Secret library that made Syrians feel alive again

Secret library that made Syrians feel alive again: Author reveals how the besieged town of Daraya found a haven in books

  • President Bashar al-Assad raided the Syrian town of Daraya and most fled
  • But remaining Darayans went around abandoned houses and rescued books
  • Then, they created a secret library ‘haven’ in the basement of a ruined building

SYRIA’S SECRET LIBRARY

by Mike Thomson (Weidenfeld £18.99, 320 pp)

The civil war in Syria is one of the undoubted horrors of our times. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and billions of dollars of damage has been done, essentially to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.

I have always thought his face gives him away. It’s the face of a weak man, promoted well beyond his gifts, compelled to become a bloodthirsty tyrant purely out of fear of the alternative. Does he sleep at night? I hope not.

Mike Thomson is a widely travelled BBC correspondent who has been filmed looking worried in more war zones than I’ve had hot dinners. His book is about the Syrian town of Daraya, which Bashar decided harboured dangerous revolutionaries and so attacked it with all the weaponry he had.

Mike Thomson reveals how the besieged Syrian town of Daraya built a secret library in an abandoned building 

Most of the population left, but a few thousand stuck it out. The siege lasted for several years before Bashar’s superior firepower prevailed.

Astonishingly, Thomson didn’t ever actually go there. He wouldn’t have been able to — it was locked as tight as a drum. But war in the 21st century isn’t like previous wars. 

It has the internet and it has mobile phones. Daraya had almost no food or medical supplies, electricity was intermittent and fresh water had long been cut off. But the remaining Darayans rigged up makeshift aerials, maintaining rudimentary contact with the outside world.

Thomson made several friends through this method and what these people did was, by any measurement, extraordinary. They went around abandoned houses and rescued as many books as they could, then created a secret library in the basement of a ruined building. This was incredibly dangerous.

Snipers were everywhere and no one carrying a huge pile of books was going to be moving very fast. Astoundingly, no one was killed. More astoundingly, Bashar’s soldiers never worked out what they were up to.

Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson (Weidenfeld £18.99, 320 pp)

The Secret Library became a haven for the peacefully inclined to come and read books and feel alive again. It was presided over by a 14-year-old who called himself Chief Librarian and rarely left the building.

There are several photographs of people sitting on sofas, quietly reading of worlds far beyond their own.

Thomson writes breezily of terrible things, although much of the detail is fascinating.

One woman, whose family lived far away, dared not try to contact them directly, but showed them that she was still alive by changing her Facebook photo every day.

As food supplies dwindled, one man acquired a small quantity of sheep’s liver. He invited a few friends around to share it and they cooked it slowly to savour the wonderful smell.

Unfortunately, they all left the room at the same moment and, when they came back, they found that the sheep’s liver was gone and the cat was licking its lips with satisfaction.

If this book has a weakness, there’s not actually very much in it about the Secret Library and some readers may finish it feeling obscurely cheated.

However, the story of Daraya is nonetheless hugely stirring: of people refusing to give in against impossible odds and the appalling consequences of one man’s palpable weakness.

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