Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just south west of the Syrian Capital. Yet it lives in another world. Besieged by Syrian government forces since 2011, its people were deprived of food, bombarded by bombs and missiles, and shot at by snipers. Its buildings lay in ruins; office buildings, shops and family homes shattered by the constant shelling from government forces. But deep beneath this scene of frightening devastation lay a secret library.
No signs marked its presence. While the streets above echoed with rifle fire and shelling, the secret world below was a haven of peace and tranquillity. Books, long rows of them, lined almost every wall. Bloated volumes with grand leather covers. Tattered old tomes with barely readable spines. Pocket sized guides to Syrian poetry. Religious works with gaudy gold-lettering and no-nonsense reference books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this precious hoard of books was not bought from publishers, book warehouses, or loaned by other libraries. Many people had risked their lives to save books from the devastation of war. Because to them, the secret library was a symbol of hope - of their determination to lead a meaningful existence and to rebuild their fractured society.
This is the story of an extraordinary place and the people who made it happen. It is also a book about human resilience and values. And through it all is threaded the very wonderful, universal love for books and the hope they can bring.
"Just like the body needs food the soul needs books."
Anas Habib (library user)
In this compassionate account, journalist Thomson knits together and expands his reporting for the BBC on the underground library in the Syrian town of Darayya. He explains that the town, just outside of Damascus, was the location of some of the heaviest fighting of the Syrian civil war; its remaining inhabitants were forcibly relocated to refugee camps in the north of the country in 2016. But rather than give in to despair during the siege, the holdouts who remained undertook a remarkable initiative: to construct an underground library, with thousands of books salvaged from the rubble. In Thomson's telling, "this literary haven offered more than an escape from bombs and boredom. It was to become a portal to another world: one of learning, one of peace, and one of hope." While the book doesn't offer broader context on the Syrian conflict, Thomson succeeds in humanizing his subjects; the stories of such individuals as Amjad, a young boy who "managed to educate himself by reading all these books and taking on the responsibility of running the library," demonstrate the ability of the human spirit to persevere and find meaning in even the most inhumane conditions. The stories Thomson relates, of great courage and fortitude in the service of literature and education, will move readers.