Fighting ISIS and Assad in a Secret Library Amid the Rubble

French journalist Delphine Minoui tells Haaretz how a group of young Syrians managed to put together a secret library with 15,000 books in battered and starving Daraya

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Men chat amid damaged buildings in Daraya, Syria, February 2, 2014.
Men chat amid damaged buildings in Daraya, Syria, February 2, 2014. Credit: Omar Abu Bakr / Reuters
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

Daraya, a town eight kilometers (five miles) southwest of Damascus, only became widely known in 2012, when the Syrian civil war erupted and thousands of local residents were killed. Before that, few people were aware of this suburb where locals had begun protesting in the early 2000s, in the first years of Bashar Assad’s rule. These were protests about government corruption or for better city services like street cleaning – issues that would be dwarfed by the great hopes of the Arab Spring.

In 2011, Daraya was one of the first cities where people took to the streets and called for change. They immediately faced the violence of Assad’s army, but in response they brought the soldiers flowers and bottles of water – which only angered the regime even more. In 2012, Daraya’s proximity to the Mezzeh military airport was the pretext for a particularly fierce offensive by Assad’s forces. What became known as the Daraya massacre led many locals to join the rebels. From then until the forced evacuation of the last survivors near the end of last year, Daraya was under siege.

In 15 years as Le Figaro’s Middle East correspondent, French journalist Delphine Minoui, 43, has covered many of the most significant events in the region. She has spent a lot of time reporting form Iran, and in 2003 covered America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years she has reported on the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In 2006 she was awarded France’s highest journalism award, the Albert Londres Prize, for articles on Iran and Iraq, and for the last two years she has been reporting from Istanbul on the Erdogan government, the Syrian refugees and the Mideast turmoil in general.

In early October, Minoui published her new book “Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya” (“The Book Smugglers of Daraya”). It’s the story of a group of young people who, in battered and starving Daraya, managed to put together a secret library with 15,000 books. Over four years of fighting and daily bombardments, with friends getting killed in front of their eyes, they collected books amid the rubble.

Minoui was last in Damascus in 2010, when she was a reporter stationed in Beirut, she told Haaretz by phone from Istanbul.

“It wasn’t far and you could enter Syria with a French passport and a press visa. But I’ve never been to Daraya. Once the war started, I couldn’t obtain another entry visa for Syria, but as a reporter in the Middle East I searched for every bit of information on what was happening there, and I spent many hours poring over Syrian websites,” she says.

The library in Daraya, Syria.Credit: Daraya Media Center

“Totally by chance, on a ‘Humans of Syria’ Facebook page by young Syrian photographers, I came across a picture that caught my eye: In weak light, practically in darkness, you see about 20 young people sitting around a table, with bookshelves behind them. I read the caption – ‘The secret library in the heart of Daraya’ and I was astounded. Daraya? The besieged city where 700 people were injured by chemical weapons? The city where the hospital was bombed by napalm? A library?” she asks.

“I managed to get in touch with the person responsible for the page and he connected me with one of the library’s founders, a guy named Ahmed. After some brief conversations on Skype and WhatsApp, full of static and with the sound of bombing in the background, we managed to be in touch fairly regularly, and he told me about the library and how they put it together. When I told him I wanted to write a book about the stories of the ‘book smugglers,’ he just said ahlan wa’sahlan – be my guest.”

One day back to the owners

Before the war, Ahmed was a college student in Damascus, Minoui says.

“And he admits that before the siege, he didn’t read much. He felt drawn to Islam then, though not to the most radical segment. But he says he soon realized that this was the path to another kind of dictatorship. And his friends Omar and Shadi, whom I also talked with, said the same thing.”

A library on wheels in Idlib, Syria.Credit: Daraya Media Center

How did they put the library together?

“Ahmed and his friends saw how the siege was stamping out the city’s soul. The schools had closed, students had left their studies and many had joined the rebels. Those who chose to fight using knowledge went through the city’s demolished neighborhoods, dug under the rubble and collected the books that were buried there. To build a library when everything around you is being destroyed, to build a temple of knowledge when ISIS is knocking down the ancient remnants of the temple of Palmyra – this was their way to resist.

