1 June 2022 Susannah

Writing about war

Delphine Minoui and her books

The news from Ukraine every day is so grim. We ache for the families who have lost loved ones, homes, livelihoods and even their cities. I also think of all the treasured book collections which have gone up in smoke, been abandoned because of the danger of staying at home, and the libraries which have disappeared under bombs.

I recently read The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui, a book written in French and translated into English. This is a book which brings the horror of war home to us very poignantly indeed. It’s the true story of a group of young Syrians, living in the city of Daraya which is being heavily bombed by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. One day, one of the young men finds some books in the rubble and decides to start an underground library. Safe under the detritus of the city, the collection grows, with the men taking huge risks in order to collect the books. Many of the men had rarely read before the struggle for independence began, but the books provide great comfort, bring them the education so rudely interrupted by conflict, and the library becomes a venue for discussions about books, lectures, English lessons, and shared reading experience. It didn’t take long before there were 15,000 volumes in the library, and whenever possible, the rebels wrote the name of the original owner in the front of a book, hoping that one day it could be returned.

I found this book very hard to read. There was so much destruction, abuse of power from Assad, death, and hunger, and I found I could only read it in small instalments because it was so disturbing. And yet the message was, ultimately, a positive one, and there is no doubt that the books gave the rebels hope, education, comfort and solace as they lived through a horrific time. Interestingly, self-help books were amongst the most borrowed, so were volumes of Islamic poetry, and Hugo’s Les Misérables, but there were some surprising books in the lists such as Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus and Pride and Prejudice also got a mention. The library becomes a hidden fortress, with books the weapons of mass instruction. Daraya never had a public library under Assad – just think of all those ideas of freedom that might be created if people were allowed to read what they liked!

In 2016 the Assad regime escalated its assault on the city. One of the book collectors is killed and one grieves for him as one reads. Napalm is dumped on what is left of the city, and journalist/author Minoui waits in anguish for the occasional text message from her friends in the underground library (she lives in Istanbul).

Minoui has also written I am Nujood, Age 10, and Divorced about the first little girl to get divorced in Yemen. It also sounds like a challenging and upsetting read, but one I feel I ought to tackle soon. While I found the story of the brave book collectors of Daraya upsetting, I also feel it is a book we NEED to read, especially in this time of cruel and unjust conflict in Ukraine.

Have you read this book? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Since writing this I’ve received a link to an article revealing what ultimately happened to the Daraya library. It’s not a happy ending but is still a testament to the importance of books. You can read it here.

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Featured image credit- Delphine Minoui and her books, images from https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1593230.Delphine_Minoui
Body image credit- Books rescued for the Daraya Secret Library, https://www.amazon.com/Syrias-Secret-Library-Reading-Redemption/dp/1541767624

Comments (8)

  1. Miland Joshi

    I’ve just read Delphine Minoui’s moving account. In fact my hand is a bit sprained, so I couldn’t study Mathematics this evening, and so did something less demanding on my right hand, so I guess a bit of good came of it! I devoured the book in a single evening this one, the evening of 14th June). I will recommend it to others. I’ll keep a lookout for the appearance of the film on DVD!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is a moving story, isn’t it. It really brings home the pointlessness and waste of war.

  2. Miland Joshi

    THe same story with its tragic end is told in Mike Thomson’s Syria’s Secret Library, but I have now ordered Delphine Minoui’s book as well. But Thomson’s story has a hopeful epilogue: a mobile library was formed in the aftermath and is is briefly written about here:
    I don’t know if the mobile library in Idlib still survives, given the violence in the area. Here is the latest website about it that I’ve been able to find:

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the information about the other book on the same topic. I will look out for it. Good to know about a mobile library and I’ll read through the links you sent.

  3. Penny Morris

    I haven’t read it but will do so. It is interesting howe often books become a political tool – not always in a good way eg Nazi book burning in Berlin. I think it reminds us just how powerful knowledge is. Another book which I’m sure you’ve read is “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks which also shows how far people will go to protect a book.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      No, I haven’t read the Geraldine Brooks novel – I’ve been meaning to for ages, so thanks for the reminder.

  4. Geraldine Bull

    I read that a year or so ago, as my bookclub choice, and then gave it to one of my sons. I found it variously heartwarming, joyful, positive and heart breaking. To think of the destruction of their amazing work. Though for them it was more that just the physical aspect of the books and what they learnt, but their sense of accomplishment, perhaps in the long run more important in what it gave them as people, than the actual collection of books. I did cry rather a lot for them.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it was a heartbreaking book – so much loss and pointless destruction. And now it is happening all over again in the Ukraine. The inhumanity of man to man can be incomprehensible.

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