IIt begins with a photograph posted on the “Humans of Syria” Facebook account in 2015: an image of two young men (one in a hooded sweatshirt and the other in a baseball cap) standing in a windowless room, surrounded of piles of books. The caption reads: “The secret library of Daraya.” When she finds him, Istanbul-based journalist Delphine Minoui is paralyzed upon seeing this “fragile parenthesis in the midst of war.” Who were these young people? What were they looking for?
In 2012, Daraya, five miles from Damascus, began to be besieged by Syrian government forces. Over the next four hellish years, 40 young Syrian revolutionaries embarked on an extraordinary project, salvaging all the books they could find in the bombed-out ruins of their city.
There is something seductive about the idea of knowledge as a bulwark against brutal force, and it is an idea that immediately resonates with Minoui. “The library is your hidden fortress against bombs,” he writes. “Books are his weapons of mass instruction.”
Minoui locates Ahmad Muaddamani, the photographer behind the Facebook image and one of the founders of the library. Daraya is still under siege, so her interviews are conducted online; Some of Minoui’s most striking descriptions feature his jittery internet connection. “His image is stretched and deformed like a portrait of Picasso,” he writes of his first Skype call. Later, “each time the connection is lost due to the force of another explosion, his voice becomes choppy and he begins, covering my desk in Istanbul with seamless little words.”
Minoui, who is French and Iranian, has won awards for her reporting from the Middle East, but because of this story she cannot travel to Syria. “How can you describe something that you cannot see, that you have not experienced?” she wonders. She makes up for the lack of access on the ground with a lot of care and empathy.
And over time, the war begins to feel not so far away. In November 2015, Minoui finds himself desperately calling friends and family in Paris after learning of the attacks at the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France. He shudders when he realizes that “violence has reached my hometown”, the “invincible refuge, where I am going to recharge my batteries between hard jobs covering wars, revolutions and political crises. Suddenly the lines blur. “Then one morning in Istanbul, as Minoui and her four-year-old daughter Samarra were on their way to their weekly story session at the French Institute, a suicide bomber detonated an explosion outside. from the entrance of the institute. Minoui pushes Samarra inside, seeking refuge among the books. The symmetry is astonishing.
After many months of conversations with Muaddamani and his friends, Minoui’s initial hunch is confirmed that the books offer them a vital form of spiritual escape. Before the revolution, Muaddamani studied engineering, enjoyed playing soccer, and had little time to read. The war changed all that. “Books are our way of making up for lost time, of ending ignorance,” says the library’s co-director, Abu el-Ezz. When Minoui asks another young man he is talking to, an armed rebel, why he turned to books, he replies, “It was when I realized that the war could last for years.” He is blunt: “Reading reminds us that we are human.”
Daraya never had a public library under Bashar al-Assad, so rescuing literature was also a political and civic act. After the first book cache was discovered in the rubble of a destroyed house, dozens of volunteers collaborated to recover more titles. In a few weeks, the library had 15,000 volumes. Librarians were always careful to write the name of the original owner of each book on its first page; they do not rule out the possibility that someday someone will claim them again.
Popular titles range from self-help books by Tony Robbins and Stephen Covey to Arabic classics like Kitāb al-‘Ibar (The Lesson Book) from the 14th century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun, or the romantic verses of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. The library also becomes a gathering place: for English lessons, for lectures and debates on democracy and revolution, and occasionally for balls and movie screenings. It is a vital roadblock for these young revolutionaries, but not impenetrable. When the siege intensifies, the book bunker is finally attacked. Wi-Fi becomes a rarity, Minoui’s long calls are reduced to tentative WhatsApp messages, and he begins to detect defeat and depression in young people.
Things reach their lowest point in the summer of 2016, when the Assad regime intensifies its assault. A book collector dies, and after regime helicopters dump napalm on Daraya in August, the rest flee. It is not the story these men envisioned, or the one Minoui set out to tell. Why write? To what end? “She asks.” If only I could anticipate what will happen next, in the hope that it will be less tragic, and after some happy event put the final period. “Not all stories have a happy ending. , but we need them anyway.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism