Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just south west of the Syrian Capital. Yet it lives in another world. Besieged by Syrian government forces since 2011, its people were deprived of food, bombarded by bombs and missiles, and shot at by snipers. Its buildings lay in ruins; office buildings, shops and family homes shattered by the constant shelling from government forces. But deep beneath this scene of frightening devastation lay a secret library.
No signs marked its presence. While the streets above echoed with rifle fire and shelling, the secret world below was a haven of peace and tranquillity. Books, long rows of them, lined almost every wall. Bloated volumes with grand leather covers. Tattered old tomes with barely readable spines. Pocket sized guides to Syrian poetry. Religious works with gaudy gold-lettering and no-nonsense reference books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this precious horde of books was not bought from publishers, book warehouses, or loaned by other libraries. Many people had risked their lives to save books from the devastation of war. Because to them, the secret library was a symbol of hope – of their determination to lead a meaningful existence and to rebuild their fractured society.
This is the story of an extraordinary place and the people who made it happen. It is also a book about human resilience and values. And through it all is threaded the very wonderful, universal love for books and the hope they can bring.
Only a few years ago, Syria was in the sights of the world’s media attention, suffering one of the most atrocious and devastating civil wars in recent history. The stories and images that greeted the world were ones of horrific destruction, abject misery – this was a country besieged and a people ravaged indiscriminately. But inside this disaster zone, beneath its shattered walls, BBC World Affairs Correspondent Mike Thomson discovered a miracle, a beacon of hope, an unwavering symbol of courage and humanity – the Secret Library of Darayya. His book tells the incredibly moving and inspirational tale of the individuals who refused to give in to oppression, who held firm to their beliefs in the power of the written word and who sought to create a positive and enriching space for themselves and others, through ‘thoughtful resistance’.
Jade Craddock: Mike, having read Syria’s Secret Library, it has been both a humbling and eye-opening experience, can you tell us how you first heard about the secret library and your initial thoughts about it and those behind it?
Mike Thomson: I first came across this amazing story when I was reporting for the BBC on the growing use of siege as a weapon of war, mainly by Syrian government forces and their allies. During a down-the-line interview with a resident of Daraya, I asked how people there cope mentally as well as physically with being starved, bombed and sniped at day after day. One man told me that whenever he could, he and others would seek sanctuary in a secret library they had built in the basement of a half-destroyed building. There, he said, they would enter a different world of peace and learning, while the bombs rained down above. I was stunned and hugely inspired by what he told me. This had to be investigated!
JC: Readers might wonder why those in Daraya stayed behind when so many others were fleeing, given your own experience of war zones, were you able to easily understand the motivations and hopes of those who wanted to stay?
MT: It was a question I asked many people there. Soon after the massacre of August 2012 when government troops overran Daraya, before later being forced to retreat, most civilians did leave. Less than a tenth of the population of around 80,000 chose stayed on. I asked some of them why they hadn’t left? The commonest answer was that if they left Daraya, the place where most had been born, they might never be able to go home again. The majority of those who stayed were young men who had campaigned against the regime for several years, in nearly all cases peacefully, and they felt this was the place to make a final stand. Many hoped that after Syrian forces had bombed the town for a few months they might feel that Daraya had been ‘punished’ enough and then leave the town alone. Sadly, this was not to be.
JC: When you first began liaising with those involved in the secret library, what struck you most about them?
MT: It probably sounds silly to say this but the first thing that struck me was just how like other young people elsewhere they were. Despite years of protests and persecution, followed by bombardments, siege and deaths, they seemed so well-adjusted and lacking in bitterness. I remember one of the people there apologising for being less than half-an-hour late for an interview, saying he was sorry but his street was being bombed! The last time I apologised for being late for a meeting it was because of a signal failure on the underground. Then there was the ever-present sense of humour, generosity of spirit and interest in others. None of which had been lost despite years of living in hell.
JC: Did learning about these people and the secret library change your perceptions about what was happening in Syria? How did it contrast with what was being played out in the media?
MT: It does, of course, depend on what media one is looking at. According to some Russian news outlets, Daraya was a hive of Islamist terrorists bent on destroying the outside world. This clearly was utterly untrue. Whilst there may have been some extremists in the town, the vast majority were moderate rebels. Many, like the creators of the secret library, were more interested in reading Hamlet and studying textbooks than waging war on civilisation. Daraya has a long history of peaceful protests going back several decades and many of the people there were more followers of the pen than the sword.
JC: You’ve reported on some of the most horrendous human atrocities of our times, does the human capacity for evil but also for good still surprise you?
MT: Sadly, the human capacity for evil has stopping surprising me, having seen so many awful examples of this throughout the world. But examples of the good, such as was so inspiringly shown in Daraya, never cease to amaze me. As I said above, I marvelled at how people who had been surrounded by death and destruction for so long managed to maintain their humanity so fully. The endurance they showed, how hope prevailed over pessimism and kindness over bitterness, has frequently left me spellbound.
