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Sanctuary at Arbury Court Library by Issam Kourbaj

Artist Issam Kourbaj has created new works alongside the community in and around Arbury Court Library inspired by the word ‘Sanctuary’, and what it means to people, in their daily lives.

About Sanctuary at Arbury Court Library

Together artist Issam Kourbaj and the community in North Cambridge have collated a new catalogue of ‘stories of sanctuary’, told through a series of diverse objects belonging to people in the library’s neighbourhood. Documented by photographer My Linh Le, the objects are cradled in the hands of each individual and presented on warm and welcoming acoustic boards in the newly-refurbished Arbury Court Library in Cambridge.

Like the library itself, each object and each person was full of stories. Sound artist Hannah Kemp-Welch brought recordings of some of these stories together, alongside evocative field recordings, reflecting contributors’ ideas of sanctuary through home, connection, love, creativity, loss, peace, relaxation, serenity and comfort.

The artwork will be launched at Arbury Court Library in spring 2024.


Listen to the Stories

Residents attending Arbury Court Library shared the objects and their stories which illustrate feelings of sanctuary or home with artist Issam Kourbaj.

These stories accompany a collage of photographs of the objects, displayed at Arbury Court Library.

Sound artist: Hannah Kemp-Welch
Artist Assistant and Graphic Design: Mourad Kourbaj


1. A Jug


It belonged to my late Grandma and she used it for storing water and to wash our feet after a long day in the fields because she was a farmer in a small village, in Poland. She was very seasonal and she believed in the land and she always walked bare-foot and she didn’t care if she stepped on anything and she was really connected with the land that she lived in.

When she passed away I decided that I wanted to have something that belonged to her and I found it in my aunt’s cellar and it was there and it was almost the only thing that was left of my Grandma’s stuff. She didn’t have a lot of things. Since I have moved out of my family home it has been travelling with me around Poland, and now I have moved to the UK and I have brought it with me here.

2. Ukulele


Music played on a ukulele with a woman singing a jazzy song

I have brought a ukulele with me today and it is because it has always been something small, and an instrument there for me to vent my creativity. So I first started playing it when I was at University as sort of a thing to relax. And then I joined a small group of people who were playing ukuleles and then it became the item that was at home that was very easy to pick up and just play. Being acoustic it’s just easy to get that moment rather than the other instruments that I play that take longer to set up. It’s always been there. Sort of on a wall. On a shelf. Hanging around somewhere in my house. This just always has that sense of, like, calm for me.

3. Slippers


A fire crackles in the background.

I really like to be comfortable at home so I like to wear slippers and socks around the house so I don’t have to have cold feet. I get a bit overwhelmed if there is too much sensory stuff going on, specially outside of the house. I like to minimise it at home so I like to wear my slippers around all the time. I like to feel as comfortable as possible. That’s what makes me think of being at home is being comfortable and feeling safe and cosy.


4. Picture


Ukrainian choir sing in the background with horns sounding

My parents are not alive, they have passed away, not because of this war but before. I had this picture at home at my house. It was really nice, remembering.
We escaped on the first day of the war when we woke up on the 24th February with my husband, from the explosions, they bombed our airport, so we packed only small things with our son and our dog, and small backpacks and I didn’t take this picture with me because I didn’t have place and I left my keys of our home with my friend and then, after half a year when we have been already here in England, we have our home, and so I ask my friend to go to our home and send to us this picture as well, and now its in our bedroom and when we wake up, it helps me remember my parents, and childhood and so I feel at home because I am with all family.

5. Pullover


Sounds of knitting needles clacking in the background

This pullover has been knitted by my grandmother for my dad. When I moved out of my parents house I stole it from him. It was getting a bit of my family essence. I took because I felt very cosy wearing it. It was just reminding me of my dad of my time with my parents as a child. Because it was too big when I was a child but, growing old, it just became more comfortable and the reason why I brought its because that during lockdown I took it out and it felt…comfortable to wear it and one day I left it on the sofa and I found my daughter starting to wear it. Maybe one day she is going to leave home and maybe this is one thing that may go with her. So there is sort of a legacy in this cosiness and it feels, it feels like home.

