Theme: Rebel Librarians
Book No. 92
Title: The Book Collectors of Daraya
Author: Delphine Minoui
Introducing 'Rebel Librarians'
This theme has been on our radar for a while and the stories behind it are nothing short of remarkable. They bring to the fore the lengths humans will go to in the pursuit of knowledge, whilst highlighting the empowering, unifying nature of books.
As a global community, but one with a majority of members in the UK, this theme really brought home to us what a privilege it is to have access to books at all. And not only that, access to books regardless of our gender, the written content within them, and access without risk to our personal safety.
Imagining a world where huge historic stocks of memories, information, story-telling and culture being destroyed forever is horrifying, but the hope and the magic in the people and the accounts of their rescue, shows us all just how important the humble book really is.
'The Book Collectors of Daraya celebrates the political and therapeutic power of the written word... defiant and cautiously optimistic' - Financial Times
Our December shortlist
Book #1: The Book Collectors of Daraya: A Band of Syrian Rebels, Their Underground Library, and the Stories that Carried Them Through a War
Written by Delphine Minoui | Translated by Lara Vergnaud | Published by Picador, 2021
In 2012 the rebel suburb of Daraya in Damascus was brutally besieged by Syrian government forces. Four years of suffering ensued, punctuated by shelling, barrel bombs and chemical gas attacks. In this man-made hell, forty young Syrian revolutionaries embarked on an extraordinary project, rescuing all the books they could find. They used them to create a secret library, in a safe place, deep underground. It was a place to learn, to exchange ideas, to dream and to hope.
Why we chose it?
"There is something seductive about the idea of knowledge as a bulwark against brutal force, and it’s an idea that immediately resonates with Minoui... She makes up for the lack of on-the-ground access with an abundance of attention and empathy." - Mythili Rao, Guardian
Book #2: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts
Written by Joshua Hammer | Published by Simon & Schuster, 2016
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that were crumbling in the trunks of desert shepherds. His goal: to preserve this crucial part of the world's patrimony in a gorgeous library. But then Al Qaeda showed up at the door.
Why we chose it?
"Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali. His heroic heist 'has all the elements of a classic adventure novel'” - The Seattle Times
Book #3: Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Story of Love, Books and Revolution
Written by Azar Nafisi | Published by Penguin, 2015
For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Azar Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. Azar Nafisi's luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran.
Why we chose it?
“A poignant, searing tale about the secret ways Iranian women defy the regime" - Salon
🥇 42% of votes - The Book Collectors of Daraya, by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud
🥈 34% of votes - Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
🥉 24% of votes - The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer
Our winning book: 'The Book Collectors of Daraya' by Delphine Minoui
The Book Collectors of Daraya won our December vote. Throughout December, we followed the story of these remarkable Rebel Librarians as they built not just a home for their books, but a space for community and a very special hub for 'normal everyday life' amongst the chaos.
"Books are our way to make up for lost time, to wipe our ignorance. (...) Before the revolution, we were fed lies. There was no room for debate. We were living in a coffin. Censorship was the glue of our daily lives." - The Book Collectors of Daraya
We also found other ways to dive deeper into stories like this one during the month.
For example, there is a documentary film about the library, directed by Delphine:
And, we read this book around the same time as 'The Swimmers' was released on Netflix: From war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, two young sisters embark on a risky voyage, putting their hearts and their swimming skills to heroic use.
We met up at our final events of the year and explored the following ideas:
- What lengths will people go to in order to maintain access to books?
- What are other examples of libraries around the world that exist against all odds?
- What are some personal examples of how access to books + reading has made you who you are today?
However, the real highlight of December's reading was getting to chat with Delphine at our December 2022 digital event...
Q+A with Delphine Minoui
It was a huge honour to host December's author, Delphine Minoui, at our Global Digital Event. Delphine Minoui is a journalist and Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro and the recipient of the Albert-Londres Prize for her reporting on Iraq and Iran. She is the author of several books. Born in Paris in 1974 to a French mother and an Iranian father, Delphine currently lives in Istanbul.
We met on interactive online platform Gatheround, where Delphine chatted to Ben about the background to the story and her involvement. Delphine also kindly offered us some additional stories, which weren't included in the book. Specifically this one, a beautiful follow-up story; a 'happy ending' of sorts, amongst a huge amount of grief + devastation for those involved in the underground library...
Thank you for sharing this amazing story with us, Delphine.
... And just like that, we wrapped on December and another HUGE year of reading!
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We are Rebel Book Club, a global nonfiction book club.
We’ve been reading together for 5+ years and we exist to accelerate your reading habits, connect you with like-minded thinkers + doers and take positive action in a changing world…
We have an event at the end of each month, where we hear from experts in a relevant field to the books we’re reading – which is how this blog post came about.
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