How books kept a broken nation’s soul alive

Daraya: 'Building the library was important, for our souls as well as our minds'

Syria’s Secret Library
By Mike Thomson
Weidenfeld, 320pp, £18.99/$28

It was because of my love of books as well as my passion for human rights and humanitarian causes that I picked up Syria’s Secret Library: The True Story of How a Besieged Syrian Town Found Hope. It is one of most moving and inspiring books about a war zone that I have ever read.

It tells the remarkable story of how a small group of exceptionally brave people in Daraya, a besieged and bombarded town in Syria, kept their souls alive with literature even as they struggled for food and dodged bombs and snipers every day.

Daraya, said to be the site of St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, is famous for its grapes. But it also has a long tradition of protest, dating back to AD 730 when the town’s inhabitants rebelled against the Umayyad authorities. It featured prominently in the Crusades, too. Its people are majority Sunni, but it was an important place for Shiites and Christians. In 2011, the Greek Orthodox Church’s bells rang out in solidarity with anti-regime protesters.

But in 2012 Bashar al-Assad’s forces deployed across Daraya, and in August that year they began shelling the town. Bombing took place day after day from then on, with the regime sealing off Daraya from the outside world, cutting off food and medical supplies. The town was surrounded by snipers, both from the various rebel armies and the regime’s forces.

It was in the midst of this tragedy that a group of young men discussed how to spend their time positively: how could they keep their minds sharp and do something useful for their besieged and battered community? “The suggestion that ignited the biggest spark among them all,” Mike Thomson writes, “was the creation of a store to help keep books safe from all the bombing and destruction.”

The story is almost unbelievable. Indeed, Thomson himself recounts how, when he heard rumours of a secret underground library in the town, he assumed it was an exaggeration. And because Daraya was besieged, bombarded and blockaded, access to it was impossible. Yet through patient, painstaking research, he pieced together the story and discovered it was true.

The beauty of this book lies in the individual human stories. People like 14-year-old Amjad, who goes at dawn each day into the basement of the “gutted building”, scrambling in the dark as rifle fire echoes in the streets, opens up the library and, as Thomson describes, “meticulously signs every book in and out, each one handled like a priceless treasure”. Or teachers Sara, Amena and Aysha, who believe education is the best way to offer children hope and a safeguard against recruitment into ISIS.

Or former civil engineering student Anas Ahmed, who told Thomson: “Building this library is very important, not just for our minds but also for our souls … Just like the body needs food, the soul needs books.”

Or Homam, who says: “Ignorance is always the enemy of humanity. The worst enemy facing a man is someone who knows nothing of what he speaks.”

All of that is true, although their achievement is still staggering given the competing demands and dangers. “Hunger was a constant,” writes Thomson. “One bowl of watery soup was often all anyone had to eat … Then there were the bombs.”

The library contains a range of categories of books – fiction, encyclopaedias, textbooks, religious tomes, philosophy, poetry. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, Muhammad Imara’s Marxist interpretation of Islam and Shakespeare’s Hamlet being just a few of the many titles. “Among the books we value most are those which describe how people in other countries have dealt with traumas like ours,” Anas tells Thomson. “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.”

As this remarkable tale unfolds, it becomes clear how emotionally involved Thomson becomes – and how could he not be? Ultimately the residents of Daraya were forced to evacuate and the library was sacked by soldiers; some of those whom Thomson had come to know were killed. Yet Anas went on to launch a library bus in Idlib, where he fled; a bus that continues to deliver books to women and children to this day.

Thomson also recounts a Saturday night when he was with his wife and friends in a club in London, enjoying wine, music and dancing, when Anas messaged him to say: “Hi, Mike. I got married on Tuesday!”

Staring at the screen, Thomson recalls, “a feeling I can only describe as elation washed through me … tears rolled down my face.”

This is a book which anyone who has a love of literature, a concern for the world and a sense of humanity should read. In telling their story, Thomson shares that hope, “not just for those who created this extraordinary library, but for mankind itself. To see hope triumph once more over pessimism, creation over destruction and books over bombs would be a victory for us all.”