6. A Book


I chose this book. It’s by an Irish author called Claire Keegan and its just newly published by Faber, it’s called ‘So Late in the Day’. I don’t know anything about it but I enjoyed her previous book. It was a birthday gift to me, quite recently from a good friend. The reason I chose it is because she chose it for me and so I was very touched that she thought about this book for me and it came about because I was telling her that I had been recently on quite a long plane  journey and I didn’t have a book with me because I had so much stuffed into my backpack that I didn’t have room for a book. And we chatted about this and she laughed and when I came home later there was a package through my door and there was this book as a belated birthday present and I think, for me, having a book is so crucial in having a feeling of safeness, that is what I was thinking of, giving a feeling of security and sanctuary. When you are in quite a stressful situation, like travelling, I like to lose myself in a book.

7. Weather House


Sounds of a key winding a mechanism.

This little weather house is a souvenir from a trip to Austria that my grandparents took in, oh my goodness, it must have been about the 1960s.

A musical box plays a waltz in the background.

Grandad worked on the railways and they were given one free ticket, for the family, each year, so him and my grandma went to Austria and they brought this back. This used to be in their, they had sort of like their, the parlour and the main room, and when we used to visit my parents would be in the other room and I would be in the quite room and there wasn’t a lot to do so I would entertain myself with this little, like, Heidi weather house.

8. Pet passport and jumper


Chatter and sounds of a travel terminus in Russian and Ukrainian sound in the background.

My passport of my cat. Because I really love my cat. I brought him to UK. I couldn’t abandon my cat because it is part of our family. For me, my cat, it is like part of my life.

And also brought my jumper with a very famous stamp in the Ukraine.  It was before the biggest warship Moscow was damaged, and it is like a symbol for Ukraine ‘We can Do It’ and we have expression for this stamp Ukrainian defenders say to Russian warship… ‘It is also part of our fight’.

9. A Steel Drum


This is a hand pan drum. It is affectionately known as the UFO drum. It is 2 steel domes which are effectively welded together and it is tuned to the key of B-celtic minor. It is modelled on the original hand pan drum which was called the hang and it was made by two brothers in Switzerland and when they folded their company, the Rav, in 2014 I think it was, basically started designing and making theirs. It was engineered and designed by a man in a city called Perm which is the most easterly city on the sub-European continent, so basically near Siberia. They have snow leopards there which I think it is why it probably sounds so magical.

The hand pan drum plays melodically.

It was May 2020. We’d gone into lockdown. And I thought I was quite depressed and I thought now is the time to get one, if ever I were to get one, now is the time. I haven’t looked back. It has been the best healing I could have possibly had. The resonance has just really given me uplift and helped me balance whatever is going on.


10. Bagpuss


The opening theme tune to ‘Bagpuss’ TV programme plays.

Before I married my husband it must have been one of our first dates. We went to Milton Keynes Bowl to see, I think it was, Robbie Williams. We got a cheap ticket and we stopped on the way, I can’t remember where we stopped, but it was I think a McDonalds, and it was a free McDonalds gift.

Theme tune to Bagpuss continues.

Bagpuss was one of my favourite cartoons when I was very very small so I absolutely love Bagpuss used to watch it all the time, you know, with my mum at lunchtime when it was on.

The opening introduction to Bagpuss is read ‘Once upon a time… not so long ago… there was a little girl and her name was Emily… and she had a shop….”

11. Book Group Pick of the Month


Sound of children playing in the background.

I moved to Cambridge in 1976 but prior to that my Father was in the RAF so we lived all over the world, so Cambridge itself makes me think of home. The book I was holding is the latest pick from the Book Group. The Book Group, I’ve been a member of that for maybe 10 – 20 years but it had originally formed from my baby-sitting circle from when my children were very small and we used to babysit each other’s children. So again that brings me back to home and the children and friends, friends living in the area and meeting them.

I’ve always read a lot and it is something normally I would do at home, so books remind me of home.


This project has been generously supported by Cambridgeshire Libraries: Cambridgeshire County Council, and with funding from Research England: Enhancing Research Culture Fund, and Cambridge City Council.