“They carefully numbered each book and wrote on it the owner’s name, or their best guess of who was the owner, so it could be returned to him after the war. They built bookshelves, painted the walls white and printed ads with schedules of the activities, discussions and lectures they organized – either via Skype or a speaker who was able to get to the place.

“The library was open daily except for Fridays. This was no easy feat under wartime conditions with the city cut off from water and electricity. They hooked up generators, and when there was a shortage of fuel, they melted plastic to create alternative fuel.”

What kind of books were their favorites?

“They preferred novels and poetry, especially the love poems of Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani. At first, politics didn’t interest them, but as time went by – so Ahmed told me – they began to get interested in anything to do with democracy, especially the book ‘Al-Muqaddimah’ by the historian Ibn Khaldun who lived in Tunisia in the 14th century.

The library in Daraya, Syria. Credit: Daraya Media Center

“But surprisingly, the most popular book among the readers was ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, maybe because of the journey that the Spanish shepherd makes from Andalusia to the Egyptian pyramids. The how-to books were also a big hit with readers. This was their way of breaking the siege. They were looking for shortcuts to learning the things they missed out on because of the war.”

In the pictures, and in the stories of Ahmed, Shadi and Omar, there's no mention of women.

“It was too risky for them to go out on the street, but their husbands or brothers borrowed books from the library for them.”

War of necessity

Did you form a special bond with any of the people from Daraya you talked with?

“I was in near-daily contact with Ahmed – when conditions allowed, of course. But I connected the most with Omar Abu Anas, a 24-year-old who was fighting with the rebels. Omar’s friends called him Ibn Khaldun after the historian. He was an engineering student. Before the war, and unlike the deserters from Assad’s army, he never held a gun before he joined the group called the Islamic Martyrs’ Brigade. I asked him if he saw himself as a jihadi and he said that he saw himself as defending his country as a freedom fighter, and that the war wasn’t a choice but a necessity.

“Omar was one of the most avid readers, someone who would come back from fighting at the front to read and study in the library he built with his friends. He acknowledged that, paradoxically, the war made him more humane by exposing him to philosophical and historical texts. Ahmed also said that at the start of the war he felt closer to Islam, but the war made him totally secular. On July 29, 2016, Omar – the young man who fell in love with books – was killed. That was the first time Ahmed let himself cry when he was talking to me.

Delphine Minoui.Credit: Astrid di Crollalanza

“At the end of 2015, two of the five floors of the building that had the library in the basement were destroyed in a bombardment. At the time, 80 barrels of explosives were being dropped over the city by helicopters each day. The bookshelves were wrecked but the books survived and the guys cleaned them, built new shelves and put the books back in order.”

One morning in August 2016, word came that the town’s survivors were to be forcibly evacuated. Pale, weak and exhausted, the remaining residents emerged from the rubble and boarded buses, accompanied by Red Cross people and surrounded by Syrian army troops, who taunted them. The “librarians” Ahmed and Shadi (who had just recovered from a serious injury) were among the last to leave, and had to leave the books behind. The convoy took them to the Idlib area, which is held by a coalition of anti-Assad forces, mainly the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Have you met the young men from Daraya face to face?

“Shadi came to Istanbul and we met. I also met Mohammed Shehada, whom the other guys called ‘he Professor because he was 37 and had taken part in the pacifist demonstrations in the early 2000s. But Ahmed hasn’t yet been able to cross the Turkish border. He promised to try to do so the first chance he got. In Idlib he started a mobile library in a small truck that he drives around to the local villages.”

And what became of the library in Daraya?

“When the city was seized, Assad’s troops destroyed the place, took the books and sold them for peanuts in the flea market on the sidewalk in Damascus. The shelves were left empty, which reminded me of the wonderful monument that the Israeli artist Micha Ullman built – ‘Empty Library’ – in Bebelplatz in Berlin, which symbolizes the May 1933 book burning there.”

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