The twentieth piece in our Polity of Literature series:
Wherever there are libraries, there are threats to libraries. Any collection of books needs both care and readers, without which they will decay into paper and dust (or, with digital libraries, into meaningless, unread sequences of code). Libraries have been targets in war since the sacking of Alexandria. In Syria, in 2013, after the Assad government’s repeated attacks on the Damascus suburb of Daraya, a group of Darayans began to rescue and store books lost in the rubble of the bombing raids. They brought them to a hidden, underground room and created “the Secret Library of Daraya.” The actions in Daraya pose a striking parallel to work that began that same year in Rotterdam, where neoliberalism had destroyed the local library (see PoL #19, by Maurice Specht). In both cases, creating a “collection” of books became the site for embodied collectivity and politics. French journalist Delphine Minoui’s award-winning account of the work in Daraya, The Book Collectors, has just been published in an excellent English translation by Lara Vergnaud (available from FSG). Today we reprint the opening ten pages, along with illustrations by Ken Krimstein.
It’s a remarkable image. A mysterious photo that somehow escaped the hell that is Syria without a trace of blood or bullets. Two men in profile, surrounded by walls of books. The first one leans over a text, open to the middle. The second scans a shelf. They’re young, in their twenties, one sporting a hooded sweatshirt, the other with a baseball hat secured firmly on his head. Artificial light frames their faces in an enclosed, windowless room, emphasizing the unexpectedness of the scene. A fragile parenthesis in the midst of war.
The photo fascinates me. I came across it by chance on Facebook, on the page kept by Humans of Syria, a collective of photographers. I read the caption: the secret library of Daraya. I repeat it out loud: secret library of Da-ra-ya. The three syllables crash into one another. Daraya, the rebel. Daraya, the besieged. Daraya, the starved. I’ve read—and written—a great deal about this suburb of Damascus, one of the cradles of 2011’s peaceful uprising. Since 2012, it has been surrounded and blasted by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The idea that these young readers are hidden in an underground basement as bombs explode above their heads arouses my curiosity.
What’s the story behind this picture? What’s the hidden angle? The image haunts me, drawing me like a magnet to an inaccessible place: Syria has become too dangerous a destination. It takes me several calls on Skype and WhatsApp to track down the photographer, Ahmad Muaddamani. Ahmad is one of the cofounders of this secret haven. Through a spotty internet connection, their sole portal to the outside world, he tells me of his devastated city—houses in ruin, fire and dust, and amid the tumult, thousands of books saved from the rubble and reassembled in a refuge accessible to all of Daraya’s residents. He spends hours explaining this project to save their cultural heritage, born from the ashes of a town that won’t yield. He tells me about the incessant bombing. The empty stomachs. The soups made of leaves to stave off starvation. The voracious reading to nourish the mind. The library is their hidden fortress against the bombs. Books are their weapons of mass instruction.
His story is riveting. It rings out like an ode to peace that Syria’s leader is hell-bent on muffling. An underground chorus that the jihadists of Daesh want to eradicate. A new voice that sprang from loudspeakers at the early demonstrations of the antiregime uprising, and was nearly muted by the ongoing conflict. This unheard account of their revolution whispers: write me down.
It is a perilous undertaking. How can you describe something you can’t see, that you haven’t lived? How do you avoid falling into the trap of misinformation, knowing Assad is not the only one spreading it? Aside from the books they are reading, what kinds of ideas do these young men entertain?
Are they really jihadists, as the regime would have us believe? Or mere rebels who refuse to surrender? In Istanbul, I calculate the distance separating me from Daraya: 932 miles. I study the myriad ways to get there. But there’s no point. Since my last trip to Damascus in 2010, when I was living in Beirut, I’ve been unable to get another press visa to access the Syrian capital. Even if I could get to Damascus, how would I reach the trapped suburb? This fall, even the United Nations was prevented from penetrating the barricades, failing in its attempts to send any humanitarian aid. Is there a tunnel, a back road, a secret path? On the other end of the line, Ahmad confirms that every usual route is blocked. All that’s left is the breach through Moadamiya, a neighboring town, used only by the most daring. Such a crossing happens at night, at the mercy of snipers.
But should the story of Daraya be buried simply because we can’t see past the wall erected by Assad? Should we settle for being passive witnesses to the incomparable barbarism unfolding live on our television sets?
If we look at this city only as it appears on a computer screen, we risk getting the story wrong. But looking away would condemn it to silence. Bashar al-Assad wanted to put Daraya in parentheses, to make it a footnote. I intend to make it the headline. To find other images, to fit them together with that first snapshot, the way you assemble the pieces of a puzzle.
A few days later, I call Ahmad to tell him my plan, anxious to hear his response.
At first, there’s a long silence at the other end of the Skype connection.
I repeat my request: “I’d like to write a book about the library in Daraya.”
A metallic clamor chokes the line. Another night full of this constant terror and danger—how ridiculous this project must seem to him. When the rain of bombs ends, his voice breaks through. “Ahlan wa sahlan!” Be my guest.
Hearing his enthusiasm, I smile at my screen. Ahmad will be my guide. I will be his willing scribe.
I make him a promise: one day, this book—their book—will join the other volumes in the library. It will be the living diary of Daraya.
At first Ahmad is a distant voice coming through my computer speakers. A fragile whisper from a hidden basement. When I first make contact with him on Skype, on October 15, 2015, he hasn’t left Daraya in nearly three years. Located fewer than five miles from Damascus, his town is a sarcophagus, surrounded and starved by the regime. He is one of 12,000 survivors. In the beginning, I struggle to understand what he is saying. He mumbles, timid but keyed up, his words broken by the omnipresent crackling of explosions. Between detonations, I try to focus on his face. He appears on my computer screen, then disappears, at the mercy of an internet connection patched together from small satellite dishes smuggled from abroad in the early days of the revolution.
His image stretches and deforms like a Picasso portrait: round cheeks slant at an angle under black-rimmed glasses before breaking into a million cubic pieces and fading behind a thick black curtain. When the pixels come back together, I listen carefully and try to read his lips, chewing on my pencil.
He introduces himself. Ahmad, 23 years old, born in Daraya, one of eight children in his family. Before the revolution, he studied civil engineering at Damascus University. Before the revolution, he liked soccer, movies, and being around plants in his family’s nursery. Before the revolution, he dreamed of becoming a journalist. His father quickly dissuaded him from the idea, having himself spent twelve months in prison for a simple remark whispered to a friend. “Insult to power,” the court had ruled. That was 2003, when Ahmad was eleven. A somber memory that had burrowed deep inside him.
Then the revolution. When Syria rouses in March 2011, Ahmad is 19, a rebellious age. His father, still traumatized from jail, forbids him to go into the streets. Ahmad misses the first protest held in Daraya, but sneaks into the second one. He joins the crowd, chanting at the top of his lungs: “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.” In his chest, inside this budding revolutionary, something rips, like a sheet of paper. His first sensation of freedom.
Weeks, then months go by. The protests are unending, too. Bashar al-Assad’s voice shouts menacingly from transistor radios. “We will win. We will not yield. We will eliminate the dissenters.” Regime forces shoot into the crowd. The first bullets whistle, but Ahmad and his friends chant even louder—“Freedom! Freedom!”—as other resisters take up weapons to protect themselves. Unable to imprison them all, Syria’s president decides to put their town under lockdown. It’s November 8, 2012. Like many others, Ahmad’s family pack their suitcases and escape to a neighboring town. They beg him to follow. He refuses—this is his revolution, his generation’s revolution. Ahmad gets hold of a video camera and finally realizes his childhood dream: he will expose the truth. He joins the media center run by the new local council. In the daytime, he roams the devastated streets of Daraya. He films houses ripped apart, hospitals overflowing with the injured, burials for the victims, traces of a war invisible and inaccessible to foreign media. At night, he uploads his videos to the internet. One year of paralyzing violence goes by, full of hope and uncertainty.
One day in late 2013, Ahmad’s friends call him—they need some help. They found books that they want to rescue in the ruins of an obliterated house.
“Books?” he repeats in surprise.
The idea strikes him as ludicrous. It’s the middle of a war. What’s the point of saving books when you can’t even save lives? He’d never been a big reader. For him, books smack of lies and propaganda. For him, books recall the portrait of Assad and his long giraffe neck that mocked him from his schoolbooks. After a moment of hesitation, he follows his friends through a gouged-out wall. An explosion has ripped off the house’s front door. The disfigured building belongs to a school director who fled the city and left everything behind. Ahmad cautiously feels his way to the living room, illuminated by a single sliver of sunlight. The wood floor is carpeted with books, scattered amid the debris. With one slow movement, he kneels to the ground and picks one at random. His nails flick against the dust-blackened cover, as if against the strings of a musical instrument. The title is in English, something about self-awareness, a psychology book, no doubt. Ahmad turns to the first page, deciphers the few words he recognizes. It turns out the subject doesn’t matter. He’s trembling. His insides turn to jelly. An unsettling sensation that comes with opening the door to knowledge. With escaping, for a second, the routine of war. With saving a little piece, however tiny, of the town’s archives. Slipping through these pages as if fleeing into the unknown.
Ahmad takes his time standing up, the book against his chest. His entire body is shaking.
“The same sensation of freedom I felt at my first protest,” he whispers through the computer screen.
Ahmad cuts off, his face once again a patchwork of pixels. A detonation has interrupted the internet connection. I stare at the screen. I think I hear a sigh. He takes a big breath and continues his story, giving an inventory of the other books found in the rubble that day: Arabic and international literature, philosophy, theology, science. A sea of information in arm’s reach.
“But we had to hurry,” he continues. “Planes were rumbling outside. We moved fast, dug up the books, and filled the bed of a pickup to the brim.”
