In This Review

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War
The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War
By Delphine Minoui. Translated by Lara Vergnaud.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 208 pp.

Originally published in French in 2017, this slim volume recounts the bond that Minoui, a reporter for the French newspaper Le Figaro who is based in Istanbul, developed with a small group of Syrian rebels in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. Besieged for four years, these fighters won admiration in the West for their determination and their unusual deference to local civilian control. They made headlines, it must also be acknowledged, because they made themselves accessible to Western journalists. In the modern equivalent of an epistolary relationship, Minoui found them on Facebook and communicated with them through FaceTime, Skype, and WhatsApp. Much of what she recounts about the siege was reported at the time, but the book is nevertheless revealing. The rebels maintained a library, cobbled together from what was left in burned-out bookshops and demolished homes. It was an eclectic collection—including works by the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, and the American self-help guru Stephen Covey—and it evidently provided instruction, solace, and purpose to men (as they all were) under extraordinary duress. Just like prisons across the region, rebel strongholds are sometimes universities in exile; witnessing the unexpected joy of learning in such circumstances is both sobering and inspiring.