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Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege

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The remarkable story of a small, makeshift library in the town of Daraya, and the people who found hope and humanity in its books during a four-year siege. Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital. Yet for four years it lived in another world. Besieged by government forces early in the Syrian Civil War, its people were deprived of food, bo The remarkable story of a small, makeshift library in the town of Daraya, and the people who found hope and humanity in its books during a four-year siege. Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital. Yet for four years it lived in another world. Besieged by government forces early in the Syrian Civil War, its people were deprived of food, bombarded by heavy artillery, and under the constant fire of snipers. But deep beneath this scene of frightening devastation lay a hidden library. While the streets above echoed with shelling and rifle fire, the secret world below was a haven of books. Long rows of well-thumbed volumes lined almost every wall: bloated editions with grand leather covers, pocket-sized guides to Syrian poetry, and no-nonsense reference books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this precious horde was not bought from publishers or loaned by other libraries--they were the books salvaged and scavenged at great personal risk from the doomed city above. The story of this extraordinary place and the people who found purpose and refuge in it is one of hope, human resilience, and above all, the timeless, universal love of literature and the compassion and wisdom it fosters.


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The remarkable story of a small, makeshift library in the town of Daraya, and the people who found hope and humanity in its books during a four-year siege. Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital. Yet for four years it lived in another world. Besieged by government forces early in the Syrian Civil War, its people were deprived of food, bo The remarkable story of a small, makeshift library in the town of Daraya, and the people who found hope and humanity in its books during a four-year siege. Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital. Yet for four years it lived in another world. Besieged by government forces early in the Syrian Civil War, its people were deprived of food, bombarded by heavy artillery, and under the constant fire of snipers. But deep beneath this scene of frightening devastation lay a hidden library. While the streets above echoed with shelling and rifle fire, the secret world below was a haven of books. Long rows of well-thumbed volumes lined almost every wall: bloated editions with grand leather covers, pocket-sized guides to Syrian poetry, and no-nonsense reference books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this precious horde was not bought from publishers or loaned by other libraries--they were the books salvaged and scavenged at great personal risk from the doomed city above. The story of this extraordinary place and the people who found purpose and refuge in it is one of hope, human resilience, and above all, the timeless, universal love of literature and the compassion and wisdom it fosters.

30 review for Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    4+ For a while, sights from Syria, terrible sights of ruined towns, children huddling in basements, were shown on our television nightly. Many in the town of Daraya left, this is the story of some who stayed. Reporting in a compassionate voice, Thomson tells their story, maintaining contact by phone or Internet. The way those in this broken town managed yo keep service is unique. I'm not a techie so I don't understand it but it is explained. Amidst the bombings, trying to find food, trying to he 4+ For a while, sights from Syria, terrible sights of ruined towns, children huddling in basements, were shown on our television nightly. Many in the town of Daraya left, this is the story of some who stayed. Reporting in a compassionate voice, Thomson tells their story, maintaining contact by phone or Internet. The way those in this broken town managed yo keep service is unique. I'm not a techie so I don't understand it but it is explained. Amidst the bombings, trying to find food, trying to help the injured, some who loved books found a way to start a library in a small room in the basement in a bombed out basement. For those who could reach this library, the place and the books became a time out of mind. Their love of books, reading, how they went from building to building aquiring any books in readable condition is beyond admirable. Dangerous with the constant bombings, sniper attacks, it was a risk worth taking. A few women started small schools, so that the children left in this forgotten place would have someplace to go, and to continue their education. Things would get worse as Asad brought the town to it's knees, cutting off food supplies, electricity and constant bombings. As we come, through the author, to know the people he interviewed I felt helpless. They wanted the same things we do, the freedom to do and think the way they wanted, security, family, safety, and books. The right to read what they wanted. A country that was free, it was that for which they were fighting and dying. It is hard to read this book and not identify with them, to not feel that our country should have been more help. The value of books and what they provide is stressed again and again. It is a common denominator. The book follows these people even when they are forced to leave their homes, their town and also the fate of the secret library. The amazing thing is that these people never gave up hope, a hope that books kept alive. "i think books are like rain. Wherever rain falls things grow. So hopefully wherever our books land, the person who reads them will gain knowledge, and his or her mind will grow. This in turn will help humanity grow." ARC from Netgalley.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Snooty1

    "I would have told them that the soul needs books just like the body needs food" This book has one constant message throughout and that is...hope. Amongst war, hunger, loss and pain, a brighter future can be salvaged and beauty is always there if you look for it. This book illuminates the struggle in Syria, and finds the glimmer of hope and humanity that will not be put out. Members of the community in Daraya, formed a secret library. Where books can set you free. "The books themselves help us forge "I would have told them that the soul needs books just like the body needs food" This book has one constant message throughout and that is...hope. Amongst war, hunger, loss and pain, a brighter future can be salvaged and beauty is always there if you look for it. This book illuminates the struggle in Syria, and finds the glimmer of hope and humanity that will not be put out. Members of the community in Daraya, formed a secret library. Where books can set you free. "The books themselves help us forget all the troubles around us. When we are reading, the author takes us away to a different world. That's something we really need, it gives us peace of mind." Not only do books offer an escape but also hope for the future. They want the young to be able to think for themselves, become educated and one day rebuild the country. An illuminating novel about the human spirit. ***Netgalley and PublicAffairsBooks gave me an advanced copy of this novel for my honest review.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Irene

