The Book Collectors by Delphine Minoui (2017) and Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson (2019)
One day during a pause in bombing in the Syrian civil war, a young Syrian man on the rebel side took a walk through the devastated town of Daraya, his home. He found a book in the rubble…and that’s where it all started.
War and books have an odd way of belonging together. Some of you may remember my June 2019 review of When Books Went to War. Their purpose was to “elevate the mind and spirit, remind the troops of home, give respite and escape from the horrors of battle, and keep present in their minds why and what they were fighting against and fighting for. The books gave the troops a virtual space to go to refresh their minds and spirits.” [from my June 2019 review]
This is very true of the young men rebelling against the Syrian regime of Assad. They were on their home turf, fighting for freedom from the oppressive regime, but had almost no weapons to use against heavily armed government forces. They knew that if they were captured, torture awaited them, probably followed by a gruesome death, and possible reprisals against their families.
There was so much fear in Syria. Yet these young activists persisted in their beliefs. A strong mind, keeping out of sight and range of government forces, and fighting back with reprisals when possible were their best tools and weapons.
But even better were their minds: they were the future leaders and intellectuals of Syria, hoping to form a free and democratic nation. Most of the rebels were young men in the process of getting their college degrees; others already had them. They had chosen their professions or were already working in them, which had to be put on hold until the political situation changed. That’s why the books they found, the library they built with them, were so important. In many cases the young men were able to continue studying even without attending formal college classes.
How did the idea of building a library come about? As the young men explored their damaged city, they found thousands of books amid the rubble. Some former residents had collected very fine and valuable personal libraries which included classics of different cultures and languages. Syrians—and indeed most Arab cultures—respect education, intellectual study and accomplishments. The library contents and how they were used reflected that seriousness.
Once the young rebels had collected a large number of books in good condition, the next step was to decide what to do with them. They decided to build their own library in the safety of the basement of a ruined building and set about scavenging wood planks for shelves.
Meticulous records were kept of where each book was found and who the owner was with the intent of returning them at the end of the war. (Sadly, this did not happen as planned.) The decision was also made to share the books with other resident readers via a regular lending library system. Gradually, the space became a quiet haven complete with comfortable furniture salvaged from around the city. Residents from other parts of the city would visit when it was safe to check out books to take home for the women and children in their families.
Other projects undertaken by the young men showed their ingenuity and creativity. In all that devastation, they found materials and concocted ways to connect to the internet to let the world know what was happening in Syria. Both authors met and kept in touch mainly through Skype and by viewing posted photos and art work, then eventually meeting many in person.
As the war dragged on (for 4 years), concern grew about the loss of education for children. Some of the young men who were older or had unique experiences to share started regular classes for those who wanted to expand their learning. English was one of the subjects taught.
In short, when a topic arose there was always someone willing to do his or her best to teach it, and students who volunteered to learn. The generosity and kindness with which these young people treated each other was remarkable, especially in the midst of the horrors and hatred of that particular war.
As time went on, government forces closed in to the point where there was no food entering the city, even unable to be grown in open fields. In the end, some meals consisted of warm water flavored with various spices, perhaps some leaves. With starvation a clear goal and no way seen to mitigate it, or to leave the city in any way besides in a body bag, the young activists surrendered to government forces. Every person remaining in Daraya was evacuated to Idlib in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
At first, things went reasonably well for the evacuees. Gradually, though, Idlib started to receive the same treatment as Daraya had. Both books end before that outcome occurred. Up to that point, approximately 12 million Syrians had been displaced either to other parts of Syria or to other parts of the world as refugees. Places those people left were damaged or destroyed to the point of not being livable. (I have to wonder what the purpose of the government would be if there were no people left to govern!)
Of course the Darayans were devastated to leave their library sanctuary, but there was no choice but to hope it wasn’t discovered and would still be there when they returned. That hope was dashed when they learned it was indeed discovered and trashed. Later they heard that some of the books were being sold in other cities, destroying the hope that they would ever be returned to their rightful owners.
Yet the positive attitude of those young activists was not completely dashed. In Idlib, one of them bought a vehicle, acquired enough books to fill it, and travelled around with his bookmobile! Again, the creativity and determination of the activists were among the most remarkable of their qualities. One thinks it could be possible in the future for them to find a way to gain control of their own country and create the democratic free culture they seek with education for all.
If you wonder why I chose 2 books to write about on this topic, it’s because they cover the same group in slightly different ways that complement each other. Thomson’s book is more of an academic rendering in which he shows us what a unique history and learned culture the Syrians have had for thousands of years. This background makes the events feel even sadder.
The Book Collectors covers events only in 2015-16, the worst times for these young activists. Because their situation is so dire by then and Minoui feels so helpless to change the situation, it’s a more emotional recounting. Many of the same young men are featured in both books. Each book also contains wonderful photos so we can put faces to the names. We can also see that ordinary-looking people can be capable of making an enormous difference in the world.
I would like to be able to share all the extraordinary quotes from both books that both authors included in their books. The truth is there are simply far too many—you’ll have to read the books.
Minoui has listed some of the readers’ favorites from the Darayan Library:
Shakespeare; Proust; 1984; Fahrenheit 451; The Prince; The Little Prince; Les Miserables; The Alchemist.
Finally, these words by Abdul Basit, one of the leaders of the activists, eloquently express the library’s importance to them.
“The library gave birth to a movement of knowledge and learning, and enabled us to explore new things. It was also our sanctuary, and our minaret. It guided us through all the horrors, lit the path we should take and inspired us to carry on. It taught us that a fighter without knowledge is not a hero, but a gangster. The library’s many books were fuel for our souls. They gave us back our lives…The secret library was not only our savior, it was our biggest weapon against the regime…It liberated us from suffering and savagery…This symphony of books soothed our hearts…It was the oxygen for our souls. It was a place where angels met. Each time I stepped inside, I flew with them.” [Thomson, pp. 294-295]
The power of the written word cannot be overstated. We never know how one soul or many can be inspired by it over the centuries.
These are probably the best books I will read all year. I know I’ll never forget them or the people in them. I encourage you to read them at our own GBCL, where they will be available.