I’ve used reading as an escape from the realities of the world over the last 18 months. And in the process, I’ve managed to rediscover a kinship with books that almost borders on the edge of an obsession now. Some semblance of this obsession always existed since the day I picked up, as a 9-year-old, Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island. I’ve come a long way since then, but those memories remain some of my happiest: lazy afternoons at Nana’s place with The Five Find-Outers, the additional pages that my school librarian had to attach to my handbook just to make entries of The Hardy Boys I’d checked out, the late fees that mum had to pay at Abbas – a very popular circulating library, the pirated books and magazines that I bought from the vendors at King’s Circle.
The point I’m trying to make is this: the vigor that those memories evoke is my strongest, and perhaps the only, denominator to The Book Collectors of Daraya, a real-life account of Syrian rebels who set up a secret library in a besieged town, just south of Damascus. Written by a prominent French journalist Delphaine Minoui, the book is an ode to the resilience of the rebels, and the role that their secret library plays in feeding it. It is simultaneously the story of Bashar al Assad’s depravity and duplicity, an account of Daraya’s fighters holding out for four years, and their secret library, all told in 189 pages with font sized 12 and a spacing of 1.5. The books and the library that housed them became Daraya’s biggest weapon in the fight against Assad’s barrel bombs and sarin gas attacks.
“It would be an underground space, protected from radar and shells, where avid and novice readers alike could gather. Reading as a refuge. A page opening to the world when every door is locked.”
The thought that books in a secret library in a basement of a bombed-out building at the frontlines of a town reduced to rubble with only 4% of its population remaining, with all its food, electricity and gas cut-off, could offer comfort and hope to a war-torn people is… Surreal, unsettling and perspective-lending. For some of those books the young rebels read also sit on my bookshelf. With a rating of 4.2 on goodreads, this one is a quick but gut-wrenching read.