By Mike Thomson. PublicAffairs, 2019. 320 pages. $28/hardcover; $3.99/eBook.
Some time ago I reviewed Joshua Hammer’s book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu; the title said it all. The book recounted the story of the dedicated librarians and everyday Malians who risked their lives in 2012 to preserve from Islamic extremists the 377,000-plus books, scrolls, and manuscripts contained in the ancient library of Timbuktu. I was familiar with the story, having heard about it on public radio, but the book went into much more detail about the struggles and courage of these brave folks. It also reinforced a deeply held belief that most of us have: that libraries are more than just big buildings that hold lots of books. They are repositories of learning, centers of knowledge and research, meeting places, presentation spaces, debate stages, town centers, social halls, hangouts: in short, the beating heart of a community’s culture.
At around the same time as the events in Hammer’s book were taking place, 4,600 kilometers away, Syria was descending into civil war. In early 2012, during the early stages of what would become years of savage fighting, veteran BBC correspondent Mike Thomson began hearing stories from the town of Daraya near Damascus, tales of a mysterious secret underground library that had been established by a small group of mostly young people who were determined to create a space where books could be rescued, preserved, and shared; where the community could come together to share knowledge and comradeship; and where education could continue long after all the local schools had been closed or destroyed.
Because of the intense fighting and a ban on foreign journalists entering Syria, Thomson had to resort to cell phone calls, texting, and communication apps like WhatsApp and Skype to connect with the people whose stories he recounts here. He starts out by recounting the history of Daraya, its role in the early stages of the uprising against the barbaric Bashar al-Assad regime, and the price so many locals paid for their protests and resistance. Knowing this part of the story is essential to understanding the roots of the secret library project.
The fact that Thomson had to investigate this story from thousands of miles away, using technology that was frequently unreliable at best, makes for a somewhat disjointed narrative, which gets a bit more muddled by the sheer number of names Thomson throws at us over the first 100 pages or so. (This muddling is worsened by some sloppy editing.) But we gradually get a series of portraits of those who risked their lives to create, maintain, and use the library: the rebel fighters who took books from the library with them to the front lines to read and discuss during breaks in the fighting, the teachers who desperately tried to keep educating their students using the library’s resources, and the volunteers who scavenged through bombed-out buildings to find more books to add to the collection. My favorite is 14-year-old Amjad, who goes from being a frequent visitor to being self-appointed chief librarian: curating; cataloging; checking books in and out; and carefully noting where each book was obtained, so that it might someday be returned to its original owner. Amjad does not merely have a love for books and for the library; his is a fiery, all-consuming passion. The portrait Thomson paints of him reminded me of some of my former students, who simply could not be without a book constantly at their side. His story deserves its own book.
At a time when so much of the news seems bad and when it’s very easy to be cynical about our fellow human beings, we are uplifted by Syria’s Secret Library, a story of courage, resilience, and determination. It is also a love story. Those of us who love books and who love libraries (and who have missed them during the pandemic, as I have) will be inspired by it, and the stories of the Syrians who made it possible will give you back perhaps a small bit of your faith in our species.
David Austin is a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting. He is a retired history and English teacher and Holocaust educator. His middle-grade novel in verse recounting the true story of Holocaust survivor Charles Middleberg is titled Small Miracle and is now available from Fernwood Press.