0438 GMT February 21, 2020
In a region that sways “on the palm of a genie,” as the Arabic saying goes, where bullets and explosions are more familiar than bread, you would not expect people to read, let alone to risk their lives for the sake of books. Yet in 2013 a group of enthusiastic readers in Daraya, five miles southwest of Damascus, salvaged thousands of books from ruined homes, wrapping them in blankets just as they would be victims of the war raging around them. They brought the books into the basement of a building whose upper floors had been wrecked by bombs and set up a library. As Mike Thomson recounts this unlikely story in ‘Syria’s Secret Library,’ this underground book collection surrounded by sandbags functioned, as one user put it, as an “oasis of normality in this sea of destruction.”
There, the self-appointed chief librarian, a 14-year-old named Amjad, would write down in a large file the names of people who borrowed the books, and then return to his seat to continue reading. He had all the books he could ever want, apart from ones on high shelves that he couldn’t reach. He told his friends, “You don’t have TV now anyway, so why not come here and educate yourself? It’s fun.” The library hosted a weekly book club, as well as classes on English, math and world history, and debates over literature and religion.
By the time the library was founded, Daraya, a site of anti-government protests and calls for reforms, had been under siege by the army for more than a year. Its 8,000 remaining residents — from a prewar population of about 80,000 — faced near-constant bombardment and shortages of food, water and power. The situation worsened in 2014 when the Daesh terrorists made Raqqa its de facto capital and went on to invade vast areas of Syria and Iraq. The terrorists were paying people to join them, and many parents had no idea what jobs their sons were taking until it was too late. “Ignorance is always the enemy of humanity,” Homam, a volunteer at the library told. The siege was lifted in 2016 after numerous protests on social media, including an open letter signed by 47 women in Daraya underscoring their desperation.
In the same spirit of piling books under Daraya’s shattered streets, local artists painted graffiti art on the walls of ruined buildings. In a moving image drawn by Abu Malik, a local artist nicknamed Banksy, a little girl stands on a pile of skulls writing the word “hope” high above her head.
*Dunya Mikhail is a journalist and poet and the author of ‘The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq’. The article was first published The New York Times.