Syria's Secret Library

Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege


By Mike Thomson

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The remarkable story of a small, makeshift library in the town of Daraya, and the people who found hope and humanity in its books during a four-year siege.

Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital. Yet for four years it lived in another world. Besieged by government forces early in the Syrian Civil War, its people were deprived of food, bombarded by heavy artillery, and under the constant fire of snipers. But deep beneath this scene of frightening devastation lay a hidden library. While the streets above echoed with shelling and rifle fire, the secret world below was a haven of books.

Long rows of well-thumbed volumes lined almost every wall: bloated editions with grand leather covers, pocket-sized guides to Syrian poetry, and no-nonsense reference books, all arranged in well-ordered lines. But this precious horde was not bought from publishers or loaned by other libraries–they were the books salvaged and scavenged at great personal risk from the doomed city above.

The story of this extraordinary place and the people who found purpose and refuge in it is one of hope, human resilience, and above all, the timeless, universal love of literature and the compassion and wisdom it fosters.


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A Note on Place Names and Spelling

When translating Arabic names into English, there are several options for how to form the name. In this book, I have opted for translations that are consistent with each other in style, to allow a smooth reading experience. Similarly, with place names in Syria, there are multiple correct English spellings. Daraya, for example, can also be spelled Darayya. I have chosen to spell these places in accordance with how the people of Daraya spell them: these places are their homes, I will take their lead.

On a separate note, I refer to the terrorist organisation known to the world variously as IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, and many other names besides, initially as the so-called Islamic State and IS thereafter.

Some people’s names have been changed in order to protect the individuals and their families from possible arrest or ill treatment by Syria’s security services.


As dawn breaks, the crack of rifle fire echoes through empty streets. Yellow mist, a sulphury haze of exploded barrel bombs and burning plastic, hangs over shattered homes, their warped, crumbling roofs splayed forward. Here and there charred electric cables dangle down, limp lines of debris over a prone, bleeding city.

Picking his way through the lifeless landscape, defying the rotten smells and prolonged, rumbling explosions, a teenage boy slips through the half-buried entrance of a gutted building. After shutting the outside door, its weathered surface pockmarked with cracks and holes, the boy descends. Down, down he goes, step by careful step, into the darkness. One palm touches the wall steadying his passage, the other hand grips his precious bundle of books. As he nears the foot of the concrete stairs, the sounds of war fade into silence, broken only by the echoes of his sandalled feet.

In the gloom, the boy gropes for a light switch. With electricity now a rarity, he does so more in hope than expectation. A naked bulb flickers into life, illuminating a large basement room with generous high ceilings.

Books, long rows of them, line almost every wall. Grand volumes with brown leather covers; tattered old tomes with barely readable spines; pocket-sized guides to poetry; classic and contemporary novels; religious works with gaudy gold-lettering; a range of reference books: all rub shoulders in well-ordered literary lines, their neat, regimented rows marred only by occasional kinks in the handmade shelves.

Setting his books on a table, fourteen-year-old Amjad bustles about, preparing for the day ahead, stopping here and there to align the chairs and rehome the odd stray book. It is early and this is his time. The only sounds, the shifting of books, the rustling of paper and the faint hum of a small rusty generator. A cloth in hand, Amjad makes for a narrow bookcase. Carefully, he takes the volumes down, then lovingly dusts each and every one, before buffing the shelves to a hazy shine.

In a few hours’ time the secret library will open for business. Between twenty to thirty people arrive every day. All make treacherous journeys across the shattered city, braving snipers, bombs and missiles. Their reward–a few precious moments quietly choosing books, reading and exchanging news. Then they return to the streets and warily, block by block, inch their way home.

The books Amjad so lovingly tends were not bought from shops or delivered by publishers. Most were bravely gathered from burning homes and bombed council offices, often under shelling and sniper fire. Filling this library was a dangerous business.

