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Syrian Publishers in Exile Spread Arabic Culture in New Homes

After moving to Canada as a refugee, the Syrian writer Khuloud Hadaq established the Ishtar House for Culture and Arts as a media and cultural institution that includes a publishing house, a bookstore, and a cultural blog.

Hadaq, who is 38, was born in Homs and is among the millions of Syrians who have fled their homeland since its civil war broke out in 2011.

Between November 2015 and April 2019, Canada admitted about 64,000 Syrian refugees, according to Canadian immigration officials.

Hadaq found a new home in Toronto, where she established her business to provide Arabic books to interested readers.

Having worked in journalism and culture back at home, she enjoys the freedom of publishing in Canada. She makes books of all kinds available without restrictions.

“I would like to prove that, as a refugee, I am not dependent on my host country.”

Khuloud Hadaq
A Syrian refugee who founded a publishing house in Canada

In a Zoom interview, Hadaq told Al-Fanar Media that she founded her publishing house with her own efforts, and that it does not yet generate a profit. She is currently seeking support from international institutions and establishing partnerships with European bookstores.

“I would like to prove that, as a refugee, I am not dependent on my host country,” said Hadaq.

On the Regime’s ‘Wanted List’

Hadaq is a media graduate of Damascus University. She was forced to leave Syria in December 2011 after discovering she was on the Syrian authorities’ “wanted list” for her involvement in the civil protests that preceded the war.

She moved to Ghana, where her father works. In Ghana, she had to wait for about eight years for her asylum case before she and her daughter moved to Canada in February 2020. Throughout the years, she had hoped to return to Syria, but this hope has faded as the crisis goes on, she said.

Within a year of launching the Ishtar House for Culture and Arts, Hadaq participated in international book fairs and managed to deliver about 5,000 books to Arab readers in Canada.

She also concluded agreements to publish the works of four Arab authors in Canada and the United States this year. In November, the house entered into a partnership with the Toronto Public Library, to supply it with Arabic books.

However, the publishing house faces several challenges. These include high shipping prices, taxes, and the lack of a headquarters. In addition, the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic limit its ability to hold cultural events.

A Positive Impact

Samer Al-Kadri, the founder of an Arabic publishing house in the Netherlands, agrees with Hadaq about the material difficulties facing refugees who try to maintain cultural projects in exile.

“It is almost impossible to turn them into a source of profit as a commercial project, for reasons related to high printing costs, taxes, and wages,” he said.

Gallery: Syrian Publishers in Exile

Al-Kadri established the Bright Fingers Publishing House in Syria in 2005 before he was forced to leave his country in 2012. As a political refugee, he has been living in the Netherlands since 2017.

In a Zoom interview, Al-Kadri told Al-Fanar Media that his new publishing house, which he and his wife run, gets support from Germany’s Goethe Institute. This covers the cost of renting the headquarters space in Amsterdam.

He out that the main goal of these cultural centres is not primarily commercial, but rather “to convey a better image of refugees and Arabs in general, to European citizens and the anti-immigrant political groups.”

Al-Kadri also calls on Arab organizations and governments to “support cultural projects in Europe for their positive impact”.

Before moving to the Netherlands, Al-Kadri established a cultural project called “Pages” in Turkey in March 2015. It included a publishing house and a bookstore, besides holding lectures and cultural and artistic events.

The project became famous after U.S. and European politicians, among other prominent figures, visited it. However, after rejecting “funding offers with political goals from the Turkish government”, Al-Kadri and his wife were expelled from Turkey. His wife was imprisoned for the same reasons, he says, before she was deported to the Netherlands. This prompted him to seek political asylum in the same country.

“The main goal of these cultural centres is … to convey a better image of refugees and Arabs in general, to European citizens and anti-immigrant political groups.”

Samer Al-Kadri
A Syrian publisher in the Netherlands

Immigrants Take Culture with Them

The Syrian novelist Yaroub Al-Issa says “the experience of Syrian publishers searching for a haven for their businesses abroad is not new. It dates back more than a century.”

In an email, he told Al-Fanar Media that the first wave of Syrian immigrants, in the late nineteenth century, carried their culture and language with them, producing fiction and publishing books and newspapers in other countries. “It is a natural phenomenon for all immigrants.”

Al-Issa, who resides in Damascus, adds that the Syrians moved their theatre and newspapers first to Egypt, “to escape the grip of the Ottomans and society,” and then to the Americas.

“The experience of Syrian publishers searching for a haven for their businesses abroad is not new. It goes back more than a century.”

Yaroub Al-Issa
A Syrian novelist in Damascus

“No matter how different the circumstances of each emigration wave were, there was always someone who was motivated by nostalgia and habit to read in his mother tongue, and to communicate with his compatriots to do so,” he explained.

Al-Issa believes that such projects are needed wherever Syrians have reached. However, these projects need to understand the new countries’ conditions and social and economic maps, he thinks.

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“There is no difference between a Europe-based Arab immigrant’s need for a kitchen that cooks molokhia (jute mallow), an Arabic book, or a singer who sings popular songs,” he added. “This is the natural nostalgia felt by all peoples.”

Related Reading

Syrian Publishers and Bookstores Become Casualties of War

Vocational Training Gives Ray of Hope to Syria’s Internal Refugees

An Arabic-Language Bookstore Devoted to Changing Stereotypes

By: Amr EL-Tohamy

Amr is an Egyptian journalist who writes for Al-Masry Al-Youm.
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