“Books bring us closer together. They’re a bridge between us,” Hussan Ayash tells journalist Delphine Minoui over Skype. Ayash belongs to a group of rebels in Syria who spent four years, from 2012 to 2016, under siege in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. In 2013, they discovered a cache of books in the ruins of a bombed house and decided to rescue them. They dug through the wreckage of other buildings as well, salvaging 6,000 books in one week, and created a secret library in the basement of an abandoned building. In precise yet passionate prose, Minoui tells this remarkable story in The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War.
With a French mother, an Iranian father and a home base in Istanbul, Minoui understands the region well and has won awards for her reporting on the Middle East. When she saw a photo of the library bunker, her first instinct was to travel to Daraya and start interviewing these unusual librarians. That journey would be impossible, however, so she began communicating with several of the young men online and formed an unusual relationship with them, worrying constantly about their safety. This personal connection forms the heart of the book, deepening the story while laying bare the sacrifice and deprivation of the rebels. For those four years, Daraya was besieged by bombs and poison gas, food was scarce, and there was no running water or electricity. As she communicated via video chat, Minoui remained careful to keep her coffee and snacks out of the camera’s view.
“The library is their hidden fortress against the bombs,” Minoui writes. “Books are their weapons of mass instruction.” Although a good many of the library’s founders hadn’t grown up as readers, they became book lovers during the long siege. The library’s most popular titles form an eclectic mix: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, The Little Prince, Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, Les Misérables and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The Book Collectors is a phenomenal story of hope in the midst of complete devastation. As 23-year-old Abu el-Ezz told Minoui in 2015, “Reading helps me think positively, chase away negative ideas. And that’s what we need most right now.”