Amjad meticulously signs every book in and out, each one handled like a priceless treasure. Names, addresses and return dates are logged. He smiles and nods, while advising on the merits of one book or another. Not that he ever has bad words to say about any of them. As choices are made and titles bundled into bags, everyone is told to keep safe and come back soon. Though whether Amjad is thinking as much of his beloved books as the person borrowing them, is hard to say.

There is only one thing more important to Amjad than the thousands of books on the shelves and that is the secrecy of the library itself. Everyone is told to reveal its location only to those they trust. Otherwise, he warns, pro-Assad planes will destroy it. That, the teenage tells me, in a near-starving city that is slowly dying each day, ‘would be the end of hope for us all’.

As a Foreign Correspondent for the BBC, I am no stranger to war zones. From Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Colombia I have seen the horrors of what man can do to man, and of course women and children too. Every war has its share of horrors and depravity, but one conflict in particular sticks in my mind. I will never forget the extraordinary brutality to women during ongoing unrest in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Many were not only raped by militia groups and sometime government soldiers, but also violated with rifle barrels and other implements, in many cases in front of their children. I remember asking a doctor who was treating survivors of sexual violence in the town of Bukavu in 2007 why he thought people did this. After all, these were men with mothers and often wives, sisters and daughters of their own. He told me that he had come to believe in a chilling explanation voiced by a former militia member he had treated. The man had told him: ‘If you can destroy a woman’s ability to bear children, while also destroying her mind, you melt the glue that binds your enemy’s community together. You kill his will to fight.’ I have never been able to forget those awful words.

In 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces opened fire and killed several pro-democracy protesters in the southern city of Daraa, I watched events on an ancient, spluttering television, in northern Congo. I was covering the murderous march of what was left of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, through large isolated swathes of central Africa. I had been in Damascus only a few months before and remembered the tensions and rebellious spirit of many I had talked to there. Much of this was expressed to me in furtive whispers in cafés and hotel lobbies, or in scribbled notes on scraps of paper. But these had not in any way prepared me for what was to follow. Damascus, with its attractive tree-lined streets and pretty flower-adorned restaurants, did not look a likely war zone capital. Yet the deaths in Daraya would soon ignite an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, which would spread across the country. Nearly eight years of war and untold suffering that continues to this day.

I knew nothing of the town of Daraya until it came to my attention in the summer of 2015 when I was compiling a news report for the BBC. At the time around half a million people were living in cities and towns encircled by pro-Syrian government forces, though a few had been besieged by rebel groups or so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters. By all accounts it was a grim struggle to survive in all of these places. Yet, to me, the dire situation in Daraya stood out because it had received no aid of any kind since being surrounded by pro-Syrian government forces back in November 2012. How, I wanted to know, were people there surviving?

I called my contacts inside the country, hoping that one of them could put me in touch with someone in Daraya. At first this proved difficult. Those who knew people there needed to talk to them first, before passing on names–all normal etiquette in most parts of the world, but absolutely essential in Syria. This is a country where one day it is safe to speak out against your enemy, the next your town is overrun and you face arrest or worse.

Finally, I managed to get in touch with some people in Daraya. Thanks to their candid and revealing testimonies I was able to complete my reports on the latest situation there. But the more I found out, the more interesting the people and their town became. In particular I was transfixed by rumours of a secret underground library that, I had been told, was full of books, books that had been gathered, and were being read, in the most harrowing and dangerous of circumstances. It seemed almost unimaginable. Battles were usually over things like money, women or power. Yet here was a love of books, a passion for literature and learning that ran so deep that people were willing to risk their lives for it. Here in a time of war, when feelings of hatred and lust for revenge grew as casualties mounted, a group of young men were dedicating themselves to learning and culture. All this while their town was being attacked on all sides and they were living on little more than a cup of watery soup each day.

At first it was hard to believe. Given that I could not get into the besieged town to verify what I was being told, I wondered whether it was true. Could there really be a secret library filled with thousands of books rescued from the rubble of war? An underground literary sanctuary filled with lovers of poetry, science, history and art, who held book clubs while bullets flew above? It defied every brutal image I had of the Syrian war, and I was determined to find out more.

The story of Syria’s Secret Library was first broadcast as a documentary by BBC Radio 4 in late July 2016. It got a heart-warming reception and won two major awards. Among the correspondence I received after the broadcast was a tweet from a Washington-based lecturer on the Middle East. The secret library, he wrote, had given him his first glimmer of hope for the country in many years. This was something that deeply resonated with me. In all the time I had been reporting on Syria, I had never come across a story like this. One that inspired rather than depressed, and showed how a love of literature, learning and culture had somehow survived, amid all the cruelty and bloodshed. And I realised there was so much more to say.

Chapter One

Until 2011, Daraya, a town of around 90,000 people on the southern doorstep of Damascus, was a thriving, vibrant community. Life carried on pretty much as normal in its broad, tree-lined streets. Convoys of farmers’ trucks laden with rich varieties of locally grown crops; small furniture factories producing the town’s speciality–hand-crafted bedroom pieces; crowded markets and shops, decked with brightly painted placards and elaborate shop windows.

Daraya is often referred to as a suburb of Damascus, but it is a separate town, with its own identity and history, and is said to be the site of Paul the Apostle’s Damascene conversion.1 Daraya was initially a Ghassanid Christian village, full of monasteries, but with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, it soon became an important site for Muslims and the monasteries were replaced with shrines to the companions of Muhammad who lived and died there.2 Bilal, one of Muhammad’s closest companions, is believed to have settled in Daraya. Born in Mecca, he is considered to be the first ever muezzin chosen by Muhammad and, as such, is one of the most significant figures in the early history of Islam.

Throughout the early Islamic period, Daraya was a bustling but modest village. Its proximity to Damascus, which became the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate in AD 680, meant it was always in the shadow of its wealthy, illustrious neighbour. Nonetheless, Daraya was not completely out-shone. Having been host to the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and their descendants, it became a sanctified location and was soon renowned among scholarly circles, said by some to be the ‘place to go for anyone seeking knowledge’.

Daraya was also well known as an agricultural area, revered for its fine orchards and fertile soils. One of its crops–the grape–has long been prized above all others, not just locally, or nationally, but right across the world. In 1862, an article appeared in the British publication Once a Week, extolling the virtues of a ‘white grape, large and long, very fragrant, sweet and juicy, and with a hard skin which enables it to bear packing and carriage without injury. It is cultivated in a village near Damascus called Daraya, on the old Roman road south-west of the city, and there only, for often though planted elsewhere, it has always obstinately refused to thrive.’ The article went on to quote a story, translated by London’s then-Consul, named only as Mr Rogers, involving the Prophet Muhammad and a follower of his who, one afternoon, followed Muhammad in an attempt to discover where the Prophet said his afternoon prayers. According to the legend, after Muhammad prayed:

The heavens opened, and a ladder was let down to the earth, up which Muhammad proceeded to climb. His friend followed close, and when the door of heaven was reached, he contrived, by hiding himself behind the skirts of the Prophet’s dress, to enter with him unperceived. He found himself in the immediate presence of Allah. Allah was seated on a magnificent divan, in all the celestial splendours. He was evidently waiting for the arrival of Muhammad, whom He at once recognised, called him to his right hand at the corner of the sofa, and commanded Gabriel and the other attendants to bring coffee, pipes, sweetmeats etc. Meantime the friend had been enabled, in the bustle of the entrance, to creep behind the divan, from whence he watched all that happened. After a time, conversation flagged, and a game of chess was proposed. To this Muhammad–who was perfectly at his ease, and apparently well used to his company–would only assent on condition that the game should be for some stakes worth winning. It was at last settled that the stakes should be a banquet, to be furnished on the spot by the loser. The Prophet won the game without difficulty, and the banquet at once appeared. One of its chief delicacies was a cluster of magnificent grapes, such as no mortal vine ever bore, beautiful in form and colour, and of celestial fragrance. At the sight of the grapes the friend could resist no longer. He stole out of his hiding place while the Prophet and his Host were busy with the feast. He contrived, by mingling with the attendants, to break off a portion of the bunch, which he hid in his bosom, and then darted off down the ladder.