In subsequent days, the collection effort continues in the ruins of abandoned houses, destroyed offices, and disintegrating mosques. Ahmad quickly develops a taste for it. With each new hunt for books, he savors the immense pleasure of unearthing abandoned pages, bringing back to the world life buried in wreckage. They excavate with their bare hands, sometimes with shovels. In all, they are forty or so volunteers—activists, students, rebels—always at the ready, waiting for the planes to go silent so they can dig in the rubble. They salvage 6,000 books in one week. One month later, the collection reaches 15,000. The books are short, long, dented, dog-eared, damaged; some are rare and highly sought-after. They have to find someplace to store them. Protect them. Preserve this small crumb of Syria’s heritage before it all goes up in smoke. By general agreement, a plan for a public library takes shape. Daraya never had one under Assad. So this will be the first. “The symbol of a city that won’t bow down—a place where we’re constructing something even as everything else collapses around us,” adds Ahmad. He stops, pensive, before uttering a sentence I will never forget: “Our revolution was meant to build, not destroy.”
Fearing reprisals from the regime, the organizers decide this library would be kept in the greatest of secrecy. It would have neither name nor sign. It would be an underground space, protected from radar and shells, where avid and novice readers alike could gather. Reading as refuge. A page opening to the world when every door is locked. After scouring the city, Ahmad and his friends uncover the basement of an abandoned building at the border of the front line, not far from the snipers, but largely spared rocket fire. Its inhabitants are gone. The volunteers hurriedly construct wooden shelves. They find paint to freshen the dusty walls. They reassemble two or three couches. Outside, they pile a few sandbags in front of the windows, and they bring a generator to provide electricity. For days, the book collectors busily dust, glue, sort, index, and organize all these volumes. Now arranged by theme and in alphabetical order on overstuffed shelves, the books find a new, harmonious order.
One last detail remains to be sorted out before the library’s unveiling: making sure that every book is numbered and carries its owner’s name, meticulously written by hand on the first page.
“We’re not thieves, and certainly not looters. These books belong to the residents of Daraya. Some are dead. Others have left. Others have been arrested. We want all of them to be able to retrieve their belongings once the war is over,” insists Ahmad.
I set down my pencil, impressed by his civic-mindedness and speechless at such respect for others. For all others. These young Syrians cohabit with death night and day. Most of them have already lost everything—their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the bedlam, they cling to books as if to life. Hoping for a better tomorrow. For a better political system. Driven by their thirst for culture, they are quietly developing an idea of what democracy should be. An idea that’s growing. That challenges both the regime’s tyranny and the brutality of Daesh, whose fighters set the library of Mosul, in Iraq, on fire in the beginning of 2015. Ahmad and his friends are true soldiers for peace.
Another explosion rips through our conversation. Unflappable, Ahmad continues his story. He tells me how on the day of the library opening the celebration was muted—no fruit juice or streamers, just a few friends gathered for the occasion. But most important, yes, most important of all, that tingling sensation prickling in his chest again, like it did during his first protest chant.
The library very quickly becomes one of the cornerstones of this isolated town. Open from 9 am to 5 pm, except on Friday, the day of rest, it welcomes an average of 25 readers per day, mainly men. In Daraya, Ahmad explains, women and children are not very visible and rarely venture outside. In general, they make do with reading the books their fathers or husbands bring home, rather than risk the barrel bombs raining from the sky.
“Last month, around six hundred fell on the town,” says Ahmad.
His friend Abu el-Ezz, codirector of the library, was a near casualty. In September 2015, he was on his way to the book cellar when one of the many barrel bombs being tossed from regime helicopters landed in front of him. These containers full of explosives and scrap metal fall randomly and are therefore particularly destructive. Abu el-Ezz was hit in the neck by pieces of shrapnel that affected his nervous system; he suffers from cramps that stab down to the small of his back. Ever since the explosion, he’s been on bed rest in a makeshift clinic.
Detonations echo. The bombings have resumed. Ahmad continues. This time, he lets me know that he needs to end our call. We don’t know it yet, but there will be many more conversations like this one. Much longer ones, in fact. In his shattered country, where virtual connections have replaced physical ones, it’s common to spend entire evenings talking on the internet. But I’m anxious to visualize this extraordinary place. To discover the color of its walls. The faces of its readers. The titles of all the books gathered there, saved from chaos.
Delphine Minoui is a journalist and Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro. She received the Albert-Londres Prize for her reporting on Iraq and Iran. Among Minoui's many books in French, three have been published in English: I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced; I'm Writing You from Tehran; and The Book Collectors, translated by Lara Vergnaud (now available from Farrar, Strauss, Giroux). Minoui directed a documentary film about the secret library of Daraya, which aired on France 5 TV and other international channels and was shown at many film festivals. Born in Paris in 1974 to a French mother and an Iranian father, she worked as a journalist in Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo, and now lives in Istanbul.