Kiraathane Istanbul literature house opened in 2018 as a project of P24, an NGO established to further the cause of freedom of expression in Turkey. Inspired by the European Literature house movement – and specifically by those in Bergen and Oslo – Kiraathane takes its name from the Ottoman-era coffee houses that served as a place of reading and recitation.

Our aim with Kiraathane was to create a physical space for free expression in Istanbul. Situated in a turn-of-the-century building at the heart of the city, Kiraathane is conceived as a space that is welcoming to all. Its street corner is a few doors down from the Istanbul Modern Museum, but only blocks away from working-class and migrant neighbourhoods.

As a result the audiences for our events – whether book talks, lectures, film-screenings, youth writing workshops or exhibitions, to name just a few – represent a vibrant cross-section of Istanbul’s diverse citizenry. And even in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic we continue to gather crowds online, at our Zoom events, digital exhibitions and YouTube channel. Building bonds of solidarity is at the heart of what we try to do in every project we undertake, creating a space for citizens to come together and share their ideas, thoughts and experiences.

Projects such as our “Languages of this Land” classes teach the diverse tongues of Turkey, from Kurdish to Greek and Armenian. Likewise our annual book fair, which began last year, brought together the city’s independent publishing community, again involving presses working in minority languages. For the last two years, moreover, we have helped to give the LGBTQI* community a space during Pride month, when public manifestations are banned.

Kiraathane is first and foremost an institution geared towards the public of Istanbul – but the pandemic has encouraged it to go online and now its outreach, including its virtual exhibition space, is unrestricted. Our most recent show “We called but you were out” by the photographer Murat Germen, went online this week – you can tour the exhibition online here.

At the same time, Kiraathane attempts to build solidarity through discussion and conversation, in the belief that free expression still needs physical spaces, however much socially distanced, to occur. In these first years of our existence have been lucky to have gained the support of a wide range of different collaborators from across Europe – in the form of funders, co-applicants, and participants in our writers-in-residence scheme. We take great pride in having inspired Turkey’s second literature house, in Diyarbakir.

Given the difficult context in which Kiraathane operates, such international solidarity is more important than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised how important intra-national cooperation is, even as it has become more difficult to cross borders. We are excited to participate with the other participants from across Europe, and find ways to strengthen solidarity through shared goals.