A reading Renaissance
Kurdistan′s Book Cafe: In praise of female entrepreneurs

Though bookstore cafes in Europe, or even in most Arab countries, are by no means a revolutionary idea by now, one little establishment named Book Cafe has captured the imagination of both the Arab and international media. By Sahar Moqaddem

A small cafe in Iraqi Kurdistan has become the talk of the town and the reason is precisely that: that the cafe exists in Iraqi Kurdistan. Any journalist or individual who has ever been in contact with the region will know how difficult it is to launch such a project in Erbil, especially in light of the country′s economic crisis, its $22 billion debt and the regional government′s inability to pay salaries to public sector employees.

Add to this is the tumultuous security situation. Mosul, until recently occupied by Islamic State, is only about 50 kilometres away from Erbil. The situation is further compounded by the Syrian refugee crisis and the displaced Iraqis, as well as ongoing disagreements with the Baghdad government.

How then, under such circumstances, did Rafan al-Ta′i and her friend find the time and will to launch this unique, colourful project?

The concept

Enter the cafe and everything that is happening in the outside world seems to slip away. This feeling is not accidental; al-Ta′i, the cafe owner and an editor at Wikipedia, took her time and made every effort to carefully select every detail.

Each piece of furniture, each bookshelf, each decoration was meticulously selected and designed, giving the place its distinctive aesthetic. Visitors finds themselves surrounded by books as they sip on coffee or a snack; shelf upon shelf chock-full of books, a wall clock with numbers shaped like books and even a telephone and curtains in the shape of books.

The cafe has more than 3,500 books in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Yet, just over a year ago, it was extremely difficult to obtain any novel in Erbil, especially in Arabic and English.

Al-Ta′i tells us that she opened the cafe to encourage people to read. "I opened the cafe because I love beauty and I appreciate it. My main goal is to make people love books," she says. In her eyes, the primary cause of all conflicts is ignorance and dogmatism, whereas reading allows individuals to come to the realisation that "we are all so terribly similar."

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