“Kuwait,” said the minister, “does not ban books. It censors them. Now, stop this silly protesting and go back to your homes you silly, silly women. It’s over a hundred degrees out here. You will pass out before your protest ends.” The minister then slid into his black BMW. His driver held the car door open for him, closed it, and then they were off.
The sign I was holding went slack. It said in English and Arabic – NO ONE CAN TELL ME WHAT TO READ. Very near the group of protesters, thirty women and two men were reporters from the BBC and Al Jazeera. My hands unclenched and I stooped to pick up the sign. I looked at my phone. Twenty minutes to go. Each day we protested before a government building for an hour. With the temperature, it was a health hazard to stay out much longer. I saw the male reporters wiping sweat from their foreheads. My veil prevented dripping sweat. Not all of the women were veiled but I found it practical in preventing sweat from dripping into my eyes and causing my makeup to slide down my face like a melting clown.
When the hour was up I called up a driving service. They arrived five minutes later. I gave him the address of a bookstore in the city. It took twenty minutes to arrive. The bookstore was a five-minute walk from my apartment.
Book Paradise. That was the name of the bookstore. I walked in. It was cool from an overworked air conditioner and there were a few customers walking the cramped aisles. Book Paradise had stacks and stacks of books. One time I accidentally knocked over a stack. That’s when I met the owner, Najib.
Najib was sitting behind the counter reading Moby Dick in English.
“Ah, Salah,” he said. “How was the protest?”
“Ineffective as usual but today the minister did speak to us.”
“And what did our illustrious minister say?”
“Kuwait does not ban books. They only censor.”
“Ah…well many countries to ban and censor books. Even in America, many books are banned by schools. Like Harry Potter because it is believed to promote witchcraft and the occult.”
“Yes, yes. Najib…I would like to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s been centered because of a perceived theme of disrespecting authority.”
“Shhh,” said Najib. He looked around. All his customers were staring at books. “Follow me.”
He led me down an aisle, through a door, then another door, and then a small room of stockpiled books.
“This is secret,” he said. “This is paradise.”
There were so very many books that my head felt light while a surge of excitement erupted deep inside me. I scanned some of the titles. This was a room of banned books. Not just in Kuwait but around the world.
“Najib, you have created paradise on Earth. You are amazing.”
“I am just a man who loves books. Listen, you can read these books but you can’t leave this room. Sit at his small table and chair for as long as you like. You are welcome in my paradise.”
I began to cry because it was so lovely to find such pleasure on Earth.
“Thank you, Najib.”
“No, Salah. Thank you for reading and enriching your beautiful mind. You are a special person in a hard world.”
He left me and I found the book about the man, locked in an asylum, who defied authority. Paradise is in your mind. Paradise is in a small, hidden room crowded with the words and thoughts of others. Paradise is a bridge to other minds. No wonder countries ban books. If humanity feels connected to humanity who knows what might happen. Governments could topple. Wars could end. Paradise will be in life and not death.