    Daraya is one of the many communities devastated by Syria’s long civil war. Considered a rebel stronghold, it was put under siege by government forces and relentlessly bombed. With no food, no medicines, no safe shelter, no reliable electricity, every day was a struggle for survival as civilians dodged sniper bullets, scavenged for the next meal and hid from falling bombs. It was in this environment that several young people, convinced of the power of ideas to sustain and rebuild a nation, began Daraya is one of the many communities devastated by Syria’s long civil war. Considered a rebel stronghold, it was put under siege by government forces and relentlessly bombed. With no food, no medicines, no safe shelter, no reliable electricity, every day was a struggle for survival as civilians dodged sniper bullets, scavenged for the next meal and hid from falling bombs. It was in this environment that several young people, convinced of the power of ideas to sustain and rebuild a nation, began to collect books from bombed out and abandoned buildings. At great risk, they ferried these books to an underground room to create a hidden library. Soon this became a cultural center. But this is not only about a library, but about many acts of hope, a hope which became the people’s greatest act of resistance. We meet a young teacher who gathers children in unlit basements without books to give them a basic education, a dental student who scavenges tools of the trade to offer what he can in the way of dental care, a graffiti artist who risks his life to paint murals on destroyed buildings that depict hope, and many people who read in trenches, in their grief and fear, to remind themselves that anger and terror and hopelessness can never have the final word. Although the writing was far from outstanding, this is a story that should be read by everyone.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley Ursula K Le Guin tells the story of a place whose happiness depends on one child being miserable in “The One Who Walks Away from Omelas” and the reactions to those when they discover it. In part, our ability to exist in the world is on our ability to disregard or ignore horrors, but sometimes we refuse that happiness, refuse to bow to the horrors. In many ways, Thomson’s book makes me think of that story as well as how much we take for granted. If you teach, then yo Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley Ursula K Le Guin tells the story of a place whose happiness depends on one child being miserable in “The One Who Walks Away from Omelas” and the reactions to those when they discover it. In part, our ability to exist in the world is on our ability to disregard or ignore horrors, but sometimes we refuse that happiness, refuse to bow to the horrors. In many ways, Thomson’s book makes me think of that story as well as how much we take for granted. If you teach, then you know that tare a great many students who do not read for pleasure (shot, just ask how many people have read LOTR or GoT instead of just watching), yet this book is partly about the human spirit and partly about why books are important. Thomson chronicles the story of a group of people who start a library in Daraya, a town close to Damascus. According to Thomson, the town has always had a proud history of peaceful protest, and therefore, caught up in the Civil War. Some of the town’s population flees, others stay. Some of those who stay realize the fighting is simply more than picking up a gun, but also the transmission of knowledge – their fight style includes the founding of schools and a library. In part, the library comes from a desire to save books that were bombed out homes. The lengths that the men, it seems it was largely men who gathered the books, went to collect items – books furniture- and the sheer fairness in which they kept records about where the items came from. In part, Thomson also chronicle show these men, and later women, not only use the library but also try to continue as much as a normal life as they possibly can. The library, it seems, becomes both a cause and a symbol – not only of what was, of what we should be, of how we learn, but also of what the revolution is fighting for as well as the difference in sides. We know from history that the quickest way to destroy a people is to destroy a culture. Destroy the books, the art, and so on. Culture can mean a people but it also can be a city. The library in Daraya was part of this - a desire to preserve the need for knowledge, the thirst for reading that many people never develop at least where access to a library is easy. While I would have loved a bit more description of what books made up the library, Thomson does mention quite a few works, in particular the favorite works of the people who frequented the library. The list includes some that are unfamiliar to Western readers. In many ways, this insures that Thomson’s reporting serves another important function of a library – as a bridge between peoples.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Avery

    A fascinating and frustrating book, telling the story of a Syrian town of books and resistance which entered the civil war by creating their own library. It would seem like the perfect story for a BBC journalist to tell, and the journalist has done his best, maintaining genuine friendships with the people of Daraya that he never betrayed. It is an incredible read, a portrait of a part of the world where the suffering and struggle are tremendous. I devoured it in a single sitting. Yet part of the A fascinating and frustrating book, telling the story of a Syrian town of books and resistance which entered the civil war by creating their own library. It would seem like the perfect story for a BBC journalist to tell, and the journalist has done his best, maintaining genuine friendships with the people of Daraya that he never betrayed. It is an incredible read, a portrait of a part of the world where the suffering and struggle are tremendous. I devoured it in a single sitting. Yet part of the story seems to be hidden under the cracks. The author emphasizes the difference between nonviolent and violent resistance, offering many nonviolent protesters who became victims of Assad’s army, and the opinions of his interviewees about the meaning of resistance — some of them take an objectively heroic line about the need to preserve nonviolence in the face of brutality. One gets the impression at the outset that the author is concerned with the choices people in the city make, and why the city survives, resists, and builds its secret library. But later, the author becomes insistent on the presence of “moderate rebels” in Syria, who fight and kill Russians and Alawites in the name of moderateness. And here is the perplexing thing. We hear fascinating stories from the people of Daraya about why they value books, history, knowledge, and domestic and foreign literature. They name authors as diverse as Shaw, Mill, Shakespeare, Coehlo, and Agatha Christie. But what about the ideology and faith of the citizens? The author remarks that the people seem very religious to him. What about the passion that made their town one of the toughest and longest holdouts against Assad, eliciting awe from the toughest al-Nusra fighters? When it comes to their favorite authors, the first mentioned by the library’s patrons are the liberal Muslim mystic Mohammad Abdallah Draz and the pan-Islamist Nadim al-Jisr, as well as the cleric Ali al-Tantawi and the journalist Ahmed Mansour, author of “Jewish influence in the United States government” and “America’s defeat in Iraq.” They told the author they were enjoying the (moderate?) pan-Islamists Muhammad Imara and Mustafa al-Siba'i, but at the same time praised the poet Adonis, who is resolutely anti-Islamist, as well as the blasphemous secular novelist Aziz Nesin (translator of The Satanic Verses into Turkish). How did these dissonant voices echo off each other in the walls of the secret library, as bombs fell around it? It would seem like a lively ideological world for the author to explore, full of passionate discussions. One of the librarians describes crying and hugging the books when it is finally abandoned during the fall of Daraya. Among the few titles he picked to save as he fled was a small book on the meaning of prayer. There can be no deception: the library is real, the deadly struggle to maintain it is real, and surely the creation, preservation and protection of this lively hall of dissonant voices was something the Muslims of Daraya felt was demanded by their faith. Unable to read Arabic, the author does his best with what translations are available, skimming the surface of fierce debate. Yet instead of helping him along, the people of Daraya plunge their reality into a fog when they speak to the Englishman from the BBC. They deny so passionately that there are any jihadists among them that the author feels convinced that they must not have heard of the rise of al-Nusra, even in 2016! Yet simultaneously, Assad’s army begins to bomb Daraya, asserting that the most vicious breed of al-Nusra fighters are living there. It seems highly unlikely that anyone who used the library was al-Nusra, but could the readers really have been unaware? Was the ideology behind al-Nusra’s fierce resistance to be found in their library? If it was, they did not remark on it. Perhaps it was not—after all, violence does not necessarily need theoretical justification. And it is clear that the world the Daravans died to save was their world of their own hometown and their secret library, not the world of al-Nusra or anyone else. “Our secret library was not just a nice place to read books,” says one of the rebels, “it was a crucial part of our revolution.” As in Yemen, the people of Syria were treated with ruthless cruelty by a better armed regime that sought to crush their bodies and spriits. When you read the tales of starvation and violence in this book, in a town where orphans go hungry and feed their rations to their siblings as their friends die around them, you understand it is no wonder that people turned to violence to oppose Assad. But unlike Yemen, Syria became a fractal of ideologies and neighborhood militias. Daraya is one tiny part of this fractal, with its unique feeling of intellectual solidarity. What were they really fighting for, and why were they willing to die? It is unlikely that the sectarian jihadist narratives of the future will tell the true story of Daraya. Yet this book, composed over a severe language barrier from Facebook conversations and Skype interviews, cannot tell it perfectly either. There was a painful, real bond of blood created within the fractal. It perhaps meant different things to everyone and perhaps it still does. I hope, for the sake of the people of Daraya and for all other Syrians, that this book is translated into Arabic and continues to build the unfinished conversation being carried out in that tongue. [I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, but the choice to post this review was mine.]

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    This is such a harrowing read, it shows the worst and best of humanity. The worst being Bashar al-Assad the psychopath in charge of Syria as he rampages across a country full of culture and history, torturing and murdering those who disagree with him and his beliefs. The worst is also the rest of the world sat idly by saying things along the lines of don't you cross that red line, so Assad does and there is zero response. It is also the media, not keeping focus on an event like this, keeping it This is such a harrowing read, it shows the worst and best of humanity. The worst being Bashar al-Assad the psychopath in charge of Syria as he rampages across a country full of culture and history, torturing and murdering those who disagree with him and his beliefs. The worst is also the rest of the world sat idly by saying things along the lines of don't you cross that red line, so Assad does and there is zero response. It is also the media, not keeping focus on an event like this, keeping it in the public eye is the one way to guilt a response from world leaders. The best of humanity is those who stayed behind to rebel against Assad's rule to fight for freedom of speech without the threat of prison, for the right to live their lives and get an education. You have some who aren't there to fight but are there to offer medical aid, some stay to protect their home and one even stays because he was training in dentistry and he saw all the dentists leaving for safety. Mike Thomson starts off this book well, a little story about the unique grapes that grow only in Darayya, a beautiful place, and then that all gets torn down by what has been happening there in recent years. Mike tries to get there to report but it is deemed too dangerous for him, instead not giving up he manages to contact people still in the town so that he can tell their stories and let the world know what is happening. What he wasn't planning on was uncovering one of the most extraordinary stories to come out of a conflict zone. A group of people risking all to save books and create a secret library so that the people can still educate themselves. It becomes a sanctuary for many from the almost continuous bombardment from pro-Assad forces. Their ability to survive, on such a small amount of food, to live under such immense stress and yet still hold out hope for a positive future blows my mind....incredible people. As soon as I finished this book I went online to see a headline that Assad is still getting warnings from other countries, this time Turkey, and yet still nothing happening. Everybody should read this book showing just how strong the Human spirit is and once they've read it, share it. Blog review is here> https://felcherman.wordpress.com/2020...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Gerry

    What should have been a very interesting and inspiring story turned out to be just OK. By the end of the Introduction, I knew the basic facts. In war-torn Daraya, Syria, a group of young people had gathered books from abandoned and virtually destroyed homes, as well as from people still living in the city, and created a secret library in the basement of a bombed-out building. The library served as a center of learning and a refuge from the horrors of war. The author introduced many characters who What should have been a very interesting and inspiring story turned out to be just OK. By the end of the Introduction, I knew the basic facts. In war-torn Daraya, Syria, a group of young people had gathered books from abandoned and virtually destroyed homes, as well as from people still living in the city, and created a secret library in the basement of a bombed-out building. The library served as a center of learning and a refuge from the horrors of war. The author introduced many characters whom he claimed he had gotten to know well, although all of his communication with them had been via text, email, phone, Skype, etc. He never met any of them in person, and perhaps that why he was unable to bring his characters to life in his book. His narrative was poorly organized, and added very little to the basic facts stated in his introduction.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Erin Wilson

    For anyone who has ever thought that libraries were unnecessary places. Please read this. For anyone who has always found friendship and solace in the pages of books. Please read this. This is such an important book, these people's stories were beautifully written and need to be heard. I implore everyone who has ever had a love of books to read this. "It gave us precious space where we could breathe hope instead of despair. It liberated us from suffering and savagery. Inside its walls the love For anyone who has ever thought that libraries were unnecessary places. Please read this. For anyone who has always found friendship and solace in the pages of books. Please read this. This is such an important book, these people's stories were beautifully written and need to be heard. I implore everyone who has ever had a love of books to read this. "It gave us precious space where we could breathe hope instead of despair. It liberated us from suffering and savagery. Inside its walls the love of science, literature and ideas filled the air. This symphony of books soothed our hearts. As we entered, its aura revived us, like fresh air to a suffocating man. It was the oxygen for our souls. It was a place where angels met. Each time I stepped inside, I flew with them."

  9. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    A story of incredible resilience in the face of wartime suffering, told in the most boring way possible. The chief problem with the author’s storytelling is that he constantly inserts himself into it—how he got the interview, how worried he was, how guilty he felt. The effect is to distance the reader from the individuals who are actually enduring the hardships. It’s the difference between “people struggling to maintain civilization while under a brutal siege” and “here are some things I learned A story of incredible resilience in the face of wartime suffering, told in the most boring way possible. The chief problem with the author’s storytelling is that he constantly inserts himself into it—how he got the interview, how worried he was, how guilty he felt. The effect is to distance the reader from the individuals who are actually enduring the hardships. It’s the difference between “people struggling to maintain civilization while under a brutal siege” and “here are some things I learned through my diligent efforts about people living under siege.”

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jypsy

    Syria's Secret Library is an amazing story. Think about it. Being under siege for years, would you need only food and water to survive? This story is about food for the soul. The mental aspect of survival is often overlooked. I found the story engrossing and thought provoking as a different perspective about those caught in a terrible situation with no escape. The hope found here is inspiring, yet tragic. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review. Syria's Secret Library is an amazing story. Think about it. Being under siege for years, would you need only food and water to survive? This story is about food for the soul. The mental aspect of survival is often overlooked. I found the story engrossing and thought provoking as a different perspective about those caught in a terrible situation with no escape. The hope found here is inspiring, yet tragic. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Primrose Jess

    It gave us a precious space where we could breathe hope instead of despair. It liberated us from suffering and savagery. Inside its walls the love of science, literature, and ideas filled the air. This symphony of books soothed our hearts. What a story. It wasn't easy for me to read. I paused several times to let the tears flow and walk away. My husband asked why was I reading it because it only made me depressed and sad each time I picked it up. I told him I owe it to these brave people to re It gave us a precious space where we could breathe hope instead of despair. It liberated us from suffering and savagery. Inside its walls the love of science, literature, and ideas filled the air. This symphony of books soothed our hearts. What a story. It wasn't easy for me to read. I paused several times to let the tears flow and walk away. My husband asked why was I reading it because it only made me depressed and sad each time I picked it up. I told him I owe it to these brave people to read their story, even though it's a painful one. Mike Thomson accounts the events and subsequent seize of Daraya from 2011-2016 through the narratives of the people living there, especially those responsible for building the secret library in a basement of a heavily shelled building. These young college age men risked life and limb to locate books in heavily bombed buildings to rescue them so they could be read by the people living in Daraya, besieged by Assad regime forces. Food and medical supplies dwindling, to the point the people lived on one bowl of watery broth a day, many found hope in reading. Hoped for Western aid and intervention wasn't coming. Young teachers still tried to teach school. The FSA fighters assisted in helping them find books, some even attending lectures and learning to read themselves at the library. The chief librarian was a 14 year old boy who was found hiding from shelling in the streets and was told to come to the library, it's far safer there. He asked to stay and did. This is a story of survival, the importance of books, and honestly, the strength of the human spirit. It sounds so cliche to write that. But these people were unbroken. Faced with hunger, limited access to medical supplies, water and electricity cut offs by their attackers, Wifi communication done by a wire/pan set up, they still persevered. I was infinitely chastised and humbled reading this and reflecting on my own (quite petty/small) irritations I face in daily living. I get to go to a grocery store. And I don't have to dodge sniper fire to get there. So many things I take for granted. This book was eye opening for me in the fact it showed me how much I don't know in terms of global issues. As each year went by in the book, while these people were fighting for their lives and reading in limited light, I could think about the privileges I was enjoying. It was sobering. It makes me angry. It makes me so deeply saddened. I recommend this book. It's not an easy read. But it's a worthwhile one. I'll leave you with this quote from Anas, one of the men who risked so much in collecting books for the libraries. Mike asked him did he not think in "a town whose inhabitants were virtually starving, did some not think that these young, dynamic men should be putting their energies into collecting food instead?" His response: 'Mike, I haven't come across anyone who has said that', he told me. 'And had they done so, I would have told them that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books'.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Geoffrey

