“The Book Collectors of Daraya” – Delphine Minoui (2/5 ★)

Within this book, the reporter Delphine Minoui tells the story of an underground library that has been created within the Syrian town of Daraya, despite the constant bombings and a state of terror the inhabitants were surrounded by, day in, day out. The focus is placed upon both the founders of this library, as well as its visitors/readers – their individual stories and interests. This quite thin edition of the book with a relatively big font size (feeling as if the entire text was printed in bold), with huge spacing between the lines and being just about 196 pages long, felt like its story could have much better been summed up within an essay. The main message that it tried to bring across was about the significance of the power of books and how valuable the experience of reading is, even when everything else in ones life is literally collapsing around you.

“Reading is the new foundation for the bubble of freedom they’ve constructed. They read to explore a concealed past, to learn, to evade insanity. Books are their best way to escape the war, if only temporarily. A melody of words against the dirge of bombs. Reading – a humble human gesture that binds them to the mad hope of a return to peace.” (p. 26)

What is special about this story though, is that the author could only rely on the accounts of the people living in that area, not having been able to set foot in or near Daraya herself. Video calls with an unstable internet connection, whatsapp texts and voice messages were their only means of communication. This added a challenge to the storytelling which could be strongly felt in my point of view. Even though the described events were often quite heavy and tragic, I somehow didn’t feel emotionally touched by them, so that by the end of the story it only left me feeling quite flat. The narrative felt as if an effort was made to mainly stay factual and avoid emotions. This might have been linked to the fact of it being an English translation of the French original, the author’s use of an interpreter in order to get the story from her protagonists in the first place or simply her particular style.

“Ahmad is no longer answering my calls. All my messages sent via WhatsApp remain unanswered. They haven’t even been read: there is no ✔✔ signaling the messages have been received. I look through the list of my other contacts on my phone. Hussam, away. Shadi, away. Omar, away. A silence as blank as an empty page. I’m afraid I’ve lost them for good. Without the internet, the world has become vast again, increasing a distance we naively thought abolished.” (p. 128)

I was quite confused about why it would have been needed to extend the story to the length of an entire book, whereas to me, the added value only came through in the form of the author’s autobiographical details. Adding in the stories of terror attacks in Istanbul and France felt like it was designed for a European reader to be able to better connect with the war torn state of Syria and evoke more compassion.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s an absolutely horrible book, therefore not giving it a 1/5 ★ star rating. I was still disappointed in general and wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone. There is something to the story and I feel like one could have gotten more out it. It’s unique due to the fact that it won’t ever be possible to reproduce any photographic footage, since the entire population has been evacuated from the town. I would have been curious to see the documentary “Daraya: A library under bombs” that has been shot about this story, but I wasn’t able to find it anywhere in online access. Having also stumbled across Mike Thomson’s book “Syria’s Secret Library” during my background research, I’m extremely curious to discover it since it was written on the exact same subject.

The little positive parts that I took along from the reading experience were a couple of quotes stressing the importance of reading, literature and stories, even in times of war:

“Words can’t heal physical wounds, he says, but they have the power to soothe mental ones.” (p. 21)

” ‘War is destructive. It transforms men, kills emotions and fears. When you’re at war, you see the world differently. Reading is a diversion, it keeps us alive. Reading reminds us that we’re human.’ ” (p. 48)

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-1-5290-1232-3
Picador, 2020

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