The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

As tough as the various lockdowns have been on people this is a mere inconvenience compared to what the populace of Daraya has had to put up with. It was in this town that the Syrian Civil war began. It has been under siege for years; the Assad regime trying to starve and boom the people into submission or death. Thousands of bombs have rained down on the city reducing almost everything, including the hospitals to dusty smoking ruins. They were not even allowed basic aid from neutral independent organisations.

Somehow they kept going, helping each other out and making sure that people were looked after. After one bombing run, one group of young men were looking for survivors in amongst the chaos and they discovered and cache of books that had survived the destruction of the building. They collect the books and make the decision to look for more. A week later they have collected six thousand volumes and in a month they have fifteen thousand. The addresses of where they find the books are written on the inside covers should the previous owners ever wish to claim them back again. They create a library for the people of the city-based in a basement of a building, it is safe from the barrel bombs and becomes a place of learning and sanctuary for the oppressed people.

I listen to these poems like you’d listen to a secret voice whispering things you’re unable to express. The way someone sings what you’re incapable of singing. I find myself in every word, in every line.

A chance find on a Facebook page showing this secret library, inspired French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui to find out more about it. She manages to track down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad and started to ask him questions about it. Those questions become a wider conversation and in the end a friendship. She learns why they have done it, how they are using the books to further their educations and the hope that they get from the project.

They communicate via WhatsApp and Facebook, and she sees them at their most vulnerable, hunched in the basements of shattered buildings hearing the dull thuds of yet more explosions. Sometimes there was almost no communication, a message she sent would not have a reply for days until suddenly a happy or sad-faced emoji would pop up on her phone. Then nothing again. She would worry about them even though she was incapable of doing anything to help. Minoui longed to meet them, but never tough that this was going to be possible at all.

At the end of the line, he’s unable to speak. He’s lost his voice. His throat is empty. I can tell that he is beaten, depressed. From all the time I have spent talking to him over the internet, I’ve learned to read between the lines, to anticipate his responses. This isn’t a normal silence. For the first time, he’s run out of things to say about Daraya.

At times this is a heart-wrenching read. I cannot even imagine what life, such as you can call it there, was like. But in amongst all the death and destruction, there is hope; the hope that they find within the pages of the books, the hope that this time will end and the hope that they can build a democracy in the country that they love. The book conveys the reality of what life was like there at the time and the fear that every message to her would be their last. Minoui’s writing is sharp and pithy. It feels like the short chapters were written as notes after each time she contacted the men as her emotions come across as raw and reactions to the situations as they happen. It is a wonderful book about the generosity of the human spirit and however bad life is there is still some solace within the pages of a book. There is a video about the Book Collectors of Daraya, here (£)

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2 Comments

  1. Liz Dexter

    Wow – a rare 5/5 for this one. I think it might be too traumatic a read for me but I’m glad it was written.

    • Paul

      I think that it might be. Some of the descriptions are quite harrowing. My third 5 star read this year so far

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