“Syria’s Secret Library” – Mike Thomson (5/5 ★)

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.

“Syria’s Secret Library” – Mike Thomson (2019)

★★★★★ (5/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-1-4746-0591-5
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019

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