Syria’s Secret Library

by Mike Thomson

The extra­or­di­nary sto­ry of how the besieged Syr­i­an town of Daraya found hope and inspi­ra­tion in a secret under­ground library. Daraya lies on the fringe of Dam­as­cus, just south west of the Syr­i­an Cap­i­tal. Yet it lives in anoth­er world. Besieged by Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces since 2011, its peo­ple were deprived of food, bom­bard­ed by bombs and mis­siles, and shot at by snipers. Its build­ings lay in ruins; office build­ings, shops and fam­i­ly homes shat­tered by the con­stant shelling from gov­ern­ment forces. But deep beneath this scene of fright­en­ing dev­as­ta­tion lay a secret library. No signs marked its pres­ence. While the streets above echoed with rifle fire and shelling, the secret world below was a haven of peace and tran­quil­li­ty. Books, long rows of them, lined almost every wall. Bloat­ed vol­umes with grand leather cov­ers. Tat­tered old tomes with bare­ly read­able spines. Pock­et sized guides to Syr­i­an poet­ry. Reli­gious works with gaudy gold-let­ter­ing and no-non­sense ref­er­ence books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this pre­cious horde of books was not bought from pub­lish­ers, book ware­hous­es, or loaned by oth­er libraries. Many peo­ple had risked their lives to save books from the dev­as­ta­tion of war. Because to them, the secret library was a sym­bol of hope — of their deter­mi­na­tion to lead a mean­ing­ful exis­tence and to rebuild their frac­tured soci­ety. This is the sto­ry of an extra­or­di­nary place and the peo­ple who made it hap­pen. It is also a book about human resilience and val­ues. And through it all is thread­ed the very won­der­ful, uni­ver­sal love for books and the hope they can bring.

Published by The Orion Publishing Groupin 2019

ISBN: 9781474605908

I rated this 5 stars out of 5

I’ve nev­er cried read­ing a book before. Sure, I’ve found many sad, grip­ping, infu­ri­at­ing books that have left their mark, but this remark­able sto­ry of a small town of rebels under siege by Syria’s gov­ern­ment is some­thing special.

A group of peace­ful stu­dents decides that books — the knowl­edge they impart, the escape they pro­vide from a life of hor­ror and tragedy — are more impor­tant than any­thing else. They live and die by the old say­ing that the pen is might­i­er than the sword. So they set about col­lect­ing a town’s books togeth­er into a secure place, all the while being shot at, bombed, starved, denied med­ical treat­ment, for four years.

When one thinks of sto­ries of fight­ing, and what it means _to fight_, one tends to think of pick­ing up a weapon and fac­ing an ene­my. Some of these stu­dents do that, of course, and join the Free Syr­ia Army, and hold back the regime’s sol­diers against mas­sive odds for many years. But the true fight is an ide­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal one, and in their lit­er­ary sanc­tu­ary, filled with books that are banned and savour­ing knowl­edge and learn­ing above all else, they stick it to the gov­ern­ment and plan for a bet­ter future for their revolution.

Read­ing about chil­dren like four­teen-year-old Amjad, and his pas­sion for the library where he becomes Chief Librar­i­an and devotes him­self to its oper­a­tion before los­ing his enthu­si­asm and spir­it when it’s destroyed, or twelve-year-old Islam, who teach­es her moth­er to read and dives into books, but is sim­i­lar­ly robbed of her spir­it and dreams for the future by the dai­ly hor­ror of war, is so heart­break­ing. Despite this, the biggest les­son I took from read­ing this book is that the Syr­i­an peo­ple are remark­ably resource­ful, resilient and a (right­ful­ly) proud people.

Hope­ful­ly one day that will be enough to help them return from the depths that their coun­try now finds itself.

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