The former Red Lion pub on Southampton Street has gained a new lease of life as a social and political space. The new occupiers have re-named the building ‘Kobanî House’ after the city in Rojava province in northern Syria, and they hosted their first open-mic night on 7 November, featuring music from Kurdistan.
“There’s been a monumental amount to tidy,” said Maya. “We’ve been here since 28 October and the open-mic night was our biggest event yet. We’ve spent morning until night each day cleaning up the place in-between.”
Both the squatters and the audience contributed to the open-mic night with hauntingly beautiful Kurdish songs accompanied by Turkish guitar, as well as better known favourites such as Raggle-Taggle Gypsy, Bella Ciao and the Internationale.
“I came to the UK 40 years ago, after the 1980 military coup in Tutkey,” said Zinar Demeni, one of the audience appreciating the music. “Reading has a community of several hundred Kurds, many of whom live around Tilehurst, and they’ve been looking for a Kurdish community centre for a while.”
“For some people, squatting is a necessity, but it is also a political act focussing on an autonomous political space,” said Maya. “Reading is one of the most expensive places in the country to rent. We’re partly squatting in solidarity with the people of Rojava and Kurdistan, and with the leftist revolution in north-east Syria, a revolution based on feminist, ecological and grass-roots democratic principles. We run Kobanî House in line with those principles too.”
The group enforce Kobanî House as a drug and alcohol-free place. “People have a really negative idea of squats as dangerous places but either they are community spaces, or people just living their lives and needing a home”, said Maya. “So far, the reaction from our neighbours has been positive. A lot of people have been curious about us as they walk past down Southampton Street.”
Kobanî House currently has no electricity or heating (although they recently acquired an oil heater), and they get a little running water from a pipe in the basement.
“We can’t have an open fire in the fireplace because the chimney’s cracked,” said another resident Olly, who added that the number of people staying there overnight varies, but tends to be three or more.
“We collect water from other places and use candles instead of electric light,” said Maya. “We’ll address the problem of heating at the time; it will depend on who’s here. We may be able to open an account with an electricity provider.”
“It would be amazing to have a space with water, heating and electricity that didn’t have a lot of damage and rubbish, but it’s not viable for people to access those spaces,” said Maya. “So, we’re doing this building up and we’ll have a conversation with the landlord when they want to have a conversation with us. Maybe the landlord will kick us out, and then we’ll have to leave.”
“There’s a big history of squatting in the UK, and there are a lot of reasons for it. We want to honour the radical history of Berkshire too, such as the Swing riots . We’re not harming anyone, or stopping anyone from doing business; the place has stood empty for years.”
“It’s about our right to exist in a space,” said Maya.
Kobanî House have invited neighbours to a community democracy discussion & social on Friday 15 November at 6.30pm.
Hewal Aydin playing the Turkish guitar. (c) Hewal Aydin via Youtube.