Banned Books and Modern Borders

by Gregg Oakley

As the guards were speaking amongst each other in Russian, I kept thinking to myself, “why am I here? Why do I always buy so many books? My whole reason for this trip was to buy books, of course I bought so many!”. Their voices became louder as they passed the books around and scanned a page here and there. They were getting even more angry when they noticed one book in particular and kept glancing back at me. As they passed that book around one guard yelled something and he threw the book down on a desk. The feeling in the small room got worse. I looked passed the soldier that was guarding the door into the dark night. The stars shone brightly with the little light pollution that existed in this seemingly faraway place. I wondered what would happen next and assumed I would shortly be arrested. I couldn’t communicate with the border guards and I couldn’t figure out exactly what I had done wrong. But I could understand their intensity and that the stack of books I had just bought in Armenia a couple days prior were causing the problem.

In the next room was a Russian couple who had also just come from Armenia and their souvenirs were being confiscated. I could overhear the woman yelling at the guards and as I looked over, I saw her rip off a wooden apricot that was attached to a small trinket which had an Armenian flag on it. As I watched, I thought, “that’s a true Russian”. After the souvenirs were taken, except the wooden apricot, the couple was quickly escorted back to the train.

Now, all the guards filled the little room I was in and gathered around the books. They spoke to me in Russian saying a few phrases repeatedly and each time they got louder. I could only catch a couple words and couldn’t grasp what they were asking me. Eventually, they got a woman off the train to translate. She looked as if she was from Uzbekistan. Her long dark hair was perfectly straight, and her eyes looked tired. It must have been around 3am. One of the guards picked up the book Stone Dreams by Akram Aylisli and asked a question; the Uzbek woman began to translate:

“Why do you have this book and where did you get it?

As I listened to the question, I realized how good it felt to hear English. And then I noticed how good her English was.

“I bought the book in Yerevan at a small bookstore downtown. It was in the best seller’s section and it looked interesting.”

“Why did it look interesting?”

“It was addressing the war and the author was from Azerbaijan. I wanted to learn more about the conflict.”

“Had you heard about this book when you were in America and come to Armenia to buy it?”

“No, I had never heard of this book before, and I still know very little about it.”

“Why are you bringing it into Azerbaijan?”

“I am traveling, and I am carrying everything with me.”

“How long ago did you visit Armenia?”

“I was there 2 days ago”

“Did you visit Nagorno-Karabakh?”

“No, I didn’t. I was told not to.”

I think at that point the Uzbek woman could tell that I didn’t have a clue what was going on and there seemed to be a small amount of pity in her eyes. I thought about the many Uzbek immigrants that I met when I lived in Vladivostok. I thought about their facial expressions. They were the only folks that would crack a smile when greeting. They were always happy to try and have a conversation, even though I couldn’t speak Russian. And their food was delicious.

The guards seemed frustrated and unsatisfied with my answers and sent the woman back to the train. They continued to talk with each other and would occasionally glare at me. After just a couple of minutes the train conductor burst into the room shouting and waving his hands around. The guards yelled back, waved their hands and slowly the yelling turned into a somewhat normal conversation. Within a few moments they had me sign away all my Armenian books and I was sent back onto the train without another word.

Almost as soon as I hopped back onto the train it began to move on down the tracks. I walked from one train car to the next looking for my room. I began to think about C and that she must be unnerved about me being taken off the train for so long. It must have been at least an hour ago when they escorted me off the train. I was also thinking, “what just happened and what in the world is Stone Dreams about?”

Upon arriving back to my room, C jumped up and hugged me. She told me that when the train started to move and I hadn’t returned, she ran to the side door shouting, “muzh! muzh!”. The train attendants had blocked the door and waved her back to the room saying, “khorosho, khorosho”. She thought we were going to be separated and she had been ready to jump out, but thankfully they stopped her.

I told her all that had happened. She informed me that they had missed one of our other Armenian books at the bottom of my bag. We stared at each other for a moment, each taking a deep breath. Still uneasy, we laid down on our separate bunks across from each other and tried to relax. As I lay there, I gazed out at the dark night and at the stars that hung above me and thought, “Why do I always buy so many books?”.


  • Jon R

    Gregg, an incredibly interesting story! I felt the angst there. I could imagine the guards. You were faced with historical animosities going back centuries and all these had migrated into the book they took. How can an American understand these deep seated cultural pains inflicted on one another? But, you described it so carefully and the dialog between you and the Uzbek looking woman was astounding. I can only imagine what it must have been like for your wife, C! Kudos for an excellent piece! Jon

  • Rani Malone

    WOW! I was transported while reading your story, the nervousness was contagious. So glad you and your wife made it through safely .

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