    (Note: I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley) "Syria's Secret Library" tells the incredible true story of those who managed to improvise a library for a beleaguered community. Through the focal point of this underground oasis of books, readers are given an incredibly intimate look into what daily life during the siege of the Damascus suburb of Darayya, an experience similar to countless others across Syria in the midst of its devastating civil war. But more than anything, "Syria's (Note: I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley) "Syria's Secret Library" tells the incredible true story of those who managed to improvise a library for a beleaguered community. Through the focal point of this underground oasis of books, readers are given an incredibly intimate look into what daily life during the siege of the Damascus suburb of Darayya, an experience similar to countless others across Syria in the midst of its devastating civil war. But more than anything, "Syria's Secret Library" shows just how far people will go in order to ensure that they will be able to feed their souls.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Richard Ryan

    Reading something like this makes me ashamed to not know enough of what has been happening in Syria, but totally encouraged by the role that books play in such a war torn area and the sense of hope they bring.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    This is an incredibly inspiring story of the creation of a small, makeshift library in the Syrian town of Darayya during an inhumane 4-year siege. The besieged and starving people would rescue books from damaged, bombed-out buildings and dodge the sniper bullets and bombs to take them to a basement cellar library. What is it that drives people to risk life and limb for books? Well, there is something profoundly moving about the hunger for sanctuary from brutality, the unstoppable commitment to f This is an incredibly inspiring story of the creation of a small, makeshift library in the Syrian town of Darayya during an inhumane 4-year siege. The besieged and starving people would rescue books from damaged, bombed-out buildings and dodge the sniper bullets and bombs to take them to a basement cellar library. What is it that drives people to risk life and limb for books? Well, there is something profoundly moving about the hunger for sanctuary from brutality, the unstoppable commitment to freedom, and learning despite the dangers, which in most cases would be the kind of inspiring story we all need. Well, the story is inspiring. Its telling, however, was so clumsy, so pedestrian, that the booked failed in a big way, for me. I kept wondering why I was failing to be uplifted as I went through these pages. Why was I so bored? Mike Thomson is a journalist and although there are many exceptions, sometimes the journalist can not sustain a book-length story. David Grann, john Carreyrou, Ronan Farrow, and many others prove this assertion wrong but then we come across Mike Thomson. It was hard to engage with his writing in this book. He is 'reporting' from a distance, as was necessary, given the circumstances. He has not met the people in this story in person, so we never really get a more than one-dimensional view. The cast of characters is large, so reading about people without a depth of character development, makes for disconnected and tedious reading. And then, he inserts himself and his reactions that were jarring and irrelevant. "I was delighted to hear this story. I knew that Abdul Basit and his literary friends were all religious, and I feared that there generally very tolerant attitude to life might not extend to this issue." Yawn. I honestly couldn't care less about Mr. Thomson's "delight". How does this forward the truly extraordinary story? Ugh. This kind of writing is puerile and lazy, in my view, and bogged this book down until I just could hardly bring myself to pick it up again to finish. This is a true example of how much a story depends on the hands of the storyteller. Imagine The Odyssey told by Ivanka Trump or Ernie from Sesame Street or Vladimir Putin. Three different stories. Unfortunately, this extraordinary story of a people's resilience and determination was, in my view, mishandled and undermined by Mike Thomson. That such a story occurred as underwhelming is at the very least, a missed opportunity. A disappointing read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Christina

    I hate to rate this book as low as I am, but I just feel as though this story deserved better. The story itself of the habitants of Daraya and their secret library is beyond compelling; reading of their continued hope alongside their struggles of a horrific magnitude brought me close to tears many times. However, the writing style of this book is very dry and lends very little to the emotion of its contents. The writer, many times throughout the book, was very repetitive. He would say basically I hate to rate this book as low as I am, but I just feel as though this story deserved better. The story itself of the habitants of Daraya and their secret library is beyond compelling; reading of their continued hope alongside their struggles of a horrific magnitude brought me close to tears many times. However, the writing style of this book is very dry and lends very little to the emotion of its contents. The writer, many times throughout the book, was very repetitive. He would say basically the same thing over and over. In the beginning, I didn't notice this so much, and I was able to appreciate the book for the most part. But as it went on, it became increasingly apparent that the writer was borrowing from the same idea every couple of paragraphs. I understand that a book such as this one requires a theme or a guiding idea, but this was just too much. There was much more showing than telling, and I felt that the author offered comments far below the standard that this story deserved. I felt that we never really got to know any of the people discussed super personally because the author kept switching who he was talking about. He would talk about one person for a couple of paragraphs, offer a comment only vaguely related about another person, and then return to talking about the original person but regarding a completely different topic. This style of writing was jarring to me as a reader, and I could not appreciate the book so much as I kept reading. I love this book for all of the information and insight it offered into the crisis in Syria, something that I knew very little about before. It angers me that so little had been done to help these people who were very clearly suffering. I can only wish that one day their story will be narrated in a way that is much more deserving of their merits. I would recommend this book highly to anyone wanting to know more about the crisis in Syria, but do note that it can be a very dry novel that drags on at several times.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Erica

    This is a really important read for anyone that doesn't understand why we need to support and take refugees into our countries. The shit they have to go through is horrible. On the other hand it was so nice to read about how they found some hope and comfort through reading and art. This is a really important read for anyone that doesn't understand why we need to support and take refugees into our countries. The shit they have to go through is horrible. On the other hand it was so nice to read about how they found some hope and comfort through reading and art.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Muhammad Ahmad

    This is one of the most remarkable stories to have come out of a war zone. A real testament to the indomitable human spirit. After a major massacre, when Daraya was besieged, bombed, & starved by the Syrian regime, its youth rescued books from rubble and built a library that kept spirits alive for four years. This is the riveting story of the library, its young librarian, its patrons, and the civil society and the resistance fighters who kept it functioning when everything else was scarce. The b This is one of the most remarkable stories to have come out of a war zone. A real testament to the indomitable human spirit. After a major massacre, when Daraya was besieged, bombed, & starved by the Syrian regime, its youth rescued books from rubble and built a library that kept spirits alive for four years. This is the riveting story of the library, its young librarian, its patrons, and the civil society and the resistance fighters who kept it functioning when everything else was scarce. The book is written with great empathy and attention to detail. However, the author at times slips into the unfortunate BBC cliches about 'both sides', or 'sectarian roots' etc. A must read otherwise.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Veronika

