Lucy Knight

Mightier than the sword

Book drives to replenish Tripoli’s burned library have met with overwhelming success

A Lebanese soldier stands guard, on January 4, 2014 in north Lebanon

It has been almost two months since Tripoli’s famous Sa'eh bookshop was targeted in an arson attack. Late in the evening of January 3, the unknown assailants set fire to the collection run by Father Ibrahim Surouj, damaging approximately a third of a collection estimated around 80,000 texts. But in the weeks that followed, the incident has rallied so much support that Surouj will most likely never want for books again.


In the immediate aftermath of the fire, a book drive was started by Michelle Makhoul, a Lebanese woman living in Chicago. Deeply moved by what she had seen on the news, she decided to take action. “Unlike the bombings, [Makhoul] felt it was something one could actually do something about,” says Bashir Wardini, one of the Beirut organizers of the Al Sa'eh Book Drive in Lebanon.


Makhoul started by contacting Scouts of Lebanon. Then Wardini and several colleagues in Lebanon began reaching out to celebrities and politicians via Twitter and creating drop-off points at Virgin stores and a bar in Mar Mikhael. With no particular target in mind, the group has been overwhelmed by the response. As of NOW’s interview, over a thousand books in Lebanon alone have been collected. Meanwhile, “now in the US I believe over 1,000 books have been donated,” says Wardini. According to Father Surouj, the shipping has been covered by donations: “we’re getting help from all corners, and thanks be to the Lord for this,” he told NOW. 


The types of donated books are of course not necessarily an exact replica of what Surouj’s collection has lost. “Some of the texts were from the 1700s,” said the Greek Orthodox priest. Happy to receive any donations people can supply, he has already collected some 3,000 from universities and other libraries and bookstores. But Father Surouj is particularly interested in theological books of any kind, “any book that speaks of truth, of God’s truth.”


While Surouj may be more inclined to volumes about Sufism and religious histories, there could be more Harry Potters, romance novels, and even foreign books than he bargained for. “We have even been getting donations from print houses and libraries in Greece,” says Wardini, “But I think they’ll be in Greek.” That said, the priest has emphasized his desire to accept all books. “I don’t tell people what to give: they can give what they want,” he insisted.


Alongside the book drive, monetary donations have also been flooding in to help with the cleaning and restoration of the bookshop. Through the crowdsourcing site Zoomaal, the group Kafana Samtan (Enough Silence) has this week successfully hit their target of $35,000, which will soon be delivered to the shop and its caretaker.


With several campaigns behind them, the latest book drive concluded its run on February 28. Overwhelmed by the numbers of books they have received, the group will be making a delivery at the end of the month to the Tripoli location.


“Personally, I felt like this was it for Tripoli,” says Wardini, “A point of no return. It’s medieval to be burning books. But the kids coming to help clean up were all from different religions and that reaction is great.” 

Much to restore. (AFP Photo/Ibrahim Chalhoub)

“We have even been getting donations from print houses and libraries in Greece.”