The Book Collectors of Daraya: Libraries as refuge for hope
The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui is not just a book about books, it’s the story of survival, grit and resistance in the face of an oppressive regime that is determined to wipe out a town with impunity.
Daraya, a suburb of Damascus in Syria, is home to a learned and educated community who’d been questioning the Assad family’s dictatorship and brutal politics even before the 2011 revolution that eventually led to the siege on the town.
In 2012, the town was besieged by the Syrian regime forces – a siege enforced by Assad looked like regular bombings, shellings and chemical gas attacks, on top of restrictions on movement and food supplies.
Daraya and its residents are known to be one of the most educated and forward-thinking communities in Syria. A place where parents teach their children to question and think critically. The people of Daraya are politically aware and have a history of standing up against injustice
How do you survive in a situation that offers little respite and becomes progressively worse? How do you hold on to hope? How do you continue to resist and remain unbroken by the brutal force? Delphine Minoui’s collection of accounts from Daraya attempts to answer some of these questions and focuses on how books in a secret library became a surprising refuge and source of education for the male youth of a besieged town. The story of Daraya is one that tells you the power of knowledge as a tool of resistance.
In 2015, Delphine Minoui came across a curious photo from Syria on the Humans of Syria page on Facebook. It shows two young men in a corner of what seems to be a library. Minoui’s fascination grew after she read that the photo was taken in the “secret library” of Daraya. Minoui, a journalist familiar with Daraya, writes that she felt haunted by the photo, a single snapshot of “an inaccessible place”.
While Syria is too dangerous for a visit, Minoui decided to track down the owner of the photograph and pursue this story via digital means. Daraya, and its revolutionary residents, become accessible to Minoui because of the internet, despite the limited and weak connection available to the revolutionary residents of a besieged town.
Minoui’s quest to know more about Daraya’s library led her to Ahmad Muaddamani, the man who took the photograph, a young rebel whose bold voice directs the recent history of Daraya in The Book Collectors of Daraya.
Ahmad, a young man of 23, chose to stay behind for the revolution, to expose the truth, while his family who were unable to convince him, fled Daraya without him to escape before things became worse. To Ahmad, “books smack of lies and propaganda”, yet despite his doubts and never being someone who read, he decided to join his friends to rescue books from the rubbles.
Ahmad became one of the founders of the library, and within the pages of the books they rescued, he found an escape and freedom he’d never known before. Ahmad acknowledges that it was strange to save books when they could not save lives. But by saving books, they were saving whatever was left of the town’s heritage and culture.
Daraya and its residents are known to be one of the most educated and forward-thinking communities in Syria. A place where parents teach their children to question and think critically. The people of Daraya are politically aware and have a history of standing up against injustice. It is, perhaps, not a surprise that this is the town that the regime decided to destroy and overpower.
Like the young men who salvaged books from the rubbles, Minoui collects testimonies and conversations from the survivors of Daraya. Aided by the young men on the other end of the internet connection, Minoui writes about the library, the siege, the regime and the misinformation and propaganda that continues to propel its power.
Over the course of the book, she also includes some of her own experiences and observations as a bystander witnessing the urbicide of Daraya from afar, unable to do anything but aid the survivors in documenting the truth.
In The Book Collectors of Daraya, Minoui relays her conversations with the men in Ahmad’s orbit, documenting their harrowing life under siege, and their determination to survive and resist despite the daily bombings and restrictions that eventually leave them no choice but to survive on soup made from grass. It is not just a story of survival, but of building a legacy of resistance, one book at a time.
The way books rescue and liberate Ahmad is mirrored in the experiences of the other young rebels and leaders that Minoui interviews. With each interview and story, the significance of books and the knowledge they carry become evident, not just as a replacement for the education the youth have lost, but also as a resource against the Assadist propaganda that is tearing the country apart.
Abu el-Ezz, the co-director of the library, speaks to Minoui without video as a security measure. He believes in the goodness of books, in their ability to soothe “mental wounds”. In contrast to censorship and propaganda that filled their school books under the Assad regime, the books in the library are liberating for Abu el-Ezz, who believes: “Books don’t set limits; they set us free. They don’t mutilate; they restore.”
[The Book Collectors of Daraya] is a captivating work of journalism that boldly displays the power of books and literature and the difference a single library can make in the lives of people facing brutal oppression
Not only is the underground library a place of refuge and escape, but it also provides the young men with purpose and adds a structure and routine to their lives. The founders of the library even devise library rules and instructions for borrowers, to organize and maintain a system that works.
The task of building the library is not just one of scavenging and shelving – the conscientious young men write the names of owners in the books they find. Ahmad explains, “We’re not thieves, and certainly not looters. These books belong to the residents of Daraya. Some are dead. Others have left. Others have been arrested. We want all of them to be able to retrieve their belongings once the war is over.”
Over the course of the book, conversations are documented chronologically, adding an element of mystery and suspense to the fate of Daraya and its residents, for readers who are unaware of the current reality. Over several years of writing this book, Minoui speaks to many youth, rebels and leaders. She writes about her conversations with Hussam Ayash, a survivor of the siege and bombings, a man in love with Zeina, a Syrian refugee who lives in Istanbul.
While they are no longer able to meet, they bond over their shared interest in reading and discussing books. It’s a tender love story, “a digital romance [that] helps him endure the conflict”. Thirty-seven years old Muhammad Shihadeh, nicknamed Ustez, teaches English in the secret library. He initiates dialogues and discussions, urging the men to think critically of the world, aided by the books at their disposal. The Ustez, who led one of Daraya’s first protests in 2002 and was jailed for it, is an inspiration to the men.
Minoui also speaks to 24-year-old Omar, a fighter in the Free Syrian Army and one of the young men whose life was disrupted overnight. Minoui questions him to understand his perspective of the “jihadist” label and he responds, “When your friends fall before your eyes for having brandished a piece of cardboard calling for change, what’s left, except the desire to protect other protestors? Sadly, that’s how it all started. And then, with the regime’s bombs, the vicious spiral of violence began.”
It’s unfortunate that the Assad regime works hard to spread misinformation and discord rather than have any intentions to lead the country towards prosperity and unity. Thus, it has become essential to document the story of Daraya and its residents, and Minoui’s book is a step in the right direction.
The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui captures the brutal years of the siege on Daraya, as experienced by the youth, the rebels and the men determined to resist and survive. The women’s stories and perspectives are limited, possibly as a safety measure and due to movement restrictions during the siege.
Overall, it is a captivating work of journalism that boldly displays the power of books and literature and the difference a single library can make in the lives of people facing brutal oppression. In a town that never had any public libraries, the first one is built from the rubbles of what remained after the bombs dropped.
Daraya’s secret library is a testament to the power of reading and telling stories, of the way books and stories can connect us across time and across the world.
Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.
Follow her on Instagram: @sumaiyya.books