Bridging Culture Through Books

When A Bookstore is a Tempel, And A Meeting Place of People And Ideas

After more than a decade of struggle to find footing in Vienna, Iraqi immigrant Sonia Al-Dulayme and her husband Nader Kraitt have finally realized a dream: of owning and operating an intercultural bookstore as a centre for Arab-Austrian understanding.

The store is called Averroes, the Latin name of the Andalusian-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), whose writings on Aristotle brought the lost works of the Greek philosopher back into mainstream European thought.

Their intention was to create a space where Austrians could interact with Arabic culture and break down what Al-Dulayme sees as biased stereotypes of Arab life. The focus is on the Arabic and Islamic worlds and the Orient; the books include prose, fiction, poems, politics and religion, travel guides and children’s books.

“ I want to present a different view of the Arabs, instead of the frequent portrayals of [us] as fanatics,” Al-Dulayme says.

Along the narrow Schwarzspanierstrasse behind the Votivkirche in the 9th district, down a half dozen steps, the small intimate bookshop is unlike any other in Vienna. Oriental ornaments hang reflected in the decorative mirrors, along walls crowded with bookshelves, cards and CDs. In the center is a table displaying the newest books, surrounding a chubby vase of knotted branches. Nearby is a second round table, a brass tray on a stand and three dark carved wooden chairs. There is little daylight filtering into the store through the low windows. The dimness is serene and the aroma of an oriental incense tickles my nose.

We sit down at the table, and I take out my notebook while she begins talking about her life. Though only around the edges; she seems protective of the details of her family and personal life. But the outlines are clear.

Al-Dulayme has been in Vienna since 1988, a place where she ended up by chance having fled the Iran-Iraq war (Saddam’s Qadisiyyah) of 1980-1988. Although her brother still moves back and forth between Vienna and Iraq, the rest of her family has migrated permanently to Vienna.

The transition has not been easy.  Educated in intellectual history and management in Baghdad, she had worked as a research assistant in the Industrial Ministry.  But she knew no German when she arrived in Vienna. Everything was difficult, and she took whatever work she could find:  in child care, as a receptionist.  Then in 2000, with her four children grown, Al-Dulayme became active in the Arabic women’s community and began working as a freelance journalist and moderator for “The Arabic Morning” on the Radio Orange 94.0. She published a series of articles on Islamic politics and wrote a children’s book, published in 2004.

She became increasingly frustrated with the images of the Arab world she saw all around her. Her son had been called a “Wüsten Nigger” – a desert nigger — and her daughters had felt ashamed of eating their pita bread at break time, only wanting to fit in. Gradually they adjusted, especially her fifteen-year-old son, who reports loving Austria. They became proud of knowing two cultures, something they now recognize is an advantage.

Al-Dulayme herself is not religious and her daughters dress the same way as other Austrians. However she is reluctant to judge other Arab women who wear the hijabs, saying that for her, religion was something private. She did acknowledge that there could be community pressure, and in cases of extreme fundamentalism – as in any religion –  manipulation and exercising of pressure. “And in most cases, women are the ones to suffer,” she said.

Al-Dulayme is convinced that the key to changing these stereotypes is education, and stresses the important role that teachers as mediators in integrating immigrant children into the new society.

“Today the media presents a picture of Islam as evil and primitive, which easily influences children in particular,” she points out. She cites phrases like the “war on terror” and the “axis of evil” as making the problems all the more difficult. “If you have dark eyes, dark hair, a darker skin tone or wear a hijab most people automatically categorize you.”  Books and films also promote this stereotype.

“In Hollywood films, the Arabs are revealingly given the role of the aggressors and behaving in a barbaric manner,” she says.  Even in cartoons, like the Disney movie Aladdin, these stereotypes persist.

“Immigrant children are given a wrong picture of their own culture,” Al-Dulayme says, her delicately chiselled features turned aggrieved as her dark eyes dropped to an unsmiling gaze.

Al-Dulayme wants her store to be a place for Austrians to see a new picture of Arab culture. To do this, the shop hosts monthly readings, discussions, or music, in German, English, Arabic and French and is open to the public at no charge.

“It is vital living in today’s society not to be too easily manipulated but make up one;s own mind, and remember that there is always at least one other point of view,” she says.  “Through the fear of terrorism the society has been sidetracked and mislead into a false picture of Arabs as evil. Because of this, values are being destroyed.”

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