    Prior to reading "Syria's Secret Library", I have just finished " The Book Collectors of Daraya " by Delphine Minoui. Both books were written about the hidden library within the Syrian town of Daraya but my curiosity simply hasn't been satisfied after Delphine Minoui's book, which was originally published in French in 2018. Upon doing some additional research on the library, I have come across Mike Thomson's publication, which has been released in English in 2019. This review will have a s Prior to reading "Syria's Secret Library", I have just finished " The Book Collectors of Daraya " by Delphine Minoui. Both books were written about the hidden library within the Syrian town of Daraya but my curiosity simply hasn't been satisfied after Delphine Minoui's book, which was originally published in French in 2018. Upon doing some additional research on the library, I have come across Mike Thomson's publication, which has been released in English in 2019. This review will have a strong comparative aspect to it, since I found these two books to be a perfect example of how to approach a non-fiction topic in a more or less successful way. My favourite of the two was definitely "Syria's Secret Library". The questions that I had as a reader were tackled by the author and additional background research on the region, its culture and its history have been made. That left me feeling completely satisfied as a reader, having personally gone into the story without a deep knowledge on the Syrian conflict. The story circles around a library that has been created by members of the community of the city of Daraya, a place that has been completely destroyed by war. Generally being a region where it would have been impossible for the author to travel to himself due to the ongoing conflict, he had to rely on communicating with the locals through the internet in order to build the narrative to tell the story. Questions that instantly arose when reading were how there could have been a sufficient internet connection for video and audio calls when the entire city was completely destroyed? When looking at photos of what the library looked like, wondering how it has been possible to make it look so "professional"? Or also how the rebel fighters protecting the area against the government managed not to run out of ammunition during about 4 years of resistance. Luckily, one's curiosity is satisfied just about a quarter into the book:"The Syrian government would doubtless have liked to cut Daraya's communications with the outside world. In fact, I had often wondered how people there had been able to stay online, given the terrible destruction all around them. From what Abdul Basit told me, their secret was down to an odd combination of luck, ingenuity, silver foil and a pan lid. 'In areas of Daraya that are close to three nearby towns,' he said, 'we can get the Internet because of the mobile phone networks operating there. But unfortunately these barely reach central areas of the town, so we've hat to invent a technique of boosting the very weak signal we get. This involves taking the top from a pan, covering that in silver foil and then drilling two holes through it. We then place the lid on the roof of a building and feed a silver wire through each hole, before trailing the wires all the way down to the basement. We then place our phone next to the silver wire and this is how we manage to get online.' " (p. 72) "Having seen photos of the secret library sent to me by Abdul Basit and Malik al-Rifaii, I was interested to know where everything in it had come from. For instance, what about the rows and rows of shelves I could see in the pictures? Some were of dark polished wood […]. Anas told me that much of the wood had been pulled from walls, ceiling struts and the staircases of gutted public buildings, shops and other businesses. In fact, many cases, the wood had come from the very shelves that the collected books had been sitting on when they were found. […] 'We tried whenever possible to bring with us the shelving the books were on when we rescued them.' "(p. 58-59) It is a much more well put together story all-round, where you get detailed explanations on how difficult it was to transport the books from the bombed buildings to the library and under which conditions it had to be done. Early on in the narrative one is given an insight into the women's roles within the community (the organisation of hidden schools for children among others), which is important to see their significance in contrast to the more visible and mostly male visitors of the library. The author expertly manages to weave in various parts of people's daily lives that are in touch with the library, just one example of such being the link to the medical sector and the only dentist who has decided to stay behind in Daraya: "It wasn't only a shortage of dental tools and equipment that Ayham was grappling with, he also lacked most drugs and other basic medical supplies. Many of the materials he had, especially the ones he used for fillings, were way past their sell-by date. This meant that there were many dental procedures that he could not perform. [...] Later that day, Ayham was back at the secret library having heard that some medical books had arrived that might be valuable for his dentistry work. [...] He said that Ayham always seemed to get something useful from the medical books he read: 'He reads everything he can about medicine and dentistry and never stops learning. Every day he gets better at his job.' " (p. 134, p. 136) Some other points that make "Syria's Secret Library" stand out as a much better piece of writing than "The Book Collectors of Daraya" is the way the story is wrapped up. The author gives it much more space to unfold: he goes into more details of what exactly happened to the library after the entire population of Daraya was evacuated, partly to another Syrian town, Idlib. He makes the effort to investigate deeper what the future looked like for those who made that move, why their life there ended up being so different, even though both towns had a revolutionary spirit, taking a stand against the governmental forces. Most importantly, the author didn't cross the line of drawing too many parallels between his own life and those of his protagonists, such as in the case of Delphine Minoui's failed attempt to do so, which made her writing sound too self-centred (comparing terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul with the war taking place in Syria). Mike Thomson also expressed his feelings about the dilemma of being a journalist, documenting on horrible situations, while being personally in a safe space in his life but he has managed to do so in a humble and genuine way. "After that conversation, returning to my own life in safe, affluent London was not easy. I felt very uncomfortable. [...] While I relaxed in front of my TV, or dined in a nice restaurant, they were being shelled, bombed and starved. [...] The stark contrast in our two, so very different worlds, left me feeling like some kind of journalistic voyeur. Despite the knowledge that I was bringing their plight to the outside world, that feeling continued to haunt me." (p. 199) "Syria's Secret Library" is a book that generally comes across as more trustworthy, stating its sources and where numerous information has been gotten from, while also managing to be more involving for the reader. I felt a much stronger emotional connection to the individual protagonists, which the author managed to build up with an authentic and a reduced way of writing (instead of Delphine Minoui's often poetically overloaded style). If you're curious to discover this story of a library being created in a town despite a gruelling war-state all around it for yourself, I'd definitely suggest you Mike Thomson's book, rather than the one written by Delphine Minoui.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bookworm

    Picked up the book on a whim (how could I not with that title?). I love books and libraries and with the awful destruction and violence of Syria I was very intrigued to read about a secret library and was curious to learn more about it. The library had been reported upon elsewhere so I already knew the basics: how people take books from abandoned and destroyed home and store them in a basement. A small but mighty refuge. Unfortunately, the negative reviews are right. The author is a journalist an Picked up the book on a whim (how could I not with that title?). I love books and libraries and with the awful destruction and violence of Syria I was very intrigued to read about a secret library and was curious to learn more about it. The library had been reported upon elsewhere so I already knew the basics: how people take books from abandoned and destroyed home and store them in a basement. A small but mighty refuge. Unfortunately, the negative reviews are right. The author is a journalist and while that in itself is not a problem, many journalists just can't really write for a book format. The text never held my interest: too many people were introduced, and it was difficult for me to care for them as people. It might be partly because the author actually never met them in person. It's a shame because this is absolutely an incredible work and probably provides people some comfort and normalcy in a time of war. But Thomson was not the person t deliver their story and I'd recommend skipping this one. Library for me and if you really want to read it, would recommend this method.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lisa of Hopewell

