Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Sanctuary that Once was

Once upon a time in Kuwait, there lay a small sanctuary, deep in the ground, for lovers of the written word.

It thrived with visitors young and old, wandering through the aisles, the sight of the innumerable tomes appeasing their insatiable thirst for words. This lone oasis was all they had, all that was there in the desert that could offer them any satisfaction when it came to reading English books. The two guardians of the sanctuary welcomed them in and then let them be, knowing that they preferred to be alone with the great masters they were about to meet.

The sanctuary I speak of is the British Council Library, often abbreviated to the BCL, which once flourished in the basement of the British Council in Mansouriya. The two guardians were the librarians Khalid and Santana, who’d been working there for years.

When I was four, my mother initiated us into the BCL’s family membership. For years after that, I escaped from the mundane realities of school and homework by exploring new realms and sharing countless moments of joy with my companions on my many adventures—whether it was discovering the Golden Ticket with Charlie Bucket, soaring through the earth’s orbit with Willy Wonka in the Great Glass Elevator, stumbling into Narnia with the Pevensies, fighting battles by Prince Caspian’s side, vanquishing smugglers and kidnappers while camping all over the British countryside with the Famous Five or gorging at midnight feasts by the swimming pool with Darrel, Alicia and the other girls at Malory Towers. I led a very full life indeed.
When not saving the world or performing remarkable feats, I was absorbing facts on dinosaurs and the universe from Dorling Kindersley encyclopedias.  

We made our romp there every month. When my sister was born a few months after our first visit, my mother would carry her in one arm while browsing the Adult section. As my sister grew, she’d crawl all over the grey library carpet in the Children’s section. Once she started reading, she and I would dig deep for books we hadn't read, concealing some strategically to borrow on the next visit. We would then proceed to Mansouriya Market (the supermarket across the parking lot opposite the BCL), buy some groceries and Snapple’s Pink Lemonade, and then head to Hardee’s (right next to the supermarket) for a meal, all the while engaged in deep discussion of our loot from the library. It became an age-old family tradition.

There was a book sale once; the BCL’s Adult section was to be discontinued. Hardcover books were priced as low as a quarter KD. My mom went through the following week with an ecstatic smile after she bought bags and bags of books for a mere 30 KD. One of them, weighing at least two tons, detailed the entire history of the British monarchy. I remember excitedly tracing King Richard the Lionheart and Prince John’s line; I’d just read Robin Hood and had assumed they were fictional characters. Learning they existed made me believe the legendary outlaw was real, and I proclaimed him my hero.

The BCL adapted with the times; it even included a video library. This was where we would often find our mother, flipping through the video catalogues for BBC and other TV series, while our father would look for Bond movies to watch the umpteenth time. Through those catalogues, I knew all the titles of Dickens's work despite not having read a single one (unabridged anyway).

Bit of an odd name, that. 
My sister and I often borrowed VHS tapes of documentaries for information vegetable, animal and mineral, along with children’s movies or series. I dreamed of sailing the high seas like Horatio Hornblower as he marched the decks of his ship, let my imagination soar with the incorrigible Pippi Longstocking (1988), and sang all the songs of Oliver! (1968) over and over while secretly crushing on the Artful Dodger. I recall rewinding the song 'Consider Yourself' over and over while laboriously writing down the lyrics to ensure I got the words right! 

When the age of the personal computer began, the BCL brought in the internet, computers and a variety of interactive CD encyclopedias and games. I had an intense fascination with dinosaurs and would occasionally spend an hour or two surfing a particularly informative CD on the reptiles. It was around this time that I encountered Harry Potter and broke him out of Privet Drive with Ron and his brothers in Mr. Weasley’s Ford Anglia.

The blissful times at the BCL were not to last, for the Dark Forces were at work. Six years ago, we received the fated phone call from one of the guardians, with news that evoked a great deal of sorrow. The library was closing down.

There was a time when books held more worth to children than the latest thingamajig dominating the tech market, when what was deemed worthy of showing off was how many books you’d read, not what your score was on the game in vogue on the App Store. My childhood is intrinsically linked to the BCL and life would not have been as rich without it. I grieve for Kuwait’s loss, while cherishing a secret hope that the sanctuary will miraculously spring up again.


  1. there's always BETTER BOOKS

  2. Wow you been ready books for that long I never finished my school books back then :-)

    1. The only school book I'd ever read cover to cover was the English text book :P


Exercise your freedom of speech!
Go on. You know you want to.