Once on the earth again, he waited quietly in the neighbourhood, and on the Prophet’s reappearance congratulated him on having played his part so well. Muhammad was at first indignant, and professed not to understand his meaning, till the production of the grapes showed him that his follower had really witnessed all that had passed. He then bound him to secrecy: ‘As for the grapes,’ said he, ‘do not waste such precious fruit by eating it, but take it to Daraya, near Damascus, and there plant it, so that the earth may benefit by your visit to heaven.’ This his friend did. Now, all men know that the earth of the plain of Damascus is that out of which our first father Adam was created, and that in all the world there is not so fine or productive soil: but of all that plain Daraya is the richest. The grapes grow there to this day in abundance, for though thousands and tens of thousands eat of them, there is never any lack. But the vines will flourish nowhere else, as many can affirm who have planted them elsewhere. And this is the story of the grapes of Daraya, which will grow nowhere but in their own soil.3

In 1953, nearly a century after this story was published, a festival of grapes was held in Daraya. More than thousand different varieties of the fruit were displayed and the occasion was attended by the then President of Syria, Adib Al-Shishakli.

The magnificent quality of Daraya’s grapes continues to be celebrated. Photos of them adorn websites mentioning the town and the fruit was even used as a symbol of the uprising there on rebel posters and in campaign literature. Locals I have talked to have their own theories on what has made their grapes so particularly special. Most put it down to the area’s rich red soil and the life-giving waters of the Western River, which sates the thirst of the bounteous vines. One man I talked to described Daraya’s grapes as ‘sweeter, bigger, tastier and more colourful than any others’. He even believed that there is a spiritual explanation, telling me that, ‘The farmers who plant the vineyards do so with the most noble and good intentions. They grow them for all the community, for pleasure rather than profit. Their celebration of this special gift from God is infused in the flavour of the fruit.’

Indeed, the grape has been a source of great pride and celebration in the town, adorning websites and local literature. But, this being a Muslim country, wine has never been something that has fuelled the locals. Instead, in early 2011, for those in Daraya seeking refreshment and shade during the heat of a baking summer’s day, when temperatures often top forty degrees, there were a multitude of coffee houses, restaurants, Internet cafés and computer game shops to choose from.

But it was in the relative coolness of the evening that the town was most alive. Older people gathered to play backgammon, chess or cards, while the young whiled away the hours in tea houses near much loved football grounds. One of the most popular of these was the Champions Café. Its walls were covered with big-screen televisions which streamed the most important football matches, many of them international. On sultry summer evenings crowds would gather around wooden tables in the café’s garden area, many dressed in the colours of Barcelona or Real Madrid, easily the most popular teams. Their exuberant, near deafening cheers and shrieks would fill the evening air, briefly masking the roar of motorbikes pelting through the dusty streets, the riders accelerating hard until their front wheel rose into the air. Similar sounds would engulf the football ground next to the café from 2 p.m. every Friday afternoon. This was when the hotly contested local league matches were played. There was no Ronaldo or Messi here, no luxury stadium with directors’ boxes and thumping pop music, but the crowds were every bit as passionate.

Only one other kind of event in Daraya could compete with football matches when it came to decibels: weddings. Even if you were not getting married yourself, or actually attending, you would soon know if one was happening, such was the scale and pageantry of these events.

