Syria's Secret Library

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

As a book lover I couldn't not be intrigued by one with the title Syria's Secret Library. While this book does have a secret library and it is the library that starts the journey you go on, the book is about so much more. This non-fiction book is a true story of the people who lived in Darayya, Syria and found ways to survive the constant bombings from Assad's forces.

Mike Thomson was told about a secret library in this rebel held town next to Damascus and he went on a search to find out about it. During his research he met people ranging from a teacher who found joy in teaching the children still in this town to a teenage manager of this library who loved nothing more than reading the books he watched over and lent out. We also meet the Syrian Banksy during the book who brings hope to the town through his street art. 

While the main story that prompted the original radio documentary was about how these people saved books from bombed out homes and brought knowledge and community back, this book is truly about the hope people can have. The book follows these people from the idea of creating a library to having to leave it behind and the futures they can have. 

I was not sure what to expect but I enjoyed being able to learn more about the Syrian people and what they have gone through. I hope someday that they can thrive again and if they can continue to have the spirit they was displayed in this book I can only hope they get there.
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I love this book. This account of the residents of Daraya, Syria, who not only established a secret library but also worked together to help and protect each other was heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. It not only gave me a greater understanding of the atrocities happening in Syria under the Assad regime but it is also a testament to the power of books, libraries, and community spaces. Everyone should read this book. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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4+ For a while, sights from Syria, terrible sights of ruined towns, children huddling in basements, were shown on our television nightly. Many in the town of Daraya left, this is the story of some who stayed. Reporting in a compassionate voice, Thomson tells their story, maintaining contact by phone or Internet. The way those in this broken town managed yo keep service is unique. I'm not a techie so I don't understand it but it is explained. Amidst the bombings, trying to find food, trying to help the injured, some who loved books found a way to start a library in a small room in the basement in a bombed out basement. For those who could reach this library, the place and the books became a time out of mind. 

Their love of books, reading, how they went from building to building aquiring any books in readable condition is beyond admirable. Dangerous with the constant bombings, sniper attacks, it was a risk worth taking. A few women started small schools, so that the children left in this forgotten place would have someplace to go, and to continue their education. Things would get worse as Asad brought the town to it's knees, cutting off food supplies, electricity and constant bombings. As we come, through the author, to know the people he interviewed I felt helpless. They wanted the same things we do, the freedom to do and think the way they wanted, security, family, safety, and books. The right  to read what they wanted. A country that was free, it was that for which they were fighting and dying. 

It is hard to read this book and not identify with them, to not feel that our country should have been more help. The value of books and what they provide is stressed again and again. It is a common denominator. The book follows these people even when they are forced to leave their homes, their town and also the fate of the secret library. The amazing thing is that these people never gave up hope, a hope that books kept alive.

"i think books are like rain. Wherever rain falls things grow. So hopefully wherever our books land, the person who reads them will gain knowledge, and his or her mind will grow. This in turn will help humanity grow."

ARC from Netgalley.
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Very enticing read and absolutely fantastic. A tragic story and it also humanizes a country so often associated with war and strife. I highly recommend this book.
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The description of this book sounded tailor made for me - I have been so interested in the political climate of the Middle East since the Arab spring, and I am a librarian! But the writing style was too dry and I couldn’t get interested.
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I received an advanced digital copy of this book from the author, Perseus Books PublicAffairs and Thanks to all for the opportunity to read and review. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. 

This is an excellent account of the power of books in times of turmoil. Thoughtful and well written, you almost forget that this isn't fiction. These people are real, this is their life, saving books as an act of rebellion.

5 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended.
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How do people cope with disaster, war, hunger, and despair?  How do they live day after day in circumstances that no one who hasn't lived it can ever really imagine?  Syria's Secret Library offers readers a glimpse of hope for humanity in war-ravaged Syria.  When Assad's regime began cracking down, and then bombing, regions that protested his dictatorship, one of those towns hoping for change in Syria was the ancient town of Daraya.  Home to students and engineers, families and generations of farmers, Daraya had long been known for peaceful protests in favor of human rights and democracy.  When Assad struck back, Daraya became a besieged town regularly bombed and cut off from the rest of Syria.  Those who lived there rarely-if ever- had contact with families outside Daraya, either because of poor communications or because of the fear that their calls would be monitored and the families considered political enemies of the regime.  Children no longer had schools to go to, and people soon were limiting their rations to one bowl of watery soup per day to try and stretch out what little food they had while waiting for outside help to rescue them.

