Syria's Secret Library

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

A fascinating and frustrating book, telling the story of a Syrian town of books and resistance which entered the civil war by creating their own library. It would seem like the perfect story for a BBC journalist to tell, and the journalist has done his best, maintaining genuine friendships with the people of Daraya that he never betrayed. It is an incredible read, a portrait of a part of the world where the suffering and struggle are tremendous. I devoured it in a single sitting. Yet part of the story seems to be hidden under the cracks. 

The author emphasizes the difference between nonviolent and violent resistance, offering many nonviolent protesters who became victims of Assad’s army, and the opinions of his interviewees about the meaning of resistance — some of them take an objectively heroic line about the need to preserve nonviolence in the face of brutality. 

Yet at the same time, the author is insistent on the presence of “moderate rebels” in Syria, who fight and kill Russians and Alawites in the name of moderateness. And here is the perplexing thing. We hear fascinating stories from the people of Daraya about why they value books, history, knowledge, and domestic and foreign literature. They name authors as diverse as Shaw, Mill, Shakespeare, Coehlo, and Agatha Christie. But what about the faith lives of the Darayans? The author remarks that the people seem very religious to him. What about the passion that made their town one of the toughest and longest holdouts against Assad, eliciting awe from the toughest al-Nusra fighters?

When it comes to their favorite authors, the first mentioned by the library’s patrons are the liberal Muslim mystics Nadim al-Jisr and Mohammad Abdallah Draz, as well as the cleric Ali al-Tantawi and the journalist Ahmed Mansour, author of “Jewish influence in the United States government” and “America’s defeat in Iraq.” They told the author they were enjoying the (moderate?) pan-Islamists Muhammad Imara and Mustafa al-Siba'i, but at the same time praised the poet Adonis, who is resolutely anti-Islamist, as well as the blasphemous secular novelist Aziz Nesin (translator of The Satanic Verses into Turkish). 

How did these dissonant voices echo off each other in the walls of the secret library, as bombs fell around it? It would seem like a lively ideological world for the author to explore, full of passionate discussions. One of the librarians describes crying and hugging the books when it is finally abandoned during the fall of Daraya. Among the few titles he picked to save as he fled was a small book on the meaning of prayer. There can be no deception: the library is real, the deadly struggle to maintain it is real, and surely the creation, preservation and protection of this lively hall of dissonant voices was something the Muslims of Daraya felt was demanded by their faith. Unable to read Arabic, the author does his best with what translations are available, skimming the surface of fierce debate.

Yet instead of helping him along, the people of Daraya plunge their reality into a fog when they speak to the Englishman from the BBC. They deny so passionately that there are any jihadists among them that the author feels convinced that they must not have heard of the rise of al-Nusra, even in 2016! Yet simultaneously, Assad’s army begins to bomb Daraya, asserting that the most vicious breed of al-Nusra fighters are living there. It seems highly unlikely that anyone who used the library was al-Nusra, but could the readers really have been unaware? Was the ideology behind al-Nusra’s fierce resistance to be found in their library? If it was, they did not remark on it. Perhaps it was not—after all, violence does not necessarily need theoretical justification. And it is clear that the world the Daravans died to save was their world of their own hometown and their secret library, not the world of al-Nusra or anyone else. “Our secret library was not just a nice place to read books,” says one of the rebels, “it was a crucial part of our revolution.”

As in Yemen, the people of Syria were treated with ruthless cruelty by a better armed regime that sought to crush their bodies and spriits. When you read the tales of starvation and violence in this book, in a town where orphans go hungry and feed their rations to their siblings as their friends die around them, you understand it is no wonder that people turned to violence to oppose Assad. But unlike Yemen, Syria became a fractal of ideologies and neighborhood militias. Daraya is one tiny part of this fractal, with its unique feeling of intellectual solidarity. What were they really fighting for, and why were they willing to die? It is unlikely that the sectarian jihadist narratives of the future will tell the true story of Daraya. Yet this book, composed over a severe language barrier from Facebook conversations and Skype interviews, cannot tell it perfectly either. There was a painful, real bond of blood created within the fractal. It perhaps meant different things to everyone and perhaps it still does. I hope, for the sake of the people of Daraya and for all other Syrians, that this book is translated into Arabic and continues to build the unfinished conversation being carried out in that tongue.
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So moving and absolutely touching. The writing was flawless in my opinion. I was absolutely blown away by this book.
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What a lovely book about hope, resilience, and the power of books. A group of men decide they need to save as many books as they can from bombed out and abandoned buildings,  in a desire to create a place for people to read and feed their souls. Their efforts create a nice escape for the people caught up in a civil war. The book is inspiring, remarkable, and eye opening.
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It's hard to decide what would be the most critical item to have on hand if your city was under siege. Food, medicine, clean water? How about books? I bet you didn't even think about books. For Darayya, a town right in the middle of Syria's civil war, books were the thing that kept people going.

