A Review of
Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege
Reviewed by Erin Ensinger
Quiet clung like a shroud to the streets of Daraya. The silence shocked the remnant who for four years resisted the clamor of President Bashar al-Assad’s bombardment. Now, in late summer 2016, he promised them a two-day window to evacuate or else. Many scurried to pack meager belongings and say farewell to rubble piles that marked former favorite haunts. But others had an even more important task before fleeing for their lives – they returned their library books.
In Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege, Mike Thomson introduces a Syria many Western readers have never encountered, a nation of poets, philosophers, feminist writers and voracious readers. Perhaps their dedication to due dates is not surprising considering that 4,500 years earlier, people browsed clay tablets in the world’s first library, located in present-day northern Syria. The Prophet Mohammad’s friends visited Daraya so often that it became a favorite destination for knowledge-seekers. But Thomson’s sketch of pre-civil war Daraya seems eerily akin to small-town America, with bustling cafes, football-loving crowds, and citizens just as likely to turn on a TV as to pick up a book. Daraya’s private libraries left the general public empty-handed, bookshop prices soared beyond many readers’ means, and local mosques strictly proscribed literature choices.
Books seemed the last thing anyone would worry about when Assad’s bombs announced all-out siege in 2012. After months of increasing violence towards pro-democracy protesters, soldiers forced their way into town and massacred at least 700 people. Tanks closed in around the town, and continual shelling punctuated the daily rhythms of life. Many families fled while they could, but others chose to stay, protected by only a few hundred Free Syrian Army fighters. One citizen explained he “feared that if everyone like him left, Daraya would be changed for ever – not just the fabric of the town, its shops, schools, homes and farms, but the very spirit of the place” (65). With no electricity or access to food and medical supplies, life became increasingly tenuous for those who chose to stay. During brief ceasefires, they gathered seeds to plant meager gardens in dirt spread on their balconies. But another kind of hunger ravaged a small group of university students. “‘Just as the body needs food, the soul needs books,’” said Anas Habib, a twenty-eight-year-old civil engineering student forced to stop his studies when the siege began (60).
Desperation turned students into stuntmen. They braved sniper fire, trawled booby-trapped rooms, teetered on planks three-stories up, and shoved defunct cars past enemy lines while salvaging thousands of books from Daraya’s bombed buildings. They lugged the books to a basement in the most damaged part of town where surely no enemy would look for them. Like a geode, the basement’s scarred exterior belied the treasure within: volumes on every imaginable topic sparkling on shelves reclaimed from the rubble. The students scavenged a sofa for private reading, a table and chairs for book clubs and lectures, and a desk for 14-year-old Chief Librarian Amjad, who painstakingly signed the books out and gave them a daily dusting. At the height of its glory, the secret library accommodated 30 visitors per day, offered classes on subjects from English and math to religion, and provided literature for soldiers’ book clubs on the front line.
As he recounts the library’s rise and ultimate doom, Thomson continually poses a deeper question: why would half-starved youth in a country eviscerated by war risk their lives to save books? Some of the library’s founders wax poetic, calling it a “spiritual sanctuary” and the “beating heart” of their town, a place where ideals could thrive despite the jaws of hell gaping near (292, 81). Another simply calls the library “home,” a quiet place to foster relationships and a sense of normalcy away from the bombs (127). But Thomson, a BBC foreign correspondent familiar with war zones, charges further into treacherous territory. How, he asks, could these young men spend time reading while others fought on the front lines? Perhaps most telling is Anas’ unabashed declaration that the library was “a repository of hope,” a way to educate citizens so they could rebuild Daraya one day (291). The founders particularly yearned to help Daraya’s children think critically and express themselves cogently. In a world that fights bullets with bullets, “their joy in creating rather than destroying, was unusual,” and, as Thomson becomes convinced, completely valid (94).
The Syrians’ unflinching honesty allows Thomson to become not just their journalist but their friend. The story of this growing friendship is one of the book’s most valuable aspects, enabling readers to also view the Syrians as people rather than faceless numbers who “must have got used to it by now,” as one stranger comments to Thomson (166). Thomson battles crackling Internet connections to connect with his friends, reads their favorite books, grieves with their losses, and triumphs when they are allowed the normal joys of marriage, birth and family reunions. Thomson introduces us to people he cares for deeply so that readers are swept up in his admiration of their resilience and equanimity. As library supporter Muhammad Shihadeh says, “War is only the superficial face that you see first. Underneath that, there is so much humanity, so much else taking place” (75). Thomson confronts readers inescapably with that humanity.
In fact, Thomson sheds such a glowing light on the secret library that readers may unwittingly begin wishing they were there, discussing books around a battered table in a dark basement, bombs crashing above them. A niggling doubt begins to whisper, “Isn’t Thomson a mite idealistic to propose that books can spark hope in the midst of decimation?” After all, how can people even concentrate on reading when hunger is gnawing their bellies and grief overwhelming their souls? The truth is that after awhile they cannot. Thomson with characteristic honesty records the day that Anas loses “his once insatiable appetite for reading and books” and the children stop thinking about their future because they don’t believe they have one (217). Thomson’s chilling words “the end had finally come” suggest the destruction of hope as Daraya’s citizens evacuate, leaving the library to Assad’s ransacking soldiers (210).
Syria’s Secret Library is not so much about books as it is about hope. Even when all possibility is squelched, hope inexorably rises again. From their exile in Idlib, the last rebel holdout, the friends begin a mobile library, driving a van full of books to children in remote areas. They once again encourage children to cling to their dreams for the future, and they resume their own dreams about rebuilding Daraya one day. Thomson’s empathy for his friends keeps him, too, swinging between hope and despair. With Assad’s grip tightening, Thomson asks one final, devastating question: “Would it not be best…to forget thoughts of rebuilding the past, accept that the library was lost and build a new future around something else?” (295) Without hesitation, his friends pledge to rebuild or die trying, and from their spirit Thomson catches a shred of hope, based not on circumstances but on what hope must always be based on – “an invisible something” that we can neither define nor deny (296). Thomson ends his book both convinced that his friends will succeed and simply hoping that they will. Like Emily Dickinson’s bird that “sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all,” hope, in its seemingly foolish obstinacy, is the only antidote to bitterness. The people of Daraya remain unrivaled champions of hope.
Erin Ensinger is an English professor and a “keeper at home” with her two preschoolers. She is the editor-in-chief of Authenticity Book House and is preparing to launch The Little Library in the Big Woods, a private lending library for homeschooling families.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com