A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: NPR
"An urgent and compelling account of great bravery and passion." —Susan Orlean
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels, a besieged Syrian town, and an underground library built from the rubble of war
Reading is an act of resistance.
Daraya is a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. Long a site of peaceful
resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya fell under siege in 2012. For four years, no one entered or left, and aid was blocked. Every single day, bombs fell on this place—a place of homes and families, schools and children, now emptied and broken into bits.
And then a group searching for survivors stumbled upon a cache of books in the rubble. In a week, they had six thousand volumes; in a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary was born: a library where people could escape the blockade, a paper fortress to protect their humanity.
The library offered a marvelous range of books—from Arabic poetry to American self-help, Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places. The visitors shared photos and tales of their lives before the war, planned how to build a democracy, and tended the roots of their community despite shell-shocked soil.
In the midst of the siege, the journalist Delphine Minoui tracked down one of the library’s founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad. Over text messages, WhatsApp, and Facebook, Minoui came to know the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs kept falling from above. By telling their stories, Minoui makes a far-off, complicated war immediate and reveals these young men to be everyday heroes as inspiring as the books they read. The Book Collectors is a testament to their bravery and a celebration of the power of words.
French-Iranian journalist Minoui (I'm Writing You From Tehran) paints a haunting portrait of the 2012 2016 siege of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, during the Syrian civil war. After a government bombing campaign in response to pro-democracy protests set off an exodus from Daraya, remaining resistance members collected thousands of books and built a library in the basement of an abandoned building. Through video interviews and online chats with the library's founder, Ahmad Muaddamani, and frequent patrons, including a photographer, a Free Syrian Army fighter, and a veteran of previous protest movements, Minoui chronicles how these men denounced as jihadists by president Bashar al-Assad created a sanctuary for free thought. Her subjects describe how books as varied as the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, and Mustafa Khalifa's novel The Shell offer the library's patrons education, encouragement, and the "freedom they've been deprived of." Minoui also recounts her own responses to terrorist attacks in France to affirm how, amid the fight for survival, books can offer enlightenment and escape. Fluidly translated and emotionally powerful, this devastating account pays tribute to the "dream of a better world that never fully came true."