Grassroots Commitment in the Shadow of Authoritarianism
Etana Books combines the functions of library and bookshop, but it is also a venue for a wide diversity of cultural and artistic projects. And although private initiatives of this kind still tend to be treated with a degree of suspicion in Syria, Maan Abdul Salam, the founder and director of "Etana Books" has succeeded in creating a space where ideas are able to germinate successfully and develop freely.
"The idea is to turn Etana Books into a breeding ground for creativity. We want to contribute towards the creation of a new culture of free thinking and reading in Syria," Abdul Salam told Qantara.de. From its base in a Franco-Arab style house in the city's Chaalan district, the idea is to develop "Etana Books" into a centre for a wide range of cultural activities.
Syria's cosmopolitan side
With its central location and proximity to several foreign research institutes as well as the Syrian Institute for Dramatic Art, Chaalan seems the ideal place for such a centre; and, indeed, the district is regarded as rather cosmopolitan and intellectual. Life in Chaalan does seem to have a rhythm of its own, very different from that of the rest of the city. It is a place with a lively, vibrant café scene where film projects, art and literature are discussed in the cafés, and where new ideas can flourish in a climate of liberality and open exchange.
"We have a lot of catching up to do in theoretical education in Syria, whether it be philosophical, artistic, social or cultural theory," Abdul Salam explains. "So we buy the works for our library very selectively, the things we need to address this deficiency." The centre seems to be very much the personal dream of its founder.
The house has been carefully restored in order to preserve its special character, but at the same time a space created that is capable of meeting modern demands. It includes individual working areas with Internet access, as well as rooms for meetings. In the basement there is an inviting café fitted out with comfortable chairs, perfect for relaxing, reading or just some indulging in some quiet reflection.
There are plans afoot to use the centre for readings, lectures and workshops as well as for occasional exhibitions, film screenings and discussion sessions. The wish is to create a place where knowledge can be gathered and developed and where ideas can flourish freely. Such things could not be taken for granted in Syria until quite recently.
Gender debates in the "axis of evil"
For a number of years, Abdul Salam has been trying to increase the amount of individual civil involvement in Syrian society. He has been in charge of "Etana Press" since 2001, an organisation committed to that very purpose. Among its initiatives was the "Thara e-magazine", an online magazine specialising in women's issues, and featuring writing by young journalists on a variety of topics. It also arranges occasional workshops where young journalists are taught how to deal with social questions in a gender sensitive way.
In 2003 "Etana Press" organised a conference on women's rights and other issues, such as domestic violence, at the University of Damascus. The role of the media in raising awareness of social issues and issues specific to women was also discussed and gave the conference something of a pioneering character.
In 2006 came a photo project in which journalists worked together with women from various Syrian religious communities. The women were asked to reflect on their identity and their living situation within their religious environment and to document their thoughts. It was an unusual approach in the sense that debate on the particular circumstances pertaining within religious communities is rather rare in intellectual circles, where the orientation tends to be very much a secular one.
"We want to reach all people in our society and to look beyond the usual clichés. Our work is not aimed only at the elite groups," Abdul Salam stresses, and talks of plans for other similar projects in the future. These will be aimed at highlighting other social issues, each of them with their different priorities and perspectives.
Free thinking against intellectual constriction
To enter "Etana Books" as a visitor is to immediately find oneself made welcome by an open and friendly team. The team members work closely together, each of them benefitting from the expertise of the others and always happy to share their own experience and knowledge with them. Anyone interested in starting similar initiatives elsewhere in Syria can be sure that they will have the support and backing of those working at "Etana Books".
The special atmosphere that exists is also due to the fact that many personal friends of the founder have contributed to the setting up and success of the centre. The well-known Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke, for example, who for many years lived in French exile and only recently returned to Syria, contributed the design for the centre's logo amongst other things.
Art and culture have been enjoying a remarkable renaissance in Damascus in recent years and it is certainly one that is in no way lacking in ideas and inventiveness. Of the many fresh initiatives, "Etana Books" with its professionalism and liberal outlook, is one of the most interesting and promising manifestations of this renaissance. It is making itself into a haven for free thought and intellectual stimulation in the otherwise often constricting environment of the Syrian capital.
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German from Ron Walker
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de