The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud

Syria has had much to lament in the last 10 years. Half a million killed. Half the country displaced. Cities leveled to dust. Ancient sites dynamited. A brutal dictator kept in power by Russia and Iran.

For a while, the small city of Daraya, just outside Damascus, was a bright spot. The rigid jihadism of ISIS that ravaged much of the rest of the country never took root there. Long known for its fertile land and sweet grapes, Daraya was an oasis of tolerance that blossomed during Syria’s brief Arab Spring. Daily life seemed freer than ever—protesters declaring, “We are your brothers, don’t kill us,” brought water and flowers to the soldiers staring them down—until 2012, when government troops fired indiscriminately on a funeral, killing 30.

The porous army blockade that followed hardened into a four-year siege of barrel bombs and napalm. As the army torched Daraya’s surrounding farmlands to starve those who stayed, local youths fought alongside the Free Syrian Army. At the same time, the young men scavenged thousands of books from ruined houses, installing a secret lending library in one of the city’s abandoned basements.

Passeurs de Livres

The veteran journalist Delphine Minoui of Le Figaro, daughter of a French mother and an Iranian father, stumbled upon the library in a Facebook post. In The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War, she tracks the bonds she formed with the young men of Daraya, who spoke to her via whichever Internet connections worked in the ruins at any given moment.

Muhammad Shihadeh searches for books in a pile of rubble. He teaches the young men in the library English as well as tactics of nonviolent resistance.

Minoui, who wrote the book in French, calls the collectors “passeurs de livres”—literally, ferrymen. “Providers” or “sharers” comes closer to the role of these young librarians, some of them soldiers, who meticulously recorded each book’s pre-siege owner amidst the violence around them, with a plan to return them once the war ended. Lest anyone see this improbable fable as a fantasy, Daraya’s other major underground activity turned out to be funerals.

The young men of Daraya fought alongside the Free Syrian Army. They also scavenged thousands of books from ruined houses.

The library operated on the policy of never rejecting a book. It held some religious texts, but also classics by Arab thinkers, holy men, and Syrian authors banned since Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current leader, seized power in 1970. Poetry by the late Palestinian master Mahmoud Darwish was there, and, of course, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A special favorite was The Alchemist, the New Age travelogue by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, escapist and edifying in the spirit of Saint-Exupéry. When bombings in Daraya drove its resistance fighters underground, the book’s open-desert reveries made freedom all the more seductive.

The oddest title among thousands was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, an American self-help bible by Stephen Covey, a devout Mormon from Utah, which the collectors fought over, Minoui writes. “It’s our compass, in a way,” the library’s co-founder Ahmad Muaddamani, tells Minoui over a scratchy Web connection. “It also taught me how to live in a group, how to accept others and their differences, and how to maintain a climate of healthy competition among us all.” Who knew?

As its popularity grew, the young men managed to download a PDF of Covey’s book. Paper was almost as scarce as the leaves they used for soup, so the collectors printed it out four book pages to a sheet. They made a second copy to avoid brawls. Even with no royalties from Daraya, any author would love to tell that story.

Poetry by the late Palestinian master Mahmoud Darwish was there, and, of course, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Minoui lets her interlocutors speak. The young men—not zealots, not deeply ideological, not hate-filled—talk about studying and getting married once the shooting stops. Among them is a graffiti muralist, Abu Malek Al-Shami, whom snipers somehow never pick off. Another librarian, Shadi Matar, documents the siege of Daraya with a cheap video camera until a mortar shell shatters the camera and his hand. His footage fills a documentary film assembled by Minoui, a reality check for skeptics who might find her book’s wonderment exaggerated. It isn’t. The English-subtitled film is available on Amazon.

After a truce with the army in 2016, the Daraya holdouts, starved and exhausted, accept relocation to Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, now a shrinking catch basin for opponents to Assad of every stripe. After years of patchy connections, Minoui finally meets them in person in Turkey. Their books end up trucked off to street peddlers in Damascus.

Here is where The Book Collectors diverges from Fahrenheit 451. The books aren’t burned, but soldiers gut the city that sheltered the young men and their books in the worst of times. Filling a future library’s shelves won’t be as difficult as rebuilding their charred city, or their dreams for the future.

David D’Arcy is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper