ISTANBUL – The sight of people sifting through rubble – searching for survivors of an attack or rummaging for belongings – is not uncommon in rebel-held parts of Daraa province. But in the southern Syrian town of Inkhel, roughly 34 miles (55km) north of Daraa city, a group of volunteers is scavenging for something else entirely.
Since the start of this year, teachers and volunteers have collected roughly 7,000 books from houses and libraries destroyed by Syrian government attacks in the rural town in Daraa. Rather than letting them wither away in moldy cellars or stuffy storage rooms, the rescued volumes are being used to stock the newly founded Ajyal Public Library.
“The main goals of the library are to fight the regime with education … and serve college students in opposition-controlled areas,” Loai Abu Abdou, a 34-year-old math teacher and one of the founders of Ajyal (Generations), told Syria Deeply.
Rebel-held parts of Daraa, once the seat of 2011 protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, have been the target of an intense government campaign over the past two months. Roughly 600 barrel bombs, 200 airstrikes and 91 napalm bombs have been dropped on the province in the first two weeks of June alone, according to estimates by Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets.
Inkhil, classified by archaeologists as one of the most important ancient towns in the Houran Plain and one of it oldest inhabited cities, has been hit hard by the government’s aerial campaign. But enthusiasts in the town cling to life as they dodge shells and bullets to preserve what remains of the town’s cultural legacy.
Qassem al-Jabawi, a 40-year-old judge, was aong the dozens of volunteers who helped collect books in Inkhil. He told Syria Deeply that the books were collected from dangerous areas “where the bombing rarely stops,” and that the volunteers’ goal was to preserve the books and protect them from damage.
According to Jabawi, most of the books currently in the library were rescued from the Inkhil Cultural Center, which he said had been devastated by years of war.
Syrian troops used the center in 2012 as a base for operations against Inkhil’s rebel groups. Videos posted on social media networks in 2012 showed sniper positions set up on its roof and along its walls. Another video published in 2013 by a rebel-run media outfit showed the center in tatters after it was captured by opposition groups, who went on to use it as a military base.
By March of this year – just three months after collection efforts began – volunteers from the Dawn of Syrian Women Association and the Ajyal Educational Foundation had managed to collect 7,000 books from the center and other damaged areas. The Ajyal Library was opened that same month, carrying books on just about every subject imaginable. And volunteers continue to dig through the rubble to salvage yet more texts.
The library helps students navigate the maddening maze of finding books in war-torn Syria, particularly in Daraa’s countryside, where libraries are scarce. The reality of the conflict means that it is not easy for students to travel between different parts of the province to get the resources they need for their studies. This pressing need for reading material among students in Daraa’s countryside was the main impetus behind the initiative.
“The project began when a college student was looking for sources to write a paper for a class, but could not find what he needed,” Hayat al-Abd, director of the Dawn of Syrian Women Association and another of the library’s cofounders, told Syria Deeply.
“People can now borrow books for free. An identification card is deposited until the book is returned to the library. The center relies solely on volunteers, and is open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.,” she explained.
While students may be the primary target of this initiative, teachers and instructors in rural Daraa have also gained from the project.
“In light of the scarcity of libraries in the liberated areas in rural Daraa, and because it is very hard to download books online due to poor internet connections, this library is a gem for me,” said Abdul Rahman al-Naser, a 31-year-old Arabic teacher.
Naser added that the library attracts a plethora of people from other villages in the area, especially students from the nearby city of Nawa, roughly 12 miles (20km) south of Inkhil. Though the library stocks books on Arabic grammar and syntax as well as classical Arabic literature, Naser has opted instead for books on Roman, Greek and Islamic civilizations. “I am interested in the history and traditions of old civilizations,” he said.
As well as providing access to books, the library also organizes workshops and seminars for students in rural Daraa province.
Earlier in June, the library’s Facebook page announced a number of summer classes and seminars for high-school students in the area, covering topics such as chemistry, math, English, communications and Arabic, among others. The seminars and courses were slated to start on June 18 and will run for most of the summer.
The founders now hope to further develop the library by securing missing volumes and equipping the center with additional tables and storage, making it easier and faster for visitors to find the books they need.