Editions du Seuil, 2017
Marie-Aimée told me about this non-fiction book one day while we were having lunch together. The story sounded fascinating: a secret library in war-torn Syria.
In 2012, in response to a peaceful rebellion against his regime, Bachar al-Assad ordered his forces to begin bombarding the town of Daraya. In spite of incessant bombing and being cut off from supplies, a group of young men from the town refused to abandon their city.
Among the rubble, near a bombed out house, they found the remains of an impressive book collection, and decided to make an underground library.
Relying on the library's shaky Internet connection, journalist Delphine Minoui conducted Skype interviews, mostly with Ahmad, one of the founders. Drawing from their conversations, Minoui shows how the library came to symbolize hope. People could come to the library to read, to feel connected to the outside world and “normal life”. Omar Abou Anas of the FSA (Free Syrian Army, labeled a terrorist group by Assad) said that the books had a crucial impact on him and helped him to not completely give up on life.
Which books were most popular with readers from the secret library? Number one:
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
This best-seller self-help book was the secret library's most checked-out book. Author Stephen Covey stresses the importance of character over personality, and recommends 7 habits for an effective life:
1. Be proactive
2. Begin with the end in mind
3. Put first things first
4. Think win-win
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
7. Sharpen the saw
If you're wondering what "sharpen the saw" means, click on this link:
Various stories and testimonies from Sarajevo during the embargo imposed on the city from 1992-96.
Ahmad says, "in moments of infinite distress, the only reading that can provide a little solace is testimony from people who have lived through similar experiences... ...reading about Sarajevo is to feel less alone. Others before us lived through the same experiences. In another country, another context. But thanks to their testimony, I feel less vulnerable. I find the strength within me to carry on."
State of Siege by Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet
Mahmoud Darwish is a Palestinian poet who wrote the poem State of Siege during the Israeli-imposed embargo on his city, Ramallah. Amhad explains that during the siege of Daraya, this poem brought him more comfort than any other work from the secret library. He had known about the poem earlier and had thought about reading it, but had never quite gotten around to it; the subject didn't concern him directly. But during the siege of Daraya, he memorized entire passages, relating to every word; the poem expressed exactly what he was feeling. Literature is life!
Extract from State of Siege by Mahmoud Darwish:
Here, where the hills slope before the sunset and the chasm of time near gardens whose shades have been cast aside we do what prisoners do we do what the jobless do we sow hope
Text (Etat de siège) in French
I read a criticism that Minoui’s book doesn’t talk enough about the secret library to warrant the book's title. It's true that at the beginning I became a bit impatient to hear more about the library rather the author's experience trying to explain the war to her young daughter. But overall she gives us a truly personal look into how books influenced the lives of those she interviewed, making their pain bearable and their experiences more meaningful. She made us feel close to Amhad and really care what happened to him, while showing us how books can have healing power.
The following articles offer briefer accounts of the the secret library in Daraya:
https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36893303 (includes a video tour of the secret library and other photos)
Prologue: In August 2016 Daraya was defeated and the last rebel fighters and civilians evacuated. The library was destroyed by Assad's army, some books sold for nothing, others left to turn to dust.
Video interview with journalist/author Delphine Minoui (in French)
To my knowledge, this book is not available in English.
Peace to Syrians and all the world’s people.