Talking Location With .. Venetia Welby – OKINAWA
Story set in Daraya, DAMASCUS
28th September 2021
The Book Collectors of Daraya, by Delphine Minoui, story set in Daraya, Damascus. Translated by Lara Vergnaud.
Delphine Minoui, a prizewinning reporter on Iraq and Iran, working for Le Figaro, browsing through Facebook images on her computer one evening comes across one that stops her in her tracks. The caption reads, The Secret Library of Daraya and shows two young men standing in a makeshift underground library in the midst of bomb wrecked Daraya. Intrigued, she sets about tracking down the photographer, Ahmad Muaddamani, one of the co-founders of the library, and it is his story that forms the basis for this account.
In 2012 the rebel suburb of Daraya in Damascus, determined to hold firm against Assad’s brutality, is besieged by Syrian government forces and four years of immense suffering follows with the remaining residents being bombarded by shells, barrel bombs and even chemical attacks. In late 2013, Muddamani, who is already committed in the fight to resist Assad, is asked to help his friends clear out the ruins of a house that is full of books. Books hold little fascination for the fighter; his experience of books had been confined to the ones he had been given at school – full of propaganda. But something grips him when he starts to read one of those rescued books and he, like the others, is hooked on the mission to reclaim as many as possible from the bomb-ravaged buildings in the city.
Before long, the small group of men have got over fifteen thousand volumes for their library. They take immense risks to rescue books and then set about repairing and cataloguing them, taking particular care to write inside the front cover of each volume the name of the original owner, just in case they might be able to be reunited in the future. The men dig out an underground space for their library, they decorate, furnish and build shelves and almost instantly the library is in business, offering the trapped residents access to uncensored reading. The library quickly becomes a meeting place and offers an opportunity for education in a city where almost all the educators had been exiled, jailed or murdered.
Set exclusively in besieged Daraya, this account offers us a unique insight into the experience of these rebels and the other civilians trapped there; it highlights the sacrifices made and the deprivations endured. In addition to the direct assaults on their safety, the people are cut off from food supplies, from water and electricity. At one point in the story, Minoui receives a letter signed by the usually unseen and unheard women of Daraya. They tell her of their struggles to keep children fed and to ward off disease and infection. “Behind the courage of men can be found the suffering of women,” comments Minoui. The Book Collectors of Daraya is a straightforward tale, told simply. Minoui’s style is definitely more journalese than literary but, in many ways, this is an advantage as the understated prose makes the narration more powerful and poignant.
One of the most arresting aspects of this very slim volume is in its structure. There is the main and very gripping story of the library and the struggles of the young men who founded it, but alongside this, and, almost more fascinating, is the account of Minoui’s growing relationship with them. She worries constantly about their safety and the reader, with her, suffers the frustration of an unreliable internet connection and the inevitable lengthy, frightening silences. Her conversations with the men and their discussions about the favourite book choices and the reasons for them is, at times, amusing and, at others well-nigh heart-breaking.
Despite the inevitable ending, ultimately, The Book Collectors of Daraya offers us some hope and a belief that the power of words has some impact against incomprehensible violence and cruelty.
Ellen for the TripFiction Team
Join team TripFiction on Social Media: