How a group of Syrian residents assembled a secret library

How a group of Syrian residents assembled a secret library


>>Sreenivasan: IN AUGUST OF
2016, AFTER FOUR YEARS OF
BOMBINGS, DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
IN DARAYA, SYRIA, REBEL FORCES
AND THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT AGREED
TO A CEASE-FIRE.
THOUSANDS OF FIGHTERS AND
CIVILIANS WERE EVACUATED AND
RELOCATED, LEAVING BEHIND
SHATTERED HOMES AND BUILDINGS IN
RUINS.
BUT UNDERNEATH THAT RUBBLE, IN
AN ABANDONED BASEMENT, LAY A
HIDDEN TREASURE: A SECRET
LIBRARY, FILLED WITH THOUSANDS
OF BOOKS SALVAGED DURING THE
RAVAGES OF WAR BY RESIDENTS WHO
RISKED THEIR LIVES TO SAVE THEM.
I RECENTLY SPOKE WITH BBC
REPORTER MIKE THOMSON, AUTHOR OF
THE BOOK, “SYRIA’S SECRET
LIBRARY: READING AND REDEMPTION
IN A TOWN UNDER SIEGE,” WHICH IS
COMING OUT THIS TUESDAY.
THE IDEA OF PEOPLE RISKING THEIR
LIVES TO SOMEHOW CREATE A SECRET
LIBRARY.
TELL ME, FIRST OF ALL, WHAT DID
THIS LIBRARY LOOK LIKE?
HOW DID IT SURVIVE WHILE THERE
WERE BOMBS DROPPING AROUND IT?
>>WELL, IT WAS IN A BASEMENT,
HARI, SO, BURIED BENEATH THE
SURFACE OF THE GROUND.
IN FACT, IT WAS JUST BELOW A
BUILDING THAT HAD BEEN
HALF-DESTROYED, IN AN AREA
ALMOST TOTALLY DESTROYED, THAT
WAS PICKED DELIBERATELY BECAUSE
IT WOULD LOOK FROM ABOVE AS IF
THERE WAS VIRTUALLY NOTHING LEFT
TO BOMB.
>>Sreenivasan: AND SO WHERE DID
THE BOOKS COME FROM?
>>WELL, THE BOOKS CAME FROM
ABANDONED HOUSES, BOMBED HOUSES
AND, AND SOME BOMBED OFFICE
BUILDINGS.
AND THIS GROUP OF YOUNG PEOPLE
WHO ARE BEHIND IT ALL, MOST OF
THEM FORMER UNIVERSITY STUDENTS,
HAD THOUGHT TO THEMSELVES,
“LOOK, INSTEAD OF JUST SITTING
HERE WAITING TO DIE AND
EXTREMELY HUNGRY,” AS THEY WERE
UNDER SIEGE, “LET’S GO AND
RESCUE BOOKS THAT WE HAVE HEARD
ABOUT THAT ARE LYING ABANDONED
IN BUILDINGS AND GETTING RUINED
BY THE WEATHER.”
AND IT WAS AFTER THEY DID THAT
THAT THEY REALIZED, “INSTEAD OF
LEAVING THEM IN BOXES, WHY DON’T
WE READ THEM?
WHY DON’T WE CREATE A LIBRARY?”
AND THAT’S JUST WHAT THEY WENT
AND DID.
>>Sreenivasan: SO HOW WOULD
PEOPLE COME TO THIS LIBRARY?
I MEAN, WHEN THE ATTACKS WERE
GOING ON AROUND THEM, I MEAN,
IT WOULD BE RISKY JUST TO GO
READ A BOOK.
>>WELL, IT WAS RISKY ALL
AROUND.
IT WAS RISKY GETTING THE BOOKS,
BECAUSE OFTEN THEY HAD TO GET
INTO BUILDINGS THAT HAD
DEMOLISHED FIRST FLOORS, SO THEY
HAD TO CLIMB THROUGH THE RUBBLE,
OFTEN IN THE LINE OF SNIPERS WHO
WERE IN THE HIGH BUILDINGS ALONG
THE FRONT LINE BETWEEN THE REBEL
DEFENDERS AND THE GOVERNMENT
FORCES.
AND OF COURSE, IT WAS ALSO, AS
YOU SAY, IT WAS RISKY FOR PEOPLE
TO GET TO THE LIBRARY BECAUSE
SOME DAYS, THE BOMBING WENT ON
ALMOST NONSTOP.
AND OF COURSE, THEY COULDN’T
ANNOUNCE WHERE IT WAS, BECAUSE
OBVIOUSLY IT’S A SECRET LIBRARY.
SO, JUST WORD OF MOUTH TOLD
PEOPLE WHERE IT WAS.
THEY WERE VERY WORRIED THAT IF
THE GOVERNMENT FORCES KNEW WHERE
IT WAS, THEY’D BOMB IT.
>>Sreenivasan: IT SEEMED LIKE
THIS WAS A LITTLE BIT MORE, AT
LEAST IN THE BOOK, MORE THAN
JUST ABOUT THE BOOKS.
I MEAN, THERE WAS ALMOST A SENSE
OF COMMUNITY COMING AROUND IN
FINDING THE BOOKS, KEEPING
PEOPLE INTERESTED AND ENGAGED,