JC: Those involved in the secret library risked their lives to save books, to frequent the library, having experienced war zones yourself and the dangers and horrors that people are confronted with on a daily basis, were you able to understand this devotion to books/the library given the circumstances?
MT: I once asked Anas, one of the founders of the secret library, why, in a town where people were starving, he and others spent so much time searching for books rather than food. He replied: “Just like the body needs food the soul needs books.” That said it all for me. He later told me that in a place where death comes daily, spending your time concentrating only on survival could be a person’s ultimate undoing. Firstly there was nowhere totally safe to hide from the bombs anyway, and secondly despair and depression would quickly overtake those who thought of nothing but staying alive. Books provided a mental and spiritual refuge and took the mind to better places where it could learn, grow and find peace.
JC: Did the experience change the way you thought about books/libraries or your own relationship to them?
MT: It has certainly given me a new appreciation for my own local library in North London. A few years ago it was threatened with closure due to council funding cuts. I remember signing a petition in support of it but didn’t join any other forms of protest that went on. It would be different now. When you see how this secret library seemed to save the souls and the sanity of so many in Daraya, it makes you realise the extraordinary power of books.
JC: Can you sum up the importance of books to those in the secret library and perhaps their social importance more generally in the world today? Are books more crucial now than ever?
MT: I’ve long been amazed by how books have not just survived but blossomed in an age dominated by YouTube clips, tweets and our supposedly ever shorter attention spans. But books take you into an enveloping world unmatched by film, videos and sound bites of all kinds. A good book is a friend, a mentor and a soulmate all in one. They provide us with depths of thought and knowledge, reservoirs of human experience and unbounded adventures whether fictional or factual. In a fast-changing, fast-moving world, I do believe they are now more valuable to us than ever.
JC: The people you spoke to turn to various books to get them through the tough times, is there a particular book that would be your go-to?
MT: The following books are among my absolute favourites: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron.
JC: It seems that in recent times Syria has dropped down the media agenda, but the situation seems almost as desperate now as ever, is that the case and how do you see the situation developing?
MT: Syria certainly has slipped down the news media’s agenda, especially since the end of the long siege of Eastern Ghouta more than a year ago now. This tends to happen with most lengthy conflicts as journalists struggle to find new headlines for an often ‘war-weary’ public. I’m asked about this over and over again by people in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province. Why, they ask me, as bombs continue to fall on them, does the outside world not care anymore? It’s hard to know quite what to say when people there are dying each day, many of them children. President Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake every inch of rebel-held areas of Syria, and an all-out final land battle could start at any time. The hope of most of the three million people there is that Assad’s ally, Russia, keen not to fall out with Turkey, will help stop such an offensive. Turkey has long backed the province’s moderate rebels and does not want more Syrian refugees flooding over its borders to join the more than three million already there.
JC: The people you got to know in Daraya must feel like friends, almost family, how enriching has it been for you to get to know them, but at the same time how difficult to see their struggles? What is your hope for them?
MT: The people I have come to know over recent years in Daraya certainly have come to feel like close friends. I often get messages about births, birthdays and weddings as often as ones about bombs and bullets. Despite the onward march of President Assad’s forces since the Russians and Iranians began fighting for his regime, the military position of the rebels has become ever more tenuous. Yet some from Daraya still live in hope that the government will finally fall to be replaced by a democratically elected one that champions civil rights. I dearly hope that their wish is granted, though the prospects of this don’t look good at the moment.
JC: Do you have any news on how they’re doing now?
MT: Most of those who stayed in besieged Daraya went to Idlib after the town was evacuated, but some have now moved on to Turkey where they’ve been able to continue their education. Others have refused to leave their country and live in hope of one day returning to Daraya. Just about every day over the last couple of months, Syrian and Russian planes have been bombing Idlib and the death toll has been steadily mounting. As a result I am always hugely relieved whenever I get texts from those I know, as then I know that they’re safe.
JC: I wondered whether they may have had a chance to see your book and what their thoughts are on its publication?
MT: Sadly it is very difficult to send books to Idlib but one is already on its way to the ever resourceful, Malik al-rifaii, who supported the secret library and worked for Daraya Council’s former media office. He is now living in Turkey but is thinking of inventive ways to get the book to his many friends in Idlib. I did offer to send an electronic copy of Syria’s Secret Library to him, as that would have been far easier to forward. But Malik replied, “My friends are lovers of books, and cherish the thought of holding this one in their hands. An electronic copy would just not be the same for them.”
JC: The book is incredibly poignant and eye-opening and I expect many readers will be left wondering what they could do to help?
MT: There are many non-government agencies or NGOs doing great work in Syria who could make use of any help people are able to offer. One, International Book Aid, has been organising the transport of books to Idlib, and a couple of others are also planning similar efforts.
JC: And finally, those involved in the secret library impressed on the importance of learning, but what have they taught you?
MT: The people of Idlib have taught me that however dark life may seem, however insurmountable the difficulties and dangers you face, don’t ever lose hope.
Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 11 July 2019 in hardback at £18.99, eBook £9.99, and audio £19.99