Lemme see, a book about a secret library in the middle of war-torn Syria. How on earth could I resist ? So of course I helped myself to a copy of Mike Thomson’s Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege when I spotted it on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Seriously, who could blame me?
Like many towns in Syria, Daraya, located just outside the capital Damascus found itself on the front lines of a bloody civil war. On one side were the forces of Syria’s dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad and the regime’s Iranian, Lebanese (Hezbollah) and Russian allies. Pitted against them was a cacophony of rebel groups with affiliations ranging from ISIS to the West. Besieged by Assad’s forces and suffering under a constant rain of bombs, artillery shells and rockets the city lay in ruins. Despite being isolated and cut-off not just from the rest of Syria but the world, rumors circulated of a secret library safe beneath the city. Here residents could escape the horrible carnage around them and seek comfort within the pages of a good book, if only for a few fleeting hours. When BBC reporter Mike Thomson heard these rumors, he traveled to Syria to investigate. His 2019 book Syria’s Secret Library is the result of his investigation.
Much like we saw in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu Syria’s Secret Library is the story of ordinary people, when confronted with horrible circumstances doing extra ordinary things. Refusing to see the city’s books go up in flames or whither away from the elements young men from the area risked their lives rescuing books from bombed out buildings, frequently while dodging snipers’ bullets. Eventually, each book was labeled, inventoried and carefully stored on a shelf in a makeshift library hidden in the basement of one of Daraya’s war-ravaged structures. Here students resumed their studies, intellectual discussions flourished and the ambitious and hopeful researched ways to improve their lives and rebuild their country should the fighting ever come to an end.
Since I don’t like revealing spoilers, all I’ll say is this story, no matter how inspiring has a bittersweet ending. I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy Syria’s Secret Library as much as I expected to. But that’s OK since it’s a one heck of a story.