PROTECTING THE SECRECY OF THE
LIBRARY.
>>INDEED, YOU’RE QUITE RIGHT.
IT WAS SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST
READING.
THERE WERE PRACTICAL PURPOSES,
TOO.
THERE WAS THE FACT THAT THEY
MANAGED TO GET LOTS OF MEDICAL
BOOKS, THAT HELPED PEOPLE WHO
WERE DOING MEDICAL STUDIES THAT
WERE INTERRUPTED BY THE WAR.
PEOPLE WHO, WHO WANTED TO TEACH
THE CHILDREN, WHO’D NEVER DONE
ANY TEACHING BEFORE, WHO FOUND
BOOKS LIKE THAT.
THERE WAS ESCAPISM FROM THE
SHEER HELL JUST A FEW FEET ABOVE
THEIR HEADS, IN THINGS LIKE
SHAKESPEARE AND ARABIC POETRY,
AND EVEN, WELL, ALL SORTS OF
THINGS.
BUT ALSO, THERE WAS A FEELING OF
COMMUNITY, AS YOU RIGHTLY SAID.
IT WAS A PLACE THAT THEY ALSO
HELD LECTURES ON THINGS LIKE THE
BOMBING OF HIROSHIMA AND THE
LONDON BLITZ.
THEY, THEY LEARNT HOW PEOPLE IN
OTHER COUNTRIES HAD SURVIVED
BEING ALMOST ANNIHILATED, AND
THRIVED.
AND THEY ALSO HAD DISCUSSIONS,
BOOK CLUBS, ABOUT POETRY AND,
AND LITERATURE GENERALLY.
AND EVEN SOLDIERS TOOK THE BOOKS
IN SMALL BAGS TO THE FRONT LINE
AND HELD BOOK CLUBS IN THEIR
FOXHOLES.
>>Sreenivasan: HOW DID YOU KEEP
IN TOUCH WITH THESE PEOPLE?
HOW DID YOU GET THESE STORIES
OUT OF SYRIA, SO TO SPEAK?
>>WELL, IT TOOK QUITE A BIT OF
DOING, BECAUSE THE INTERNET
THERE WAS EXTREMELY POOR, AND
THERE WERE VARIOUS CONTRAPTIONS
THAT WERE RIGGED UP.
AND I ASKED THEM TO EXPLAIN TO
ME ONCE HOW THEY MANAGED TO DO
THIS.
AND THEY SAID IT WAS ALL TO DO
WITH PIECES OF WIRE AND, AND
THAT THE TOPS OF PANS, WHICH
WERE THEN ALL TIED TOGETHER AND
SOMEHOW MANAGED TO CREATE A
SIGNAL.
DON’T ASK ME HOW THEY DID IT,
BECAUSE I REALLY DON’T KNOW.
BUT THEY STILL MANAGED TO GET
TO– GET THEIR VOICES OUT
THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA, THROUGH
WHATSAPP, THROUGH SKYPE AND
OTHER FORMS.
AND APPARENTLY, THE GOVERNMENT
FORCES COULD HAVE DONE A LITTLE
MORE TO CUT COMMUNICATIONS, BUT
THAT WOULD ALSO HAVE CUT
COMMUNICATIONS FOR THEIR
SOLDIERS WHO WERE FIGHTING THESE
PEOPLE, SO THEY DIDN’T.
>>Sreenivasan: WHAT ABOUT THE
PEOPLE THAT WERE DOING THIS?
YOU’VE KEPT IN TOUCH WITH THEM.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
HOW ARE THEY DOING?
>>INDEED.
WELL, JUST A SHORT WHILE AFTER
THE BOOK WAS COMMISSIONED, THE,
THE, THE REBEL DEFENDERS
SURRENDERED.
AND THAT MEANT, OF COURSE, THAT
THEY WERE ALL BUSSED OUT FROM
WHERE THEY WERE IN DARAYA TO
ITALY, THE LAST REMAINING
REBEL-HELD PROVINCE, WHICH IS
UNDER FIRE NOW.
THEY’RE ALL TAKEN AWAY FROM
THERE, SO OF COURSE I THEN HAD
TO TRY AND FIND EVERYBODY, WHICH
WAS QUITE A DIFFICULT TASK.
EVENTUALLY WHEN I DID FIND THEM,
I THOUGHT, “WILL THE SECRET
LIBRARY STILL BE SO SPECIAL TO
THEM?” NOW THEY’VE HAD TO LEAVE
IT AND THEIR TOWN BEHIND.
AND I WAS REASSURED IMMEDIATELY
ON CONTACTING THE FIRST PERSON,
ABDEL BASSET, WHO TOLD ME, “OH
YES, ABSOLUTELY, IT’S EVERY BIT
AS PRECIOUS.
IN FACT, IT KEPT US GOING THEN.
IT KEPT US GIVING– IT KEPT
GIVING US HOPE THEN, AND NOW IT
STILL GIVES US HOPE.
AND ONE DAY, WE’RE GOING TO
RETURN, AND WE’RE GOING TO START
THAT AGAIN.”
>>Sreenivasan: ALL RIGHT.
MIKE THOMSON OF THE BBC, THANKS
SO MUCH.
>>THANK YOU.

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