Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2020

The Book Collectors of Daraya, by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud

I was about half-way through this bio-memoir, The Book Collectors of Daraya  when I came across a very interesting article by Katharine Murphy at The Guardian.  It’s called When Donald Trump is peddling outrageous lies, where is the line between reporting and enabling?  and (while I urge you to read the article yourself), the crux of the piece is the issue of of reporting about something that is morally wrong, untrue and/or misleading, which by so doing gives that event or opinion publicity and possible influence, which may lead to confusion, violence, civil unrest or other harm.

French journalist Delphine Minoui wrestled with this problem during the writing of this book.  As Middle-East correspondent for Le Figaro, she had come across an arresting photo with the caption ‘the secret library of Daraya’ at the Humans of Syria Facebook page and decided to follow it up.  Through the miracle of WhatsApp and Skype she was able to make contact with an amazing group of young rebels who had created a secret library in the basement of an abandoned building during the siege of Daraya.  They salvaged the books from buildings damaged during the bombardment and set up the library as a refuge from the horror of war and as a place of learning for people denied education because of the siege.

It’s clear where Minoui’s sympathies lie.  Most Western nations oppose the Assad regime and were/are supporters of the movement for democratic change — Minoui calls the conflict for what it is: a proxy war between Iraq and Saudi Arabia; between the US and Russia, plus also Qatar and Turkey.  But Minoui is not naïve and she’s not on the ground to see for herself.  The story comes filtered through her phone app and she sees only the footage and images they enable her to see.  She can interview only the people they select and all of that is through an interpreter anyway.

For her there is the question of possible connections with Islamic State in the battle against Assad, and whether she is giving them an opportunity for a propaganda coup.  She interrogates the young men — and herself — about the question of links with jihadis, and I think it’s important that this is included in the book.  Minoui asks specifically: Does the suburb of Daraya harbour, yes or no, Islamist terrorists, even if they’re a tiny minority.

The answer is that yes, there were some who infiltrated the Daraya protest group in the early days before the emergence of the Islamic State.  But it didn’t take long for their extreme views to clash with the rebels, and they gave them short thrift.

Unlike Raqqa, another rebel-controlled town stormed by the al-Nusra front and then Daesh (the latter made Raqqa the Syrian capital of its caliphate three years after the revolution began), the enclave was able to stand up to the jihadists.  Unable to gain a foothold, the al-Nusra righters eventually disappeared.  Gone for good.  But if Daraya succeeded in driving out the jihadists, it was also thanks to a unique and unbending setup: military decisions are made by the local council, and not the Free Syrian Army, as is the case with most of the other opposition-controlled enclaves. (p.55)

She comes to the conclusion that she can accept what these young men tell her.  Her faith in them is rewarded when finally a group of women raise their voices and when she finally gets to meet the young men after the siege is over.

It’s an inspiring story, about the power and necessity of words: poetry, storytelling and history, along with pop psychology that gives them strategies for coping with a hellish nightmare.  The list of favourites from the library that is included as an appendix includes The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, along with Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray.  And, given that the book emphasises the fragility of the men’s existence, it’s nice to see photos of most of them there too, profiling the role each played in the uprising and the way they have rebuilt their lives as refugees in Turkey and France.

Author: Delphine Minoui
Title: The Book Collectors of Daraya
Translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2020
ISBN: 9781529012323, pbk., 197 pages
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond The Book Collectors of Daraya and good bookshops everywhere.




  1. Sounds like a fascinating story, and it does tap into one element of modern life which makes me so uneasy. All of this stuff which is filtered on its journey to us is so easily manipulated, that it’s hard to be completely sure nowadays what’s new and what’s not!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually think she could have more of the issue than she did, because most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on the sentimental/inspirational side of things … and while they’re important, they’re also actually what we have to be wary of, because both sides in the propaganda war have reported on things to engage our feelings of empathy and compassion. (I’m thinking of the sad pictures of children).
      And I thought, as I was reading it, would we have felt differently about the communists in north Vietnam at the time, if we had had footage of their ingenious underground tunnels, which were like small cities including hospitals and factories for making shoes out of tyres and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds amazing.


  3. I have heard a bit about this book through interviews awhile back. I think it’s quite remarkable. As for the press- news or enabling, I often think they enable Trump and why twitter doesn’t cancel his account is beyond me. They recently cancelled Steve Bannon’s acct permanently because he called for Fauci (sp?) to be beheaded and his head put on a stake on the white house lawns in a tweet. I think they can be incredibly irresponsible for the sake of a story.


  4. This one does sound interesting Lisa and I like the ethical questions the writer faced!


    • Yes, I’d like to see more of that in the books that journalists are writing. And that reminds me, I must start reading We can’t Say We Didn’t Know by ABC journo Sophie McNeill…


  5. […] The Book Collectors of Daraya, by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud – An “inspiring story, about the power and necessity of words” is the way Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog describes this newly published “bio-memoir” set in the besieged Syrian town of Daraya. Minoui, a Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro, made contact with “an amazing group of young rebels who had created a secret library”, and recounts their incredible narratives in a way that “emphasises the fragility of the men’s existence”. […]


  6. […] At a party you’d find me with The Book Collectors of Daraya, by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud […]


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