How one book lover from besieged Daraya found solace in writers from Sarajevo and Palestine

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From a bombed out school in liberated Daraya. The figure is Handala, the Palestinian symbol of resistance. Written on the wall is: “We used to joke and say that we wished the school would get destroyed, and it got destroyed…”. This image is also the cover of Delphine Minoui’s book “Les Passeurs de Livres de Daraya”

The following is my translation of a chapter of Delphine Minoui’s book “les passeurs de livres de Daraya: une bibliothèque secrète en Syria“. The book is about Daraya, the Syrian city that freed itself of the Assad regime and was subsequently besieged for four  years between 2012 and 2016. In 2016, the city finally gave in and its civilians and rebels forced to leave. For some context on Daraya, please click here.

In this chapter, Minoui speaks with and of Ahmad, a book lover from Daraya, who describes to her how reading books on Sarajevo and Palestine has helped him quote with the siege of Daraya.

How does one survive absurdity? Ward off hunger? Not to give in to anguish and exhaustion? How does one defeat violence when it creeps out of every corner of one’s existence? Ahmad tells me that, to not sink, each person invents survival mechanisms for themselves. Between two bombs, Hussam studies relentlessly, his nose glued to the screen of his computer and his eyes towards an uncertain future. He recently enrolled at Roshd university, which offers distance learning. As for Shadi, he runs after the bombs. He persists in filming everything, documenting everything, obsessed by this need to archive the crimes of the regime. If he disappears, there would at least remain some trace of him, he tells himself. With his colleagues at the local council, they even drew a detailed plan of the martyrs’ cemetery in order to identify each tomb in case graves are bombed. The war has taught them to think of everything.

And the library? It is always there, confirmed in its humble basement, with its rows of books, its projector, its flowery sofas open to the public intermittently. But Omar left a big gap since he left to the front lines. There, anti-Assad soldiers sustained huge losses and munitions are running low. It is impossible to escape, even for a minute, the combat zone. So far, Omar remains loyal to his books, preferring the company of Ibn Khaldun and Nizar Kabbani during rare breaks over hot tea. He is perhaps on the last inhabitants of Daraya to not have given up political essays. Other readers are lacking concentration and enthusiasm. Even self-help books, despite being so in-demand, no longer have the same success.

Ahmad confided something in me: in these moments of endless distress, only books of testimonies of people who have lived similar experiences are of some help. With his friends, they found some books on the siege of Sarajevo in the library’s reserve section. They were too young during the siege imposed by the Serbian army on the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1996, so they are learning about it now, with gaping eyes. Four years of endless bombings, of hunger, of terror imposed on 350,000 inhabitants trapped in this infernal basin. Four years of blind violence that will cost the lives of over 11,500 people and which will leave the city in ruins. This included the large library, where over a million and a half books were reduced to ashes. Attacked by many shells, it was the pedestal of Sarajevo’s cultural heritage. A face to face with history, like a mirror of their own history, of their tragedy, of their pain, and of their courage and their fight for freedom.

Reading about Sarajevo is to feel less alone. It’s to tell oneself that others before us went through the same challenges. In another country. Another context. But, thanks to their story, I feel less vulnerable. I find a strength in me that allows me to go on.

To these paper memories, engraved in these works, also come the words of a living memory engraving itself as well. Muhammad Shihadeh, that famous professor, established a direct link via an American war reporter with the survivors of that ancient martyred city of Daraya. Throughout these exchanges on a Whatsapp group created especially for him one could find survival tactics, anecdotes, or even just a pledge of support when the whole word seemed to have already forgotten about Daraya.

But for Ahmad the greatest comfort is called Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who died in 2008 and is admired throughout the Arab world. Ahmad knew the texts of the siege of Beirut, in 1982, or Ramallah, written in 2002. Before the revolution, he abandoned these texts several times, being at the time too far from his day-to-day considerations. But since as the siege became harder, these two literary masterpieces found a new meaning to them, and Ahmad memorised whole passages. Every morning, he listens to them endlessly from an audio recording of the poet available on YouTube.

These poems, I listen to them as one listens to a voice secretly whispering what one cannot express, as one sings what can’t be sung. I find myself in every word, every sentence. I identify myself with the lived experience of waiting under the shells, of time that becomes space, of the martyrs that we can’t forget. I hear these verses and I tell myself ‘that’s exactly how I’m feeling!’

Ahmad interrupts himself. His exaltation crossed the screen to my side, floating over my desk. He tells me that, if he had to choose between the two poems by Mahmoud Darwish, his favourite would be the most recent one, ‘state of siege‘, the one that describes the Israeli army’s siege of Ramallah. I ask him if he has a favourite passage.

“The beginning, of course,” he answers.

And with a voice charged with emotions, he recites it:

Here, where the hills slope before the sunset and the chasm of time
near gardens whose shades have been cast aside
we do what prisoners do
we do what the jobless do
we sow hope

Ahmad lifts his head up towards the screen, his lips fixed in a grin. Everything was just said, written down on fine lines which defies the wearing of time and of war. A living literature, precise. The words that resonate in this poem speak in his stead, instead of Daraya.

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