New Middle Eastern-inspired bookstore provides relaxing cultural experience while promoting inclusion

“It's about creating safe spaces for people,” said owner of Maktaba bookshop Yassin Alsalman about the new middle eastern inspired art and culture focused boutique and bookstore in Montreal. Brittany Henriques reports.

A new bookstore in Old Montreal wants to change the way we consume art and culture in the city.

Maktaba Bookshop is a Middle Eastern-inspired boutique and bookstore celebrating tradition with art and innovation.

The bookstore is the brainchild of co-owners Yassin Alsalman and Sundus Abdul Hadi. Both are of Iraqi origin and grew up in Montreal.

“To create a vibe, a cultural vibe where you feel like you create a moment when you walk in,” said Yassin Alsalman, who is also an artist and professor. “You won’t forget the feeling, you won’t forget the smell, you won’t forget the style, the mix of cultures that we exist in naturally. But to have it represented visually in the space.”

Alsalman says they always wanted a space where people could feel welcome outside their own homes.

“My goal was first to create a space for people who often feel as outsiders in the city,” said Abdul Hadi, an artist and author. “A place where we could feel like we’re represented, or that we have a space to feel comfortable and confident being who we are.”

“Maktaba” means library or office in Arabic. But unlike a standard library, the shop and boutique offers a cultural and personalized experience meant to change the pace of Montrealers’ days. It’s meant to promote relaxation, learning, creation and innovation.

“I want the books to be able to make you feel empowered,” said Abdul Hadi. “I want you to be able to pick up a book and feel inspired to write your own book, write your own story, tell your own experience of what it is being you in this world.”

Alsalman described a client who recently walked into Maktaba Bookshop and simply read a book for nearly a half hour, then bought it.

“How often do you do that in a store in the city?” said Alsalman. “We don’t want it to be a commercial place strictly. It’s more of a cultural experience, and that’s what we’re hoping to achieve.”

Abdul Hadi says the books sold there have a certain theme, or commonalities.

“A lot of books about decolonization and trying to give people an opportunity to reflect on identity in a different way,” she said. “And transcultural solidarity is something that’s really important for me. So just because I’m Iraqi doesn’t mean I only want to speak to the Iraqi community.”

Secularism and language laws have often been the focal point in Quebec, especially in the past few months with the passing of Bill 96.

Several critics of the language law reform say they’ve questioned their belonging in the province.

Maktaba wants to marry the two solitudes and create a safe space for all to share.

“As a Concordia professor, I see just in my class the wave of young Arabs that are coming in every semester and I remember when we were in that position how much we longed for a place like this,” said Alsalman. “And obviously we came up in the 9/11 era and there was a lot of kickback to who we were.

“And especially now in Quebec, with all the conversation around Islam or religious representation or even just cultural representation in the city, knowing the difference between the public discourse and the political discourse, it was important for us to follow the public discourse and the people in the streets, and that is that of diversity and inclusivity.”

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