Syrian refugees at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon.
This month marks ten years since Syria started a slide into chaos. It was in March 2011 that some teenagers scrawled a slogan on a wall in the southwestern city of Deraa: “It’s your turn, Doctor.” The doctor was President Bashar al-Assad, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, and the words referred to the leader-toppling protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Soon, an ominous counter-slogan began to appear, this one by regime supporters: “Assad or we burn the country.” Just how far the government would go to hold on to power quickly became apparent. Today, most of Syria is in ruins. Millions continue to suffer, with a lack of food, water and limited access to health services.
Words of a different sort provided succour to some Syrians during the peak of the civil war. These were to be found in the books of a secret library in the basement of a gutted building in Darayya, near Damascus.
The story of this library and the people behind it was told in a 2016 broadcast by Mike Thomson, a BBC foreign affairs correspondent, and later in a documentary by Delphine Minoui, an Istanbul correspondent for Le Figaro. Both of them went on to write books that delved deeper: Thomson’s Syria’s Secret Library and Minoui’s The Book Collectors (recently available in an English translation by Lara Vergnaud).
Thomson’s book goes into more depth, providing background as well as a potted history of the region. He also brings to light tales of others who were influenced by the library, such as a dentist and a schoolteacher. In contrast, Minoui is more focused on interactions with those who set up and ran the place.
Both were unable to visit it for themselves. The town was under a long and terrifying siege by Assad’s forces for months; visa difficulties and border controls meant that they were denied access. To piece their stories together, they had to rely for months on Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other spotty Internet-enabled audio and video channels.
The library, writes Thomson, comprised “grand volumes with brown leather covers; tattered old tomes with barely readable spines; pocket-sized guides to poetry; classic and contemporary novels; religious works with gaudy gold-lettering; a range of reference books.” These had been gathered, and were being read, in harrowing circumstances.
Threats of snipers and bombs were commonplace. There was a lack of food and medical facilities, as international and local relief convoys were not allowed into town. In such a time, some members of a youth group began to discuss what they could do for their shattered community, and the idea of an underground library was born.
Thomson and Minoui spoke to overlapping circles of people involved. Among them were fourteen-year-old Amjad, self-declared chief librarian; Ahmad Muaddamani, a photographer; Abu el-Ezz, who went on risky book-gathering expeditions with his companions; Anas Habib, a former civil engineering student; Abdul Basit, former business and economics student; and others who fought with the Free Syrian Army.
They set out to rescue books from demolished and abandoned homes, libraries, and other buildings. Among the titles pulled from the rubble and dusted off were Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, compilations by Syrian poets Adonis and Maram al-Masri, works by Ibn Khaldun, and even an Arabic edition of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. The piles also included encyclopaedias, religious tomes, technical manuals, and textbooks.
“Among the books we value most,” said a collector, “are those which describe how people in other countries have dealt with traumas like ours…They give us hope in dark days like these.”
The group decided to locate the library in the basement of a building on a small street of a bombed and deserted neighbourhood. The upper floors had been destroyed, and it was accessible from a half-buried back entrance. This, they thought, would make it an unlikely target.
Shelves, tables, and chairs were assembled while dealing with hunger, blackouts, and fear of reprisals. Existing bookshelves apart, wood was pulled from walls, ceilings and staircases of ruined public buildings, shops and other businesses.
For the hazardous enterprise of collecting the books, the team had to avoid open spaces and find routes through damaged buildings. During one expedition, they realised that the only way to safely get into a building was by knocking a hole through its back wall, making another hole in the ceiling, and climbing up to the floor where the books were stored. The valuable cargo was knotted in blankets and lowered to the level below.
Once word about the project got out, others who wanted to take their books to a place of safety volunteered to bring them to the library. Meticulous records were kept of where the books came from. As Minoui was told: “We’re not thieves, and certainly not looters. These books belong to the residents of Daraya. We want all of them to be able to retrieve their belongings once the war is over.”
Finally, in May 2014, approximately 15,000 volumes were neatly lined up on the handmade shelves. As Thomson puts it, “Darayya’s biggest source of inspiration, the beating heart of its besieged community, was born.”
Visitors arrived and left at intervals, by themselves or in pairs, to avoid attracting attention. One of the people recalled: “It smelt of history, literature, philosophy and culture. It was a deep, rich, comforting smell.”
The library also became a meeting place, tea room, and education centre, as well as a lecture hall. People knew the location through word of mouth, and were told to reveal it only to those they trusted. One member of the team mentioned to Minoui that he was constantly asked for works about democracy. In this way, she writes, books became their “weapons of mass instruction.”
Thomson asked one of the young men what others made of this devotion to books. In a town whose inhabitants were virtually starving, did some not think that they should put their energies into collecting food instead?
The answer was prompt: “I haven’t come across anyone who has said that. And had they done so, I would have told them that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books.” Later, he added: “Principles are planted in a library, and they grow into ideas…Libraries are the fuel of life.”
Another young man from the Free Syria Army said: “I really don’t think that working at the library and fighting with weapons are two contradictory things. Some of us fight to save our beloved town of Darayya, while others concentrate on building this library and improving people’s education. We all support the revolution and share the same goal.”
The library’s flame burnt bright despite flickers such as the entrance and interiors being further damaged by a barrel bomb. Then came the news that rebel leaders had reached a deal with the government that promised everyone safe passage out of Darayya. The town and the precious book collection had to be abandoned.
Later, a CNN TV crew spotted men in uniforms haphazardly carrying piles of books out onto the street. “Built up over years with love and devotion, destroyed in hours, by a couple of squaddies with a pick-up truck,” writes Thomson.
The people behind the library were resettled in Idlib, along with most others from Darayya, and some made their way to Turkey. One of the evacuees started a mobile library from a van that toured the Idlib countryside, filled with books for children and young adults. Their beloved library was gone, but the spirit lives on.