Some remarkable young men decided to save as many books as they could, gathering them from abandoned buildings, digging through rubble, even under the bombing. They did this to create a hidden library where anyone could come and escape into another world. 
When the library became a hit, they started offering classes on reading, lessons in Engliah, and lectures on many subjects.

I found the story fascinating, but it was frustrating at times. It's not organized well. They author skips from subject to subject. Sometimes the quotes are well used to illustrate a point, but often they're just stuck in there and they go on too long.

It's a sobering reflection on modern warfare. It makes me angry that the world stood by and did nothing. Now the flow of refugees is a crisis, but with timely intervention, perhaps it could have been avoided. Read this one not for the writing, but for the story of these brave individuals.
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This book, set during the most tragic of Syria’s war torn years, gives a first hand rendition of what it takes for humanity to survive and how food for the mind and soul is almost as important as food for the body. It sometimes got a little confusing keeping up with all the people who were important to the story. The sheer determination of the people of Daraya to build a secret library is more than impressive. It is inspiring.
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Syria's Secret Library is an amazing story. Think about it. Being under siege for years, would you need only food and water to survive? This story is about food for the soul. The mental aspect of survival is often overlooked. I found the story engrossing and thought provoking as a different perspective about those caught in a terrible situation with no escape. The hope found here is inspiring, yet tragic. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review.
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"I would have told them that the soul needs books just like the body needs food"

This book has one constant message throughout and that is...hope.
Amongst war, hunger, loss and pain, a brighter future can be salvaged and beauty is always there if you look for it.
This book illuminates the struggle in Syria, and finds the glimmer of hope and humanity that will not be put out. Members of the community in Daraya, formed a secret library. Where books can set you free.
"The books themselves help us forget all the troubles around us. When we are reading, the author takes us away to a different world. That's something we really need, it gives us peace of mind."

Not only do books offer an escape but also hope for the future. They want the young to be able to think for themselves, become educated and one day rebuild the country. 
An illuminating novel about the human spirit.

***Netgalley and PublicAffairsBooks gave me an advanced copy of this novel for my honest review.
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Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Ursula K Le Guin tells the story of a place whose happiness depends on one child being miserable in “The One Who Walks Away from Omelas” and the reactions to those when they discover it. In part, our ability to exist in the world is on our ability to disregard or ignore horrors, but sometimes we refuse that happiness, refuse to bow to the horrors. In many ways, Thomson’s book makes me think of that story as well as how much we take for granted. If you teach, then you know that tare a great many students who do not read for pleasure (shot, just ask how many people have read LOTR or GoT instead of just watching), yet this book is partly about the human spirit and partly about why books are important. 

Thomson chronicles the story of a group of people who start a library in Daraya, a town close to Damascus. According to Thomson, the town has always had a proud history of peaceful protest, and therefore, caught up in the Civil War. Some of the town’s population flees, others stay. Some of those who stay realize the fighting is simply more than picking up a gun, but also the transmission of knowledge – their fight style includes the founding of schools and a library. In part, the library comes from a desire to save books that were bombed out homes. The lengths that the men, it seems it was largely men who gathered the books, went to collect items – books furniture- and the sheer fairness in which they kept records about where the items came from.

In part, Thomson also chronicle show these men, and later women, not only use the library but also try to continue as much as a normal life as they possibly can. The library, it seems, becomes both a cause and a symbol – not only of what was, of what we should be, of how we learn, but also of what the revolution is fighting for as well as the difference in sides. 

We know from history that the quickest way to destroy a people is to destroy a culture. Destroy the books, the art, and so on. Culture can mean a people but it also can be a city. The library in Daraya was part of this - a desire to preserve the need for knowledge, the thirst for reading that many people never develop at least where access to a library is easy.

While I would have loved a bit more description of what books made up the library, Thomson does mention quite a few works, in particular the favorite works of the people who frequented the library. The list includes some that are unfamiliar to Western readers. In many ways, this insures that Thomson’s reporting serves another important function of a library – as a bridge between peoples.
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"Syria's Secret Library" tells the incredible true story of those who managed to improvise a library for a beleaguered community. Through the focal point of this underground oasis of books, readers are given an incredibly intimate look into what daily life during the siege of the Damascus suburb of Darayya, an experience similar to countless others across Syria in the midst of its devastating civil war. But more than anything, "Syria's Secret Library" shows just how far people will go in order to ensure that they will be able to feed their souls.
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