    My Interest In real life, I am a librarian in a college program for adult students. I’ve worked in a big variety of libraries– two agricultural research station libraries, several law firms, and a law school library, a public library, and a non-traditional librarian’s role working on a long-ago government database pre-Internet. My bachelor’s degree is in International Relations/Russian & East European Studies, so I’ve studied most of the hot spots in the world, albeit circa the early Reagan years My Interest In real life, I am a librarian in a college program for adult students. I’ve worked in a big variety of libraries– two agricultural research station libraries, several law firms, and a law school library, a public library, and a non-traditional librarian’s role working on a long-ago government database pre-Internet. My bachelor’s degree is in International Relations/Russian & East European Studies, so I’ve studied most of the hot spots in the world, albeit circa the early Reagan years. This book, therefore, just screamed to get my attention. The Story “We don’t ban any books….We believe that by excluding books we may not agree with we would just be helping to raise ignorance. If we want to sharpen the intellect of our generation and their understanding of the world, we need to let them think for themselves.” [Chapter 4, audio version] In Daraya, outside Damascus, the citizens endured life in a very hot war zone. Nerves cried out for peace, for escape, for solitude. The Syrian regime, like most governments to whom the word “regime” is applied, censored the media and made it very difficult for citizens to get their hands on any but the few books approved by that same regime. Over time a fearless little band of men, one only a young teenager, came together to beg, borrow, or recover from ruined or abandoned buildings, a sensational hidden library. Advertising was nil–word-of-mouth was the only way people could learn of it. The collection included everything from poetry to textbooks, to self-help, to novels. When Daraya was forcibly evacuated the library had to be abandoned. The “librarians” were not allowed to bring even one book. This did not stop them–they kept the faith in what they were doing–spreading knowledge to form a better country when the war ended. Interspersed in the story of the library, we learn of the correspondent’s efforts to get stories out, to locate helpful resources, and to simply contact the outer world. I was shamed when one of the librarians using the equivalent of tinfoil on old tv rabbit ears to access a very weak wifi signal and find and win a grant in Belgium to help his library. Wow! My Verdict I loved that the value of the free exchange of ideas is alive and well in this hell-hole of a place. I love that religion did not separate them from the idea of providing alternative viewpoints. I admired the courage and compassion that these men showed in building this library. This would be an excellent book for middle school or high school classes as well as for general readers. Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Seige by Mike Thomson

  21. 5 out of 5

    Val

    I always feel compelled to read about the lengths people will go, even at risk of their own mortal peril, to preserve and read books. Books symbolize different things to each reader, but the symbolic themes are similar: comfort, home, freedom, broadening horizons, thirst for knowledge, and defiance of the established order. All of these come into play in this fantastic account of the people in the Syrian city of Daraya, constantly under siege from the repressive and murderous Assad regime. I cou I always feel compelled to read about the lengths people will go, even at risk of their own mortal peril, to preserve and read books. Books symbolize different things to each reader, but the symbolic themes are similar: comfort, home, freedom, broadening horizons, thirst for knowledge, and defiance of the established order. All of these come into play in this fantastic account of the people in the Syrian city of Daraya, constantly under siege from the repressive and murderous Assad regime. I could relate to these worn-torn people, of all the things they would want to preserve and treasure, books top the list. I know that feeling. I always have books with me in some format. I can’t imagine being somewhere without reading material. Books become symbolic to the people of Daraya of hope for a better future. Reading this book, I thought many times of my own mother growing up in a war-torn nation where the the classics we enjoy and are taught today in schools and universities were burned because they might lead to original thought and rebellion against a dictator. My mom’s family hid books, and to this day she does not feel safe or at peace unless she has a pile of books nearby. She experienced what the people of Daraya experienced, and I imagine that in her hometown people hid and read and exchanged books much like in Daraya, even if they did not have a secret library. It would be a spoiler to relate here what happens to the various people the author meets and describes. It is a civil war in Syria, and Daraya is under regular bombardment from Assad’s military. People come from all over the city, running a gauntlet of soldiers, bombs, and snipers, just to spend some time with real books. One of the values of this book is that it explains in simple terms who is on what side of the civil war in Syria, what each is fighting for, which foreign nations are supporting each side and why, and the terrible toll years of fighting have taken on the Syrian people. They are resilient and find ways to read, study, and prepare for a better future full of big ideas and principles and philosophies they devour by candlelight in a secret library that Assad’s military would love to find and destroy. Destroy original thought and Western ideas and you crush the rebellion’s spirit. That’s the oppressive government’s strategy. For the people of Daraya, keeping the library alive becomes more important to some than their own lives. The location of the secret library was protected with ferocity by these extraordinary people. This book is a powerful tribute to the profound influence books of all types have and a testament to how strongly humans crave knowledge and new information and intellectual stretching. Books can also be an escape from reality, and those who can get to the library find opportunities to see other places and dream bigger dreams in the pages of classical and contemporary literature. Books give these suffering people something tangible to hold onto as proof that there is civilization out there in the world, and that possible it might be restored in their own country one day. Hopefully they will live to see it. If you ever take for granted how many books you own or have ready access to, this book will help restore your perspective on how fortunate you are. Hopefully it will prompt you to find a way to bring books and reading to a place in the world like Daraya where reading materials are not available or in short supply. Doing so will honor those in Daraya and other cities like it who protect and savor every book they can find. Some died for their desire to read by taking risks getting to the library through rubble-strewn streets littered with corpses and bomb craters, never sure whether the snipers would find them on any given day. We can buy books in multiple formats with a single click on a computer or device without leaving our homes. Many of us have exponentially more books at our fingertips on one device than the citizens of Daraya ever had in their cherished library, and we complain vociferously if one read is unsatisfactory. Books like this are eye-openers for us to the plight of others, and our plenty, from which we can share. I rated this 5 stars for the evocative human story it tells, and for the history of the Syrian civil war it provides through the events and people of Daraya. It is well-written, informative, and inspiring.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    It's hard to decide what would be the most critical item to have on hand if your city was under siege. Food, medicine, clean water? How about books? I bet you didn't even think about books. For Darayya, a town right in the middle of Syria's civil war, books were the thing that kept people going. Some remarkable young men decided to save as many books as they could, gathering them from abandoned buildings, digging through rubble, even under the bombing. They did this to create a hidden library whe It's hard to decide what would be the most critical item to have on hand if your city was under siege. Food, medicine, clean water? How about books? I bet you didn't even think about books. For Darayya, a town right in the middle of Syria's civil war, books were the thing that kept people going. Some remarkable young men decided to save as many books as they could, gathering them from abandoned buildings, digging through rubble, even under the bombing. They did this to create a hidden library where anyone could come and escape into another world. When the library became a hit, they started offering classes on reading, lessons in Engliah, and lectures on many subjects. I found the story fascinating, but it was frustrating at times. It's not organized well. They author skips from subject to subject. Sometimes the quotes are well used to illustrate a point, but often they're just stuck in there and they go on too long. It's a sobering reflection on modern warfare. It makes me angry that the world stood by and did nothing. Now the flow of refugees is a crisis, but with timely intervention, perhaps it could have been avoided. Read this one not for the writing, but for the story of these brave individuals.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lynne

