Review: The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui

Title: The Book Collectors of Daraya

Author: Delphine Minoui (Translated by Lara Vergnaud)

Published: 27th October 2020, Picador

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia


My Thoughts:

It was a caption under the photograph of two young Syrian men browsing the shelves of a library that piqued the interest of Delphine Minoui, an award winning French journalist – ‘The Secret Library of Daraya’.

Curious as to how a library could operate in a place like Daraya, but unable to travel to Syria due to the region’s instability, Delphine reached out and made contact with one of the young men in the photo via Skype. Twenty three year old Ahmed was born in Daraya, and remained even after his family fled, determined to document the devastation and support the rebels. One afternoon he was called to help a group carrying books from a deserted, bombed out home, an idea that first struck him as absurd in the middle of a war zone. Yet from the moment he picked up his first book he was struck by what it represented – freedom. As the collection of scavenged tomes grew, a room was found for them in a basement, and the Secret Library of Daraya was born.

Daraya is a suburb on the outskirts of Damascus. Declared a hotbed of terrorists by Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad for daring to peacefully protest his dictatorship, it was placed under siege and ringed with with his forces in 2011. I have to admit to having very little understanding of the conflict in Syria, so I appreciated that Minoui explains the events that led to Daraya’s position and the steady escalation that saw the suburb attacked with missiles, bombs, and even chemical weapons, including sarin and Napalm.

Delphine has written The Book Collectors of Daraya by speaking with Ahmed, and his friends through an unreliable internet connection via Skype and WhatsApp. Initially her focus is on the library; how it came to be, which books are popular, and what it means to the residents of Daraya. It’s a delight to hear how the library and its books provides a refuge and haven from the devastation on their doorstep, how it provides a respite of normalcy, and brings people together. Non-readers become readers, free to choose something other than propaganda, soldiers take books with them to the frontline to read, trade, and discuss, in between wielding their Kalashnikovs.

Unsurprisingly the miracle of the library does take somewhat of a backseat as Delphine learns of the daily hardships and horrors faced by the suburb’s residents. It’s a harrowing tale of danger, deprivation, and starvation as the siege drags on for more than five years. Not content to reduce Daraya to rubble, the Syrian dictator stops any attempts to provide food or essentials, determined to quash the rebels.

There is a little repetition in the narrative of The Book Collectors of Daraya, but I found it well written and readable. Minoui adds a personal perspective, sharing her experience of terror attacks in her home of Istanbul, and in Paris, and freely admits her bias. I think she treats those she speaks with sensitively, and it’s clear she believes that it’s important their story is told. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of photographs that show the library, the men whom Delphine introduces us to, and the streets of Daraya.

The Book Collectors of Daraya is as much about the Syrian civil war, and particularly the experience of the young men who established the library, as it is the library itself. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, this book speaks of grief, and courage, of resilience, of humanity, and the power of books.


Available from PanMacmillan Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carol
    Nov 06, 2020 @ 08:18:27

    This sounds so interesting!

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Tracey (Carpe Librum)
    Nov 07, 2020 @ 01:03:47

    Enjoyed your review and hearing about the power of books in places of conflict.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Helen Murdoch
    Nov 07, 2020 @ 03:58:16

    Adding this one to my TBR list, it sounds like a perfect intersection of interests for me

    Liked by 1 person


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  6. whatsnonfiction
    Nov 11, 2020 @ 00:54:28

    Excellent review! I read a book last year called Syria’s Secret Library that must be about the same group, it was also in Daraya. I’m not sure I would want to read another about it, but I did like Delphine Minoui’s other book about her family in Iran, I’m Writing You From Tehran.



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