Reporting from Amman, Jordan — At Sami Abu Hossein's cramped bookstore, the hundred or so book titles listed on a wall aren't bestsellers. They're banned.
And the cheery Abu Hossein can you get you any of them, sometimes in the few minutes it takes to sit down and drink a cup of thick-brewed Turkish coffee.
"There are three no-nos," the owner of Al Taliya Books explains with a big smile. "Sex, politics and religion. Unfortunately, that's all anyone ever wants to read about."
He laughs uproariously.
"These are all the banned ones," he says, gesturing to the list taped to the wall above the store entrance, books on sexuality to ones that critically examine the life and times of the prophet Muhammad, the most taboo topic in the Arab world.
"We have them," he says, grinning broadly, "but don't tell anyone."
The tubby father of five seems to get a tremendous kick out of bucking the rules. (Not that they're strictly enforced; he's never been arrested or even summoned by the authorities.)
His partner in thought crime is Hossein Yassin, a self-described Marxist in a worn beige linen suit. Abu Hossein summons his wiry 48-year-old comrade in for the really tough jobs.
Yassin jokes that he's the Special Forces for getting banned or hard-to-find books. He makes allusions to a murky past as an underground revolutionary. He says he calls upon a network that stretches across the Middle East to locate and transport hard-to-find titles.
"I can get any book," he boasts. "But don't ask how I get them."
The most widely requested banned book remains "The Satanic Verses," the 1988 novel that suggested some parts of the Koran weren't God's words and thereby earned its author, Salman Rushdie, a fatwa issued by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the hatred of pious Muslims worldwide.
Other top requests include "23 Years," by the Iranian scholar Ali Dashti, which questions miracles ascribed to Muhammad in the Koran; and "The Joke in the Arab World," by the Egyptian writer Khaled Qashtin, a sarcastic view of the Middle East, its rulers and customs.
Abu Hossein's shop, in the capital's rambling but lively downtown, also sells nonblacklisted books. His shelves are filled with titles from serious political studies about the Middle East to romance novels and pirated software manuals.
But his shop is known as the place in Amman to get forbidden fruits of knowledge.
Censoring books in the age of the Internet may seem like a quaint idea. Even the government official in charge of restricting them recently announced in a newspaper article that "stopping books from reaching the people is a page we've turned."
The censor, Abdullah Abu Roman, occasionally stops by the bookstore to hobnob with Abu Hossein. So do plainclothes security officials. Abu Hossein serves them his Turkish coffee. They very politely ask him for the copies of the forbidden books. He hands them over. It's all very civilized.
