Beneath the streets of a suburb of Damascus, rows of shelves hold books that have been rescued from bombed-out buildings. Over the past four years, during the siege of Darayya, volunteers have collected 14,000 books from shell-damaged homes. They are held in a location kept secret amid fears that it would be targeted by government and pro-Assad forces, and visitors have to dodge shells and bullets to reach the underground reading space.
On the veranda of a home in Suoi Co, a rural Vietnamese village about 45km southwest of Hanoi, two women were squatting around a plastic bucket, dipping their fingers in murky water to select strings of fibrous white pulp. Behind them, tree bark was soaking in three metal water tanks – the first step in this long process – to separate out the fibre. They expertly assessed the mushy pulp’s consistency, making sure it was ready to be pressed into giấy Dó (Dó paper), a handmade, chemical-free paper that can last up to a staggering 800 years.
When a place has been besieged for years and hunger stalks the streets, you might have thought people would have little interest in books. But enthusiasts have stocked an underground library in Syria with volumes rescued from bombed buildings - and users dodge shells and bullets to reach it.
Down a flight of steep steps, as far as it’s possible to go from the flying shrapnel, shelling and snipers’ bullets above, is a large dimly lit room. Buried beneath a bomb-damaged building, it’s home to a secret library that provides learning, hope and inspiration to many in the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya.
Founded by a Muslim woman, the University of Al Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, opened its doors in 859. Its library has been restored during the last three years by another woman, Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni. A wing will be open to the general public later this year.
The library houses a collection of 4,000 rare books and ancient arabic manuscripts written by renowned scholars of the region. According to the AP, the manuscripts include a 9th century version of the Quran and a manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence written by philosopher Averroes.
Al-Andalus, that golden era of the Islamic arts and sciences, would never have reached its full splendour were it not for the role played by Andalusi calligraphy. Its bold, graphic elegance belie its simplicity, which enabled Andalusi Muslims to reproduce millions of books, creating some of the most impressive libraries of the era.