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’.
Thomson shares a potted history of Darayya – a town less well known than its nearby neighbours, Damascus and Aleppo, but which suffered some of the worst destruction of the civil war – including the rising tensions in the area and the ensuing artillery bombardment, arrests and killings which culled Darayya’s population from around 80,000 to 8,000 in a matter of weeks and left its infrastructure obliterated. Amidst this devastation, however, were those who refused to leave their home, to see their town empty and broken, and so a hardy few remained, despite the relentless onslaught, the risk of snipers and the ever-worsening shortage of food. Thomson reflects that the creation of a library in such circumstances may seem somewhat bizarre, but for those left behind, books were the answer to many of their daily struggles: offering the chance to take their mind off the hunger and danger that threatened to overwhelm them, to develop their knowledge, understanding and empathy, to build a positive and empowering space and to let them escape for a few blissful hours the horrors of their own world. Books have longed been celebrated for such power but this narrative really bears this out.
Risking their lives, those behind the secret library took it upon themselves to kit out a basement space in Darayya and to fill it with books – which meant retrieving whatever sources they could get their hands on, often from ‘gutted homes, libraries and other buildings’. But, in their infinite display of respect and dignity, they would add the names and addresses to the inside of all books, should their owners ever have an opportunity or desire to reclaim them. For now, though, they were in excellent, and grateful hands, not least those of the Chief Librarian, fourteen-year-old Amjad, whose absolute reverence for books is like a balm to the soul. Indeed, all of those invested in the secret library share this utter conviction in, and love of, books that makes you sit up and take stock. In a time in which our libraries are struggling to survive with barely anyone batting an eyelid, and when consumers are able to order any book from around the world in the click of a button, the absolute importance placed on the library in Darayya and the scarcity of books is a painful realisation. In fact, the whole experience of this book is a powerful wake-up call, ensuring, for the first time perhaps, that we really see behind the devastation of war to the realities of those living inside it and the courage and humanity of their struggles. Thomson humanises the Syrian crisis in a way that cannot fail to move the reader and his book places the lens firmly back on a country that one would be forgiven for thinking has left behind the worst of its days. Indeed, as soon I finished the book I was moved to look online for the latest news of the town where the Secret Library founders and users were forced to move on to, and despite taking up relatively few column inches or airtime these days, the war is sadly still raging on.
While there are people like those behind the secret library, there is hope, but there are also forces and regimes determined to crush that hope. Through books, some in Syria have been able to resist, defy and dream. They are a constant reminder to their oppressors of true courage and a reminder to the rest of the world of the sacrifice and power of the human spirit. The least we can do is share their story and keep it alive so that they know they are not alone in their struggle and that as fellow readers, booklovers and human beings we are humbled by their resilience and strength and hope one day to see them thriving in a library of their own.
I urge everyone to read this book, and to pass it on to everyone you know. It is a harrowing yet hopeful story that humanises the despicable atrocities of war, but above all it is a superb read, diligently and respectfully narrated by Thomson. Without question, this is my book of the year and, in fact, is the best, most pivotal, book I’ve read in a long, long time.
Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson
W&N 9781474605908 hbk Jul 2019