What We Are Reading Today: Syria’s Secret Library

Updated 05 October 2019

What We Are Reading Today: Syria’s Secret Library

Author: Mike Thomson

This is the remarkable story of a small, makeshift library in the town of Daraya, and the people who found hope and humanity in its books during a four-year siege.
Daraya lies on the fringe of Damascus, just southwest of the Syrian capital.
Syria’s Secret Library is a fantastic book from BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent Mike Thomson about war, finding hope in the middle of despair, and the power of books.
“It is a fascinating and frustrating book, telling the story of a Syrian town of books and resistance which entered the civil war by creating their own library,” said a review in goodreads.com.
“It would seem like the perfect story for a BBC journalist to tell, and the journalist has done his best, maintaining genuine friendships with the people of Daraya that he never betrayed,” it added.
“It is an incredible read, a portrait of a part of the world where the suffering and struggle are tremendous,” said the review.
“One of the best nonfiction books of the year, Syria’s Secret Library will open your eyes, heart, and mind in ways you never thought possible.”

Mazen Maarouf brings magical realism to the darkness of war

‘Jokes for the Gunmen,’ on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize, has been translated into English. (Supplied)
Updated 23 October 2019

Mazen Maarouf brings magical realism to the darkness of war

  • ‘Jokes for the Gunmen,’ on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize, has been translated into English by Jonathan Wright and published by Granta Books.
  • It was published in Arabic by Beirut’s Riad El-Rayyes Books in 2015.

CHICAGO: From award-winning Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet and journalist Mazen Maarouf comes a collection of short stories, “Jokes for the Gunmen,” now translated into English.

Unraveling sometimes fantastical and other times traumatic realities, the stories are mostly from the perspective of a child in a war zone in which life is about survival and how one’s perception of the world can be narrowed through limited circumstances.

Maarouf introduces his readers to narrators who mostly stay nameless, whose stories pick up in the middle of their lives, long after the bombs began to fall and life became about survival rather than living.

He unapologetically explores the depths of a child’s thinking as painful incidents occur and instability ensues in his characters’ lives.

He is unafraid to create uncomfortable situations, and often the accidental outcomes are the ones that seem to help life move forward.

Misunderstandings and misinterpretations often lead characters to their destinies, and in Maarouf’s collection, the only way to take the unforgiving realities of life is to turn them into a joke.

He explores elements of magical realism in his stories, such as when one character’s uncle, a self-proclaimed matador, dies three times in the same week, and one in which a son tells his mother fantastical stories about biscuits.

Dark humor encapsulates each unique story. Maarouf explores dreams, life, jokes, war, relationships, and the contrast between light and dark.

Each of his stories is embedded in a deep reality that cannot be shaken when it comes to war and its aftermath.

There is a harshness that overlays each incident, but one that pushes forward the notion that life must be lived through war.