    Mr. Thomson has a phone and skype interview ongoing over several years with several Syrian citizens who describe their daily existence at first in Daraya and later as refugees in Idlib. They describe the daily bombings and starvation and need for medical supplies. They always hope for some kind of help from the outside world. They often feel forgotten. This is a timely book as we see the Syrian people are continuing to lose their fight against the Assad regime as shown on our daily news. The sto Mr. Thomson has a phone and skype interview ongoing over several years with several Syrian citizens who describe their daily existence at first in Daraya and later as refugees in Idlib. They describe the daily bombings and starvation and need for medical supplies. They always hope for some kind of help from the outside world. They often feel forgotten. This is a timely book as we see the Syrian people are continuing to lose their fight against the Assad regime as shown on our daily news. The stories here are truly an amazing tale of survival in the worst possible situation and yet these people still have hope for a future of peace that will allow them to return to their homes someday. The best part of this book is the story of their secret library and how it brought so much hope to many citizens and helped them to remain sane during this time. Highly recommend this read!!!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Marly

    This book is so moving and powerful. From the first words of the introduction to the last word of the book it captured my heart and enlightened me to the plight of the Syrian people. Horrific stories of civil war but a thread of hope in the tale that is told of the Library that was created by the residents of besieged Daraya. I can’t put in words how this book made me feel. The power of literature cannot be ignored, that much is made clear from this true story. Here is a short video interview wi This book is so moving and powerful. From the first words of the introduction to the last word of the book it captured my heart and enlightened me to the plight of the Syrian people. Horrific stories of civil war but a thread of hope in the tale that is told of the Library that was created by the residents of besieged Daraya. I can’t put in words how this book made me feel. The power of literature cannot be ignored, that much is made clear from this true story. Here is a short video interview with the author that will give you a small idea of what you will encounter in this book. But, you need to read it for yourselves. https://youtu.be/hX0ghIlU_7c - interview with the author I cried a lot while reading the book so moved was I by the stories that were told. We need to keep telling our stories and reading books.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jasmine

    I wanted to love this book. But I just didn’t. A story of a secret underground library in war torn Syria, it had all the ingredients for a captivating read with an inspiring cast of characters. But the writing just couldn’t match the potential of the story. Honestly, the writing was just boring, and so often repetitive. The paragraphs seemed to go on forever, they were sooooooooo looooooong. I felt we never truly got to know any of the people beyond the surface, and the writer inserted himself i I wanted to love this book. But I just didn’t. A story of a secret underground library in war torn Syria, it had all the ingredients for a captivating read with an inspiring cast of characters. But the writing just couldn’t match the potential of the story. Honestly, the writing was just boring, and so often repetitive. The paragraphs seemed to go on forever, they were sooooooooo looooooong. I felt we never truly got to know any of the people beyond the surface, and the writer inserted himself into the story way too often. I didn’t care if he was dancing in a night club in London when he received a message from one of his Syrian contacts. That information does not serve the story at all. Overall, a disappointing read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Fiona

    Amazing story of survival. After the Arab Spring in 2011, Syrians started protesting against President Bashar al-Assad. Eventually this became the Syrian Civil War. Those in the town of Daraya which was just outside of Damascus also protested. There was a 4 year siege on the city by the Syrian military forces. During these 4 years, the city was bombarded by bombs and shooting. There was little food and water. Internet and electricity was sporadic, if they had them at all. Although many of its cit Amazing story of survival. After the Arab Spring in 2011, Syrians started protesting against President Bashar al-Assad. Eventually this became the Syrian Civil War. Those in the town of Daraya which was just outside of Damascus also protested. There was a 4 year siege on the city by the Syrian military forces. During these 4 years, the city was bombarded by bombs and shooting. There was little food and water. Internet and electricity was sporadic, if they had them at all. Although many of its citizens had evacuated before the siege, there was still many families and fighters still living in Daraya. Even with a siege, there was always hope. Some of the young men rescued books from people's homes and formed a secret library in a basement of a building. Detail notes on ownership of the books were taken so that they could be returned to their owners after the siege. At least that was their thinking. A teen named Amjad became the Chief Librarian. Many of the fighters read books from the library during their "down time". After 4 years, there was an agreement between the town and Syria. Everyone in Daraya would stop fighting and relocate to either Idlib or Damascus. They couldn't take anything with them. Ajmad moved with his family to Damascus. Those who moved to Idlib didn't feel at home. Daraya wanted democracy not Sharia law like the fighters in Idlib. What happened to the library? After the mass evacuation of Daraya, the Syrian military destroyed it but many of the books were confiscated on sold in markets in Damascus. What books did they enjoy reading? I wish there was a list of their books, or a partial list. However, one person liked and identified with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Another book mentioned was This is What Life Taught Me by Mustafa al-Siba'i. I found it fascintating that the townspeople of Daraya were able to Skype and send videos during the siege to the author. He had formed relationships with them digitally. I don't think he ever visited the area. A book full of hope. That in itself is inspiring.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lillian

    I'm sure the truth of the secret library that was built/gathered in Daraya, Syria, is more complicated than what is covered in this book. Still, I am glad to have read it. All I can think is, where are these people now? Most of the people Mike Thomson focuses on as he tells the story of the library manage to make it out of Daraya, but this book was published in 2019. A lot has changed in northern Syria since then. Are Amjad, Abdul, Sara, and Anas still ok? I'm sure the truth of the secret library that was built/gathered in Daraya, Syria, is more complicated than what is covered in this book. Still, I am glad to have read it. All I can think is, where are these people now? Most of the people Mike Thomson focuses on as he tells the story of the library manage to make it out of Daraya, but this book was published in 2019. A lot has changed in northern Syria since then. Are Amjad, Abdul, Sara, and Anas still ok?

  28. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Ritchie

    Six stars. I am fortunate enough to have visited Syria in 1998 where I met the kindest, most welcoming people. This gives me a particular interest in the tragedy that has unfolded there. That aside, I think anyone who has an interest in and love of books will find this book both heartwrenching and heartwarming. If you care about people and how they cope in the most trying circumstances you'll find this book tragic but uplifting. Ultimately if you are interested in the world around you and how we con Six stars. I am fortunate enough to have visited Syria in 1998 where I met the kindest, most welcoming people. This gives me a particular interest in the tragedy that has unfolded there. That aside, I think anyone who has an interest in and love of books will find this book both heartwrenching and heartwarming. If you care about people and how they cope in the most trying circumstances you'll find this book tragic but uplifting. Ultimately if you are interested in the world around you and how we connect with each other you should read this book. My book of the year so far, I can't rate it highly. enough.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Anne Morgan

