In early 2012, Daraya, south-west of Damascus, began to be besieged by Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad as his regime responded to Arab Spring protests. Over the next few years, 40 young activists, student and rebels embarked on a remarkable project, rescuing all the books they could find in the bombed-out ruins of their town and placing them in a library open to all residents.
Via a Facebook page in 2015, this story attracted the attention of Delphine Minoui, the Franco-Iranian who serves as the Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro newspaper. It fired Minoui’s imagination – despite being refused a Syrian visa that is always required for visiting foreign journalists. “The library is their hidden fortress against the bombs,” as she writes. “Books are their weapons of mass instruction.”
Minoui then contacted the book collectors of Daraya by WhatsApp and Skype calls, all online, without ever visiting the Syrian town and only eventually met her characters, including the library’s founder, 19 year-old Ahmad Muaddamani, in Istanbul, 932 miles away. She was impressively determined to tell their story: “Bashar al-Assad wanted to put Daraya in parentheses, to make it a footnote. I intend to make it a headline.” And she succeeded: the outcome (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Book-Collectors-Daraya-Underground-Library/dp/1529012317) is an extremely moving and memorable account – about the power of books against a background that takes the reader back to Syria’s tragic chapter in modern Middle Eastern history.
The author adopts an inspiringly positive tone which she takes from Muaddamani and his colleagues, who are clearly resilient people. But it is hard to believe they are still optimistic about Syria’s future with Bashar “re-elected” last week. It is also difficult to hope for any significant domestic change, given the support he still has from Russia and Iran and the increasing acceptance by Arab countries that he is staying in power – highlighted recently by the first visit of Syria’s foreign minister to Saudi Arabia. This sad story is, of course, complicated by global pandemic distractions.
Minoui mentions Ghaith Matar, a 26-year-old tailor who inspired young Syrians with his style of non-violent protest. When the Syrian army entered Daraya in the summer of 2011, Matar came up with the idea of giving a Damascene rose and a bottle of water to the soldiers. Many towns and cities across Syria followed his model. But their roses were met with bullets. In early September, Matar was killed. His body was disfigured and his throat was cut out by his attackers. When I visited Damascus in January 2012 an activist gave me a candle commemorating Matar, with a black ribbon attached.
Challenging the regime narrative that all Assad’s opponents were Islamist extremists, Minoui quotes Ustez, one of the leading Daraya library organisers: “The siege paradoxically protected us from any attempt at radicalization. It allowed us to keep the spirit of Daraya alive. For four years it was just us. It wasn’t easy all the time, but we always settled our differences through dialogue. There was no external invasion. No attempts at manipulation. No foreign intrusion. A singular experience.”
Thousands of books stored underground offered a wide range of reading choices: the international bestseller, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, was very popular: a Spanish shepherd’s journey from Andalusia to the Egyptian pyramids echoes what Minoui describes as the “perilous odyssey” of the young revolutionaries of Daraya.
The love poems of Nizar Qabbani were very sought-after. Another favourite was the Book of Lessons by Ibn Khaldun, as were the works of Shakespeare, Marcel Proust and J.M.Coetzee – collectively “a melody of words against the dirge of bombs”. In December 2015, a barrel bomb hit the library, ripping off two of its five storeys and turning the entrance into a mountain of debris.
Minoui, a fine journalist who relies on the words of her sources, recounts a fascinating online encounter with a fighter named Omar, whom she asks whether he considers himself a jihadist and records his reply: ”If I chose to fight against the regime, it was to defend my land…my right to freedom. Fighting wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity. When you friends fall before your eyes for having brandished a piece of cardboard calling for change, what’s left, except the desire to protect other protestors?”
Omar was killed in July 2016, which turned out to be a turning point. Ahmad and his remaining friends were evacuated to rebel-held Idlib in August. The town resisted both the regime and the extremists of Daesh – but to no avail. “In Daraya, the regime did its best to erase every positive and intellectual trace of the revolution,” reflects Ahmad. “To Assad, a cultivated and educated man is a dangerous man, because he represents a threat to the established order. But I’ve grown from this tragedy. I never felt so free, carrying memories that nobody can take away from me.”
Minoui also quotes Mazen Darwish, the Syrian human rights activist, as saying: “There is no jail that can imprison the free word, nor is there a siege tight enough to prevent the spread of information”. Let’s hope that Ahmad and Mazen are both right.
by: IAN BLACK