Alain Bittar says his bookshop is a reflection of his own personality: a bridge between the Arab world and Europe.

Having been born in Egypt to a Syrian-Lebanese Christian family with Sudanese nationality, and grown up in Switzerland, Bittar says, in mixed-dialect Arabic, that he has never had any affiliation to any religion, nationality, ethnicity or tribe.

“Growing up in Switzerland, I always thought of myself as a Swiss. I only spoke French and identified with the Swiss,'' says Bittar. But his attachment to the Swiss identity was crushed when the time came to plan his career.

Having studied international relations and international law, the natural path for him was to work for the International Committee for the Red Cross or go into diplomacy, both of which, according to him, were reserved for Swiss nationals then.

Bittar then applied for Swiss citizenship, and was rejected thrice. “I realised that I did not really belong there so I started looking for my identity,'' he said.

His search ended by his adoption of the Palestinian identity in a refugee camp in Lebanon. “I realised that I had a lot in common with the Palestinians. They were a free thinking non-tribal society with no religious or sectarian divisions, and shared my need for a land to call my own''.

A few years later, Bittar returned to Geneva and opened the bookshop in 1979. He chose the name Zaytouna (olive) because of its status as a symbol of peace.

Bittar considers himself lucky to have a mixed Arab background since it is impossible to classify him as belonging to any specific religion, tribe, national identity or sect. Divisions about those issues, he says, are plaguing the Arab world today. “I am allergic to them''.