    How do people cope with disaster, war, hunger, and despair? How do they live day after day in circumstances that no one who hasn't lived it can ever really imagine? Syria's Secret Library offers readers a glimpse of hope for humanity in war-ravaged Syria. When Assad's regime began cracking down, and then bombing, regions that protested his dictatorship, one of those towns hoping for change in Syria was the ancient town of Daraya. Home to students and engineers, families and generations of farmer How do people cope with disaster, war, hunger, and despair? How do they live day after day in circumstances that no one who hasn't lived it can ever really imagine? Syria's Secret Library offers readers a glimpse of hope for humanity in war-ravaged Syria. When Assad's regime began cracking down, and then bombing, regions that protested his dictatorship, one of those towns hoping for change in Syria was the ancient town of Daraya. Home to students and engineers, families and generations of farmers, Daraya had long been known for peaceful protests in favor of human rights and democracy. When Assad struck back, Daraya became a besieged town regularly bombed and cut off from the rest of Syria. Those who lived there rarely-if ever- had contact with families outside Daraya, either because of poor communications or because of the fear that their calls would be monitored and the families considered political enemies of the regime. Children no longer had schools to go to, and people soon were limiting their rations to one bowl of watery soup per day to try and stretch out what little food they had while waiting for outside help to rescue them. It is in this terrifying world that BBC journalist Mike Thomas began making his connections, and talking to a few of the brave people of Daraya through often erratic internet communications. And while he discovers the terrible situation they are in, he also learns about how they retain hope for the future: their secret library. A core group of locals began rescuing books from bombed and abandoned houses and, while carefully keeping track of the books in hopes that one day their owners would be able to return to Daraya and claim them, these brave men carried the books off to a relatively secure basement. Over time a library system developed: people could check books out and return them, lecture series on a wide variety of subjects were held, and men, women, and children were able to escape the stresses of daily life into the safety of a beloved library and books for a few hours each day. Throughout Syria's Secret Library we come to care about the individuals Thomson talks to, we admire their courage and their strength in the face of overwhelming circumstances. And there is nothing more courageous than their belief that books and knowledge will be what not only eventually topples the regime, but what truly rebuilds Syria. That books are food for the soul, their stories and words as essential to human beings as oxygen. And we can all hope that books will triumph in the end, and creation and hope will overcome destruction and hatred. This is a highly emotionally impactful story of people the Western world has seen and understood only briefly from snippets on the nightly news. Thomson clearly cares for each of these people, not as interview subjects, but as friends- and hopes to reach out to the rest of us to show us the civilians beneath the rhetoric. A story combining the terrors and tragedy of war with the hopes and indomitable spirit of people, this is a true-life story of everyday people showing humanity at its inspiring best.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl Gatling

    I loved this book. Also, I hated this book. I didn’t hate this book, but I hated that this book needed to be written. The town of Daraya, in Syria, was fighting in the resistance against the dictatorial President Assad. The fighters of Daraya were not the Islamist extremists of the Islamic State. They were fighting for democracy and freedom and human rights. But all the same, the regime considered them all terrorists, and tightened its grip on Daraya. People’s homes were in rubble. Bombs fell day I loved this book. Also, I hated this book. I didn’t hate this book, but I hated that this book needed to be written. The town of Daraya, in Syria, was fighting in the resistance against the dictatorial President Assad. The fighters of Daraya were not the Islamist extremists of the Islamic State. They were fighting for democracy and freedom and human rights. But all the same, the regime considered them all terrorists, and tightened its grip on Daraya. People’s homes were in rubble. Bombs fell day and night, and eventually there was no food, and no medicine. In the midst of this war, some people started gathering books, and storing them in a relatively secure basement room. They tried to accomplish these gathering missions as safely as possible, going out under cover of night, or burrowing into buildings from the cover of other buildings, but they did in fact risk their lives to bring home the books. Books that were “borrowed” from abandoned houses were labeled with the owners’ names and addresses, so they could be returned after the war. Shelving and furniture were also scrounged, and also marked. Books of all kinds were gathered, from novels to books of science, history, and religion, of all types of religion. The founders of the secret library were open minded. They wanted to learn about the world beyond their borders. Word of the secret library spread, carefully, by word of mouth. People risked their lives to come there. Once there, it was an oasis of quiet. People read books. They also gave each other lectures. Teachers borrowed books so they could continue trying to teach the children. Students whose education had been disrupted tried to educate themselves. A dental student who had not yet graduated became the dentist of Daraya, since he was the only one left in the town who had any dental knowledge at all, and he devoured all the medical books he could get. The “Chief Librarian” was a boy 14 years old. He dusted and shelved and organized, and every day he read, hoping to keep up with the education he was missing. This book is written by BBC journalist Mike Thomson. He learned of the secret library, and began trying to find out more about it. He got to know the people involved, interviewing them by any technology possible: email, text, Skype, phone. As they shared their experiences of life under siege, they became true friends. And they shared how much the library meant to them. This is the part of the book I loved. These people loved learning, craved knowledge, respected the wisdom to be found in books. Books meant betterment, culture, escape, hope. They represented the better future they hoped to build. And I am there for that. I feel exactly the same way about books, and reading. It is no secret that at least some of my fellow Americans hold a low opinion of anyone from the Middle East, especially anyone Muslim, that they view them as backward people who lock up their women and are inherently violent. These prejudiced Americans talk about the need to “preserve Western civilization,” from the barbarians. This book shows how much of a lie that is. And to show that I will simply quote from the book: “I asked my grandfather if I could take some of his collection to the library so others could benefit from them. I promised that they would be well cared for. He didn’t just agree to this, he was overjoyed. He praised all those involved with the secret library and said it would be a privilege to have his books there. I remember he once told me that one of the main measures of a person is how much they have learnt in life.” (page 58) Members of the secret library group had mostly known only repression and censorship, so it was important to them that their library contained a wide range of books. During a call with Anas, he told me: “We don’t ban any books. We are open to those on all subjects. We believe that by excluding books we may not agree with, we would just be helping to raise ignorance. If we want to sharpen the intellect of our generation and their understanding of the world, we need to let them think for themselves.” (page 76) “There’s an old Arabic saying, ‘He who lacks knowledge will turn into a highway thief.’ I see no point in young men going to fight if they don’t know what they’re fighting for. We have to be educated. Also, when this war is over we will have a country that will desperately need rebuilding. We, the more educated ones, will be a big part of that. That is accepted here.” (page 128) “Books motivate us to keep on going. We read how in the past everyone turned their backs on a particular nation, yet they still made it in the end. So we can be like that too. They help us plan for life once Assad is gone. So we are in the process of planning what comes next. We can only do that through the books we are reading. We want so much more than Assad. We want to be a free nation. And hopefully, by reading, we can achieve this.” (page 165) “I think books are like rain. Wherever rain falls things grow. So hopefully wherever our books land, the person who reads them will gain knowledge, and his or her mind will grow. This in turn will help humanity grow. We will always be proud of our secret library and I ‘m sure that good things will continue to flow from it.” (page 258) “Brains rather than bullets ate going to be needed to put this devastated country back together again.” Books, he had insisted, whether on the subject of literature, history, politics, religion, poetry, or anything else, can help show the way forward and provide the building blocks for the years to come. (page 292) “The library gave birth to a movement of knowledge and learning, and enabled us to explore new things. It was also our sanctuary, and our minaret. It guided us through all the horrors, lit the path we should take and inspired us to carry on. It taught us that a fighter without knowledge is not a hero, but a gangster. The library’s many books were fuel for our souls. They gave us back our lives.” (page 294) And I say, honor be upon you, brave men and women of Daraya, who endured hunger and trauma, and still believed in the life of the mind. How fortunate I am that my parents filled my home with books from the time I was a baby, and that, thanks to a robust local library system, I am able to obtain almost any book I want any time I want. I hope someday we will all be able to reach that future of peace and freedom you dreamed of.

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