As in many Islamic countries, traditional weddings in Syria take place in two halves, divided according to gender. The men hold one ceremony, often in public, and the women attend another, in some kind of ceremonial indoor venue. And to put it into colloquial terms, the idea was to ‘large it’ as much as possible. The man’s family would aim to stage the biggest and brashest event possible. Those attending would be regaled with mouth-watering food and luxury cakes. Ideally the event should appear to be costing a lot of money, which it probably was. Meanwhile, over at the women’s ceremony, competition was the order of the day. If your neighbour or friend looked stunning, then you needed to look even better. It was the time to roll out your most beautiful dress, stylish shoes and most opulent jewellery. And if you had a daughter, she was to do the same–for this was the ideal occasion to show her off. After all there would be other mothers there, on the look-out for prospective wives for their sons. Yet despite all the mind-blowing expense, preening and posing, everyone at these events seemed to have a thoroughly good time. No slinking off straight after the knot was tied; these boisterous occasions would often carry on into the early hours.

For those without a wedding to go to, there was always Koushak. This gleaming, modern ice cream café was a favourite haunt for many. Walking through its doors, customers entered a dreamworld of elegantly arranged ices, sweets and desserts of every colour and flavour. Strawberry red iced lollies, chocolate brown tarts, tangerine lollies and cream cakes. Housed in the centre of town, this temple of temptation drew customers from all over the area, even from neighbouring Damascus. Those who lacked the money to buy would come to look, such was the draw of Koushak. The shop’s recipes were a tightly guarded secret–so much so, that the proud owner would often draw the curtains and lock all the doors when concocting his ice creams.

A short walk down the road from Koushak, just past Daraya’s busy clothes market and a popular hummus and falafel store, was the Central Toaster shop, which sold all sorts of delicious-smelling toasted nuts and seeds. The aroma would drift down the road, enticing helpless people through its doors. On returning home, the shop’s customers would lay out these moreish snacks in small ornate bowls, and nibble them while watching television–this was evidently Daraya’s answer to popcorn.

Daraya was clearly a very tightly bonded, close-knit place where many people were related and so just about everybody knew each other. It was also a town with many natural attractions. On Fridays and Saturdays Darayans often sped off to the town’s western fringes. There, among the area’s scenic orchards, they could rent attractive and inexpensive farmhouses. Young and old would enjoy relaxing in the shade, chatting, playing card games and holding barbecues. In an environment such as this, they could forget about the many irritants of daily life, like the haphazard electricity supplies. Blackouts were common, sometimes lasting for many hours at a time. The mains water supply was often unreliable too. The provision of some public services was also rather threadbare. Until shortly before the war, there was no public hospital in Daraya, so anyone needing treatment had to go to a private one. These were not so expensive, but many families on lower incomes still struggled to pay their bills. Another thing that pushed up the cost of living, not to mention everyone’s blood pressure, was corruption. If you wanted something done by the local council services, you usually had to pay; somebody, somewhere would demand a ‘facilitation’ fee.

Though perhaps unfamiliar in its landscape and customs, Daraya in the early twenty-first century was, in its fabric and soul, little different to the average European or American town. People shared the same busy lives, families, responsibilities and preoccupations. The same often tiring and time-consuming commute into work. Rents and house prices were much cheaper than in central Damascus, so Daraya had become a bit of a commuter town for many on lower incomes. Although the national economy was growing each year and inflation stood at a fairly low 4 per cent, most local families had to work hard to get by. Whether they laboured on a farm, in a government office or in one of the town’s many furniture factories, money was tight. Not that this dented Daraya’s strong sense of community; its people took great pride in a town some had lived in for generations.

But this apparently peaceful life was about to change.

