TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A pile of charred books sits dejected on a plastic chair, edges crumbling into ash whenever they are touched. Some are still moist, the creeping odor of mildew light but taking hold.
Yet amid the pile of burned books is one that retains its brightness. It is singed around the edges, its corners ashen and pages stuck together with moisture, but its white hardcover stands out in the faint light of an overhead lamp.
It is “The Theory of Man and Freedom,” by the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi.
About a third of the precious tomes of Al-Saeh Library, a mainstay of this embattled northern city, were lost in a fire in early January, torched by extremists after a rumor that its grandfatherly owner, Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, had material that was insulting to the Prophet Mohammad.
Some of the books were burned, while others were lost to the water of firefighters and left to rot in the intervening days.
Father Sarrouj was at a nearby monastery the day his library and bookshop was put to the torch.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled priest is dressed in a dark green and navy blue jacket and sweater, a forest green winter hat pulled over his head, his white beard tinged with auburn around the edges of his lips.
He raises his arms in the air, reliving the moment.
“I said what the Arab Prophet Job said, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord took away, let God’s name be exalted,” he says. “We have possessions, but we do not own these possessions. My heart is not within this book, despite my love for it.”
Sarrouj quotes freely from the Quran and the Old and New Testaments. He sees the Prophet Job as a role model for patience, one that inspires him to endure.
Sarrouj says the army had informed him of the arrest of another in a ring of five suspected of carrying out the torching of the library, members of an extremist group here. On the same day, a sound grenade was thrown at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Scouts in Tripoli, injuring two, one of whom suffered from shrapnel wounds near his eye.
But Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest who is originally from Syria, says he does not want retribution for the burning of his books.
“We said that we want to love them,” he says. “We want to know who they are so we can love them and remind them of their Prophet’s wisdom, who said that he was sent to perfect the highest morals and as a mercy to mankind.”
Sarrouj says he is still sifting through boxes of burned and damaged books to determine which of them can be salvaged and what needs to be thrown out.
“We are trying to save them,” Sarrouj says.
His library was put to the flame following an accusation that hidden inside a book was a four-page note from 2010 by another writer insulting the Prophet Mohammad.
The priest says he has no knowledge of the note or its origin.
On Jan. 2, gunmen attacked a poverty-stricken man who took refuge at Sarrouj’s library. The priest heard the gunshots and called the police and the Lebanese Red Cross, who transferred the man to the hospital. Two guards were placed at the entrance to the library after an anonymous SMS called for a sit-in to defend the Prophet.
Sarrouj says that when guards briefly left their post on Jan. 3 to buy a snack, five assailants smashed the gate leading to the library, poured kerosene around the building and lit a flame.
Sarrouj says the library has 85,167 book titles, a large number of which are made up of several volumes. Between 25 and 30 percent of them have been damaged.
The priest, who opened the library 40 years ago and has been collecting tomes since his childhood, recalls two volumes that were particularly dear to him – two Islamic manuscripts that were 200 years old and were worth approximately $20,000. One of them was on the belief in the unity of God, and another on reason.
He does not know yet what condition those two books are in.
But Sarrouj expressed gratitude at the eruption of civil society support. Some citizens rushed to protest the burning of the library on the night itself, organizing book and money donation drives.
“We have good people, but the good people are sleeping, and need someone to stir them,” he says. “We are joyful because of God and our good people. Despite thousands of years of tyranny, the tyrants have not extinguished the goodness in our people.”
Sarrouj debates the philosophical meaning behind algebra with a patron as he stands alongside 21 boxes of books delivered from Antonine University, in a hangar provided rent-free by his neighbor to store some of the books in the meantime.
“I am not a beggar, but I value even a single page that is given to me,” he says.
Sarrouj is even more adamant that he will never leave his home in Tripoli. He arrived in Lebanon 1942, he says, living through two civil wars and Israeli invasion.
“God brought us to life within this nation,” he says. “We will not migrate away and leave.”
“We are staying here, steadfast.”
He does not know why his books were burned, but he says his possessions belong to God and counsels others to remain patient.
And to the vandals who destroyed his tomes, he has a gentle reprimand.
“You are disobeying the Prophet,” he says. “The Prophet Mohammad told his followers to deal justly and gently with Christians and Jews.”
“You began your dialogue with bullets and fire,” Sarrouj adds. “We want to change these bullets and fire into light.”