When I first heard rumors of a secret underground library in Daraya, I thought it must surely be an exaggerated account of events. Yet over the months that followed I interviewed dozens of people there, some of whom sent me photographs, and it became clear that this really was true. Young people there were risking their lives each day to preserve books of all kinds, in the hope of using them to help build a better tomorrow.
BBC reporter Mike Thomson became intrigued by the story of a group of young people in the war-torn city of Daraya, Syria, who were risking their lives to not only save books, but maintain a secret space where they could be collected and lent to the city’s residents. He was able to make contact with the organizers and hear their stories — of life in terrifying, insecure wartime as well as what books and the preservation of knowledge meant to them. Despite the chaos and atrocity of living through war, there’s an overarching feeling of hopefulness.
It is difficult to overstate the challenges that faced the secret library pioneers. First off, securing the raw materials and tools to make and assemble shelves; then ignoring nagging hunger in order to be able to function, let alone build anything.
The way they describe their efforts and the significance that books and reading held for them led Thomson to the realization that he was not only learning something about Syria’s past, but about how the residents interpreted major events like the war and atmosphere it created. There’s so much insight into this history and culture, making this feel incredibly rich and illuminating in addition to being the story of this library. Thomson notes that “most significantly, what is now Syria was once home to what was the world’s first library, established around 4500 years ago — the Royal Library of the ancient kingdom of Ebla.” This historical precedence is heavily felt, not only for the reader but for those living this story. One librarian says they wanted the library to provide guidance, “to become a minaret for Daraya.”
Citizens who knew about the library were eager to contribute — risking their lives to get their books to its unmarked doors. For others, it ended up serving intensely practical purposes. A young dental student who hadn’t been able to finish his training before war broke out had the option to leave Syria, but chose to stay when he realized he was the only person left in the entire city with dental training. He used medical textbooks borrowed from the secret library to “fill the gaps” in his knowledge until he was able to provide dental treatment to Daraya’s residents, although his challenges didn’t end with only acquiring the knowledge, considering supplies, anesthetics, and medications were equally hard to come by.
That kind of optimism, that life must continue with as much normalcy as possible if there’s any chance of rebuilding society after the war, was a light in the dark for many of the librarians and patrons.
Among the books we value most are those which describe how people in other countries have dealt with trauma like ours. We hope that by reading these we can learn the best ways of rebuilding our nation when the fighting has stopped. They give us hope in dark days like these.
There weren’t enough copies of any one book to have a book club where members read the same title, so they improvised, each bringing their own book and talking about it to the others, “sharing knowledge and ideas” in a welcoming atmosphere hard to find in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, where people were starving physically and intellectually.
Books motivate us to keep on going. We read how in the past everyone turned their backs on a particular nation, yet they still made it in the end. So we can be like that too.
The biggest message here is emphasizing that kind of hope. It runs throughout the entire book, as Thomson interviews anyone who will share their experiences with him, including children who found refuge in the library. Their stories are simultaneously wonderful and heartbreaking. He gives these brave young people space tell their lives, of what they were like before war and plans for after. For all of them, the library has played a powerful role.
It doesn’t gloss over the devastation of war — and not everyone we meet in these pages lives to see the end of the conflict, but it’s an inspiring, impressive portrait of extraordinary people rising to the challenges of the unimaginably difficult times they find themselves in. It gets off to something of a slow start but is absolutely worth sticking with.
Just like the body needs food, the soul needs books.
Syria’s Secret Library:
Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege
by Mike Thomson
published August 20, 2019 by PublicAffairs
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.