Daraya is a town with a proud and fascinating history of protest and a strong will to survive. From around AD 730 the town was already acquiring a rebellious reputation. Its inhabitants had developed strong grievances against the Umayyad authorities, who they believed favoured a rival tribe.4 Daraya also played a prominent role during the Crusades. Following a clash between two Muslim armies there in 1139, a large number of local fighters, who were on the losing side, were put to the sword.5

By 2011, the vast majority of the town’s population were Sunni but Daraya was also an important place for Shi’ites. In 2003, a holy Shi’ite shrine was established there and the town was then added to pilgrimage routes. Until recently, there was also a Greek Orthodox Church in Daraya and a strong Christian presence, church bells ringing out in solidarity with the anti-regime protesters in March 2011.

In recent times, Daraya had become best known for its non-violent protests. When, for example, in 1998 a group of twenty-three young men and women were thrown out of a local mosque for studying the Quran with a progressive cleric, instead of giving up and going home they simply sat on the ground outside and carried on with their meeting.6 Within a short period of time, the Majmu‘at Shabab Daraya (Youth Group of Daraya) grew to around fifty members. They held open debates, screened films and called on people to take responsibility for their own destiny. Obviously intent on practising what they preached, the group decided that it was up to them to clean the streets of Daraya and with brooms in hand, they set about sprucing up the town. They decided that it was also their responsibility to clean up corruption too, and each month their members published charts revealing their next targets.

Daraya Youth Group believed that reading and learning were essential if they were to truly change society for the better, yet getting hold of the right books had not been easy. Most young people could not afford to buy from bookshops so their main source of literature was their local mosque where the choice of reading material was limited. There were several small libraries in the town but these were often not accessible to the general public. In response the young radicals collected hundreds of books donated by people all over Daraya and created the town’s first free public library. A placard outside proudly labelled it the ‘Paths of Peace Library’. Keen to do things properly, they knocked on the doors of various government offices, asking for a licence for their new endeavour. They were told to go ahead with their plans while the relevant authorities considered their request. Yet almost as soon as the Paths of Peace Library opened, the police closed it down and confiscated all its books.7

On a wider scale, one of the group’s political campaigns involved demonstrating in solidarity with the Palestinians who, at the time, were being attacked in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Their biggest demonstration took place in 2003, against the US invasion of Iraq, when the group’s young members marched, one hundred strong, through the centre of Daraya in silent protest. Given that Syria’s government also opposed the invasion they might have thought that such an action would have been applauded by the authorities. Instead, many were jailed for failing to seek official permission for the march.8

Discontent with the ruling regime simmered on in Daraya, but it was to be another eight years before local passions were ignited again by the extraordinary Arab Spring.

Chapter Two

Shortly after the demonstrations in Daraa and Damascus in 2011, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Daraya. Despite growing tensions caused by the deaths of the four demonstrators in Daraa, activists in Daraya were, as befitting the town’s long history of non-violent protest, committed to keeping their rally peaceful. They called for widespread reforms, respect for human rights and democracy.


  • "Mike Thomson's relationship with the people of Daraya as they were being systematically smashed to pieces has produced one of the most extraordinary stories to come out of the Syrian conflict. The assembly of a library under almost daily threat of death and destruction is appalling and, at the same time, hugely inspiring. A unique tribute to the power of books and the unquenchable human spirit."—Michael Palin, author and broadcaster
  • "An inspiring read-humanity at its best, overcoming adversity at the height of war with the power of love for their secret library."—David Nott, author of War Doctor
  • "Writing in a clear and thoughtful style, Thomson obviously cares for the people he is reporting about. This book marries geopolitical understanding of Syria's war with deeply emotional stories of humans dealing with a horrifying reality in extraordinary ways."—Booklist, starred
  • "A compassionate and inspiring portrait...Thomson's book may help the outside world better understand Syrians."
    New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Aug 20, 2019
Page Count
320 pages

Mike Thomson

About the Author

Mike Thomson is a reporter and presenter for radio and television news. He has reported for BBC News from most of the world’s most troubled and dangerous places. These have included: Syria, Somalia, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Darfur, DR Congo, Libya, North Sinai and the Central African Republic. He also writes regularly for several leading British newspapers including The Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail and The Independent. He lives in London.

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