It is in this terrifying world that BBC journalist Mike Thomas began making his connections, and talking to a few of the brave people of Daraya through often erratic internet communications.  And while he discovers the terrible situation they are in, he also learns about how they retain hope for the future: their secret library.  A core group of locals began rescuing books from bombed and abandoned houses and, while carefully keeping track of the books in hopes that one day their owners would be able to return to Daraya and claim them, these brave men carried the books off to a relatively secure basement.  Over time a library system developed: people could check books out and return them, lecture series on a wide variety of subjects were held, and men, women, and children were able to escape the stresses of daily life into the safety of a beloved library and books for a few hours each day.  

Throughout Syria's Secret Library we come to care about the individuals Thomson talks to, we admire their courage and their strength in the face of overwhelming circumstances.  And there is nothing more courageous than their belief that books and knowledge will be what not only eventually topples the regime, but what truly rebuilds Syria.  That books are food for the soul, their stories and words as essential to human beings as oxygen. And we can all hope that books will triumph in the end, and creation and hope will overcome destruction and hatred. 

This is a highly emotionally impactful story of people the Western world has seen and understood only briefly from snippets on the nightly news. Thomson clearly cares for each of these people, not as interview subjects, but as friends- and hopes to reach out to the rest of us to show us the civilians beneath the rhetoric.  A story combining the terrors and tragedy of war with the hopes and indomitable spirit of people, this is a true-life story of everyday people showing humanity at its inspiring best.
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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.
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Although I enjoyed this book and found it really interesting, I thought the title was a tad bit misleading. Yes the book is about Syria's Secret Library, however, it is also about the war going on that caused the creation of this library. I understand that the two are intertwined... but I thought that, at least through the first half of the book, there was way more on the war than on the library itself. Overall though, I thought it was a wonderful book. It is very eye opening and gives those of us that do not live in a warzone a very different perspective.
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*Book received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital. Yet for four years it lived in another world. Besieged by government forces early in the Syrian Civil War, its people were deprived of food, bombarded by heavy artillery, and under the constant fire of snipers. But deep beneath this scene of frightening devastation lay a hidden library. While the streets above echoed with shelling and rifle fire, the secret world below was a haven of books.

Long rows of well-thumbed volumes lined almost every wall: bloated editions with grand leather covers, pocket-sized guides to Syrian poetry, and no-nonsense reference books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this precious horde was not bought from publishers or loaned by other libraries--they were the books salvaged and scavenged at great personal risk from the doomed city above.

The story of this extraordinary place and the people who found purpose and refuge in it is one of hope, human resilience, and above all, the timeless, universal love of literature and the compassion and wisdom it fosters. 

This was an amazing view into an aspect of Syrian culture I'd never even thought of before. I hope to see more non-fiction exploring topics like this in the future.
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"War is only the superficial face that you see first. Underneath that, there is so much humanity, so much else taking place. There may be death but there is also normal life here too."

For four years, the town of Daraya in Syria was occupied by rebels and surrounded by President Assad's troops. Getting in and out of the town was dangerous, and near impossible. Food was scarce. Bombs fell and bullets rained. But in the midst of death, destruction, and the fight against a oppressive regime, hope and happiness lay in an unexpected place: the Secret Library of Daraya.

Brilliant, emotional, and incredibly powerful, "Syria's Secret Library" is a fantastic book from BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent Mike Thomson about war, finding hope in the middle of despair, and the power of books. 

Though Thomson has not been to Daraya and has never been into the secret library, his descriptions are vivid. Though he has never seen the people discussed in the book in person, the bond between him and this small band of book lovers is strong, an unlikely friendship forged while under fire. This latter part makes this book and the people of Daraya all the more real, heightening the emotional attachment readers will make to these secret librarians.

One of the best nonfiction books of the year, "Syria's Secret Library" will open your eyes, heart, and mind in ways you never thought possible.
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This book brought the conflict in Syria to life for me in a way that was very personal and human. The story centers around interviews and war-time diary entries, telling the story of the revolutionary movement in Daraya, Syria and the passion of people to be free. 

This book is replete with small details that I will remember as they leave me newly informed about what this type of war is like. “In urban areas, Rateb told me, the front line would often be just a street. On either side of the road snipers, whether rebel or regime, would crouch, out of sight.” With relief convoys unable to enter, people tried to grow their own food but often couldn’t harvest it because of the threat of snipers. 

The story of the library itself is one that exemplifies the spirit of the people, prioritizing books and education even in the midst of chaos and overwhelming challenges and coming together to create a solution. “We believe that building this library is very important, not just for our minds but also for our souls.”

The library is just one aspect of this book that is really about the conflict in Syria and the effects on individuals and communities. The author gathered information that formed this book via interviews on Skype and WhatsApp as well as from audio and phone diaries kept by the participants for him, giving a uniquely personal account of this war that has often seemed opaque to the outside world. I found this book well-written and compelling and an important piece about the ongoing situation in Syria.
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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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