Books to go: bringing literature to refugees stuck in Greece

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A man looks on as he its inside a library van in central Athens on August 9, 2017. There are increasingly initiatives in Greece to offer reading and books to the tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the country. (AFP)
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A man looks at books inside a library van in central Athens on August 9, 2017. There are increasingly initiatives in Greece to offer reading and books to the tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the country. (AFP)
Updated 20 August 2017

Books to go: bringing literature to refugees stuck in Greece

ATHENS: The brightly colored minivan that pulls into Athens’ food market, drawing a group of refugees around it, is not carrying something edible.
The contents — hundreds of books — are there to satisfy a different sort of hunger.
For tens of thousands of refugees stuck in Greece for the past two years after European states shut their borders in rapid succession, survival is no longer an issue.
Instead, boredom and creeping despair about their future are their new enemies as they wait for months, even years, for their applications to relocate elsewhere in Europe to be processed.
Now, at least two separate initiatives have emerged to help refugees fill the long hours of their day.
One of them is Echo Refugee Library — a minivan fitted with shelves carrying over 1,000 books that does a weekly round of refugee camps in the greater Athens area, plus poorer districts of the capital where many refugees live in UN-rented flats.
The goal of the initiative is to “make culture accessible to all,” says Esther Ten Zijthoff, 25, the Dutch-American coordinator of the project.
The books — in English, Greek, French, Arabic, Kurdish and Farsi — have been provided by benefactors in Greece, Belgium, Britain and Lebanon or purchased with money donated online.
Ali, a 26-year-old Syrian, is among those who never misses a delivery at the food market.
“I really love having something to read. It does me good,” he tells AFP, an Agatha Christie novel under his arm.
The English mistress of the whodunit is proving a top draw for refugees, says Zijthoff.
“The mystery and romance present in her stories are well-liked by Arab speakers. We would like to have her whole collection.”
Language dictionaries are also in demand, with many readers borrowing them to photocopy and keep close at hand.
In another part of the city center, a similar initiative draws Syrian and Afghan refugees to the offices of We Need Books, a volunteer group formed last year that also gives language classes in Arabic and French.
We Need Books has the largest collection of Farsi books in Athens, including over 150 sent directly from Afghanistan, says co-founder Ioanna Nissiriou.
Here, the most popular book is Arabian Nights. The sole copy in Farsi, delivered in June, is already in tatters, she notes with pleasure.
“Initially our goal was to help refugees escape through literature. But now we also seek to educate the children and help them integrate,” says Nissiriou, a 38-year-old former journalist.
Seated on a brightly-colored pouffe, 16-year-old Zahra from Afghanistan has just discovered the works of iconic Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and the Last Temptation of Christ.
“I like this book because it’s a new culture for me,” she says whilst poring through Nikos Kazantzakis’s Odyssey, a sequel to Homer’s classic opus.
“But my favorite is the Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which is similar to faerie tales I used to read as a child,” the young Afghan says.


What We Are Reading Today: Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank

Updated 03 April 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank

The term “biography” seems insufficiently capacious to describe the singular achievement of Joseph Frank’s five-volume study of the life of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. One critic, writing upon the publication of the final volume, casually tagged the series as the ultimate work on Dostoevsky “in any language, and quite possibly forever.”

Frank himself had not originally intended to undertake such a massive work. The endeavor began in the early 1960s as an exploration of Dostoevsky’s fiction, but it later became apparent to Frank that a deeper appreciation of the fiction would require a more ambitious engagement with the writer’s life, directly caught up as Dostoevsky was with the cultural and political movements of mid- and late-19th-century Russia. Already in his forties, Frank undertook to learn Russian and embarked on what would become a five-volume work comprising more than 2,500 pages. The result is an intellectual history of 19th-century Russia, with Dostoevsky’s mind as a refracting prism.

The volumes have won numerous prizes, among them the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association.

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