In 2012 the rebel suburb of Daraya in Damascus was brutally besieged by Syrian government forces. Four years of suffering ensued, punctuated by shelling, barrel bombs and chemical gas attacks. People’s homes were destroyed and their food supplies cut off; disease was rife.
Yet in this man-made hell, forty young Syrian revolutionaries embark on an extraordinary project, rescuing all the books they could find in the bombed-out ruins of their home town. They used them to create a secret library, in a safe place, deep underground. It became their school, their university, their refuge. It was a place to learn, to exchange ideas, to dream and to hope.
Based on lengthy interviews with these young men, conducted over Skype by the award-winning French journalist, Delphine Minoui, The Book Collectors of Daraya is a powerful testament to freedom, tolerance and the power of literature.
Thank you Emma at Bookbreak for the proof copy of The Book Collectors of Daraya.
A short book at just under 200 pages this was a quick and immersive read for me. On a number of levels this book was impressive, the use of social media to engage the revolutionaires in Daraya, the face to face digital contact and the eloquent writing made this book feel very real, bringing a much needed human face to what we hear about on the news and what can often feel so distant to our own lives.
The book begins with an image titled The Secret Library of Daraya, on the Facebook page kept by Humans of Syria. The author traced the image and made contact with Ahmad Muaddamani; the photographer and one of the library co founders. What follows is an account of numerous futher conversations, via text and video with Ahmad and others living in Daraya as it is persistently subject to aggressive attacks over a sustained period by the Syrian government, who describe the occupants of Daraya as terrorists. Ahmad clarifies the occupants are rebels, revolutionaries, peacefully protesting against the dictatorship regime and seeking a more democratic life in Syria.
What this book really captures is the lived experience of a commuinty under attack, the voices are clear and it is impossible not to feel sad at the terrible situation being experienced. This in itself provides a new lens through which to see war, but also gave voices to those in Daraya and their narrative in oppostion to their governments statements.
The secret library is central to this book and it is formed by this group of rebels collecting books from the bombed and deserted homes of Daraya, the books are labelled, they remain the possession of their owner and they are stored in the basement library where they can be borrowed and enjoyed. Thus through those horrific years of attack there was hope, there was learning and education, there was personal development and what emerged was this resillient community in the face of adversity learning and growing.
The power of books is threatening to any dictatorial regime, we know this and we see this limiting of information. That is a factor here, but also what emerges is the power of books to distract, to give hope – of stories told by others who have faced similar and survived. And of course the power of books to unite, the power of that picture and the story that emerged is evidence itself of that.
Shamefully the situation in Daraya is one I knew little about and I am always personally very grateful for the way books educate and inform me. This short and accessible work of non fiction is an important read I think, I will be placing it now on my husband’s book stack and then passing to a friend. So recommending it already, if you like reading, if you like books take a look at this one, it will definitely inform you and I think you will find it to be a rewarding read.
Thanks as always for reading.
About the Author / Translator
Delphine Minoui, a recipient of the Albert Londres Prize for her reporting on Iraq and Iran, is a Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro. Born in Paris in 1974 to a French mother and an Iranian father, she now lives in Istanbul. She is the author of I’m Writing You From Tehran and The Book Collectors of Daraya. She also directed Daraya: A Library Under Bombs, an award winning documentary film about Daraya’s librarians.
Lara Vergnaud is a translator of prose, creative nonfiction, and scholarly works from the French. She is the recipient of two PEN / Heim Translation Fund Grants and a French Voices Grand Prize, and has been nominated for the National Translation Award. She lives in Washington, DC.