British author David Almond once wrote: “A good bookshop isn’t just selling books off the shelves, it’s reaching out to the world and making a difference”. This is exactly the basis of the dream behind Sham Bookstore in Aleppo, Syria.
When founder Zain Hakim first came up with the idea in early 2015, she wanted to make a difference in her war-weary city to support the development of its people and cultural identity.
“When I witnessed firsthand the destruction of Aleppo’s cultural heritage and historical monuments while protecting these sites defenselessly, I wanted to recreate the city’s rich cultural history using the most powerful tool I knew: books,” she says The National.
As is often the case in war, the humanitarian focus is limited to food and medical aid, while psychological and emotional struggles are not as high a priority – that’s something else Hakim wanted to address.
Hakim, a graduate in psychological counseling, was working as a social worker at a UN-funded local charity when one day, while walking through a busy market in Aleppo, she saw street vendors “piling books on the sidewalk and selling them to people who stood in a long line just to get the book they wanted”. That’s when she noticed that despite all the hardship and struggles, people still like to read.
She understood the urge. Hakim often found solace in a good book. “Whenever things got difficult for me, I found a way out through reading or… I look to books for answers and solutions,” she says.
She shared the idea with her friends, the idea of using books to help people – especially children – deal with and manage PTSD. Most of them laughed about it – except for one. Rula, an Iraqi woman who spent most of her youth in Syria and left during the war, was as enthusiastic about the idea as Hakim and provided first moral and then financial support. She only asked Hakim one thing: to name the bookstore Sham, because of her deep love for Syria and the reference Bilad Al Sham, the historical name for the region of Syria. It symbolizes memories of the country that accompanies her more than a decade after her departure.
But opening a bookstore that offers psychological support through books and reading required significant financial resources and it took Hakim three years to get the project off the ground and implementation was not easy. She continued to work and save her wages, she received financial support from her older brother, but she was still far from her goal.
After many applications and submissions, Hakim finally received a financial grant from the European Institute for Cooperation and Development, a French organization that also provided her with training in corporate marketing.
And so the Sham Bookstore finally opened on July 17, 2018, offering reading therapy or psychological counseling through books. It is the first of its kind in Syria, if not in the Arab world.
“Sham Bookstore was never intended to be just a bookstore,” she says. “Typically in the Arab region in general and in Syria in particular, bookstores sell books and school supplies or stationery and that’s where Sham Bookstore is unique as it mainly focuses on selling books and using books to counsel children.”
Hakim, who was in her early 20s when it opened, says her business “is not about selling books, it’s about attracting new customers or book lovers – those who are new to reading and have never bought books before. These customers are children.”
Hakim eventually founded a children’s book club as a meeting place for young people from the area. She says it was originally intended for schools, but she decided to launch it in the bookstore because “not many schools would have trusted me without knowing my background.”
“I also hoped that through the bookstore and children’s book club, people and schools would see the importance and difference of this club.”
The book club, says Hakim, “aims to transform people’s lives through reading; It’s the weapon that can solve any problem you encounter if you read the right book.”
Local television stations soon took notice and even international media organizations such as the BBC took an interest in Hakim’s project.
Then Covid-19 struck. Constant fighting has been part of the store’s journey, but nothing could have prepared Hakim for the devastation of the pandemic. Since it crippled every aspect of life, it also negatively impacted the book club, although book sales were boosted because Hakim offered an online service called “Book to your Door,” which delivered tomes to people’s homes during the Lockdown forced the store to close.
Hakim describes the time as “impressive”. “It completely emptied the bookshelves.”
Then came other challenges such as inflation, lack of transportation, frequent power outages, and the difficulty of finding heating or cooling. Then there were the usual obstacles to running a business.
But no matter what it cost her, Hakim persevered.
She found the children’s book club to be very positive. “Not just reading, it was deeper. It was a big change at the personality level and at the level of the children’s Arabic language.”
She enlisted the help of Ghaith Eido, an Amu Hakawati (an ancient Arabic tradition of storytellers who call children uncles), who has a master’s degree in teaching Arabic to non-native speakers.
“We worked on different aspects,” says Hakim. “In each club session, we’ve focused on different things, like the Arabic language, exploring Arabic poetry and its meaning, and sometimes it’s creative writing or comprehension and grammar.”
During the summer, bookstore activities turned to teaching history or leadership. All of these activities have played a huge role in the therapy of these children who have known only death and destruction in the conflicts that have devastated Syria over the past 11 years.
Last year, Sham Bookstore was able to participate for the first time in the Arab Reading Challenge, created in 2015 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, to encourage one million young people to read at least 50 books at once Year. The Challenge is active in almost 50 countries.
This opportunity was a major turning point in Sham Bookstore’s journey. First, because Sham is the unofficial media sponsor of the reading challenge, and second, because the shop is focused on reading, especially in Arabic. So Hakim reached out to private schools to host a collaborative book club, which meant she saw an influx of kids into the store.
In one month, Sham Bookstore supported, presented and selected books for nearly 300 children and 90 percent of the book club’s members qualified for the UAE Reading Challenge, which is about 25 who have been there since the club’s inception.
Today, for Hakim, Sham Bookstore is much more than a shop that sells books, it has become a community.
“It’s a long-term project specifically designed to revitalize the culture of reading,” she says. “So far, in the fifth year of the project, we have managed to reach more than 1,000 children and make reading an essential part of their daily lives.”
Now she plans to expand beyond the borders of Aleppo and become a regional or even international bookstore that can inspire other projects and initiatives to promote reading culture in the Arab world, especially among children. Part of that dream, of course, is simultaneously spreading the idea of therapy through books to help young people overcome or deal with traumatic experiences so that it continues to reach out into the world and make a difference.
Updated October 7, 2022 at 6:02 p.m