to Istanbul with his wife, where he decided to create Pages, which will turn one year old next week.

At Pages, Syrian children and teenagers are allowed to hang out and read for free, and for a small fee, they can borrow an unlimited number of books for a month.

He feels he is duty-bound to support these children and teenagers trying to find their place in the world. Our generation, he told me, is set in its ways, unwilling to change. For all the tragedies unfolding in Syria, and the mass flight of its people, he sees a silver lining — Syrians now know there is a world beyond their homeland, they have emerged from a shell, and the kids are as hungry for knowledge as ever.

Sheehan describes a scene of Syrian children pulling books from the shelves, Kurds and Turks spending time with their new Syrian friends. Most of Pages’ books are in Arabic; the most popular are translations of Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.

To complement the community he’s built in Istanbul, Kadri has plans to start a small publishing house, to print and distribute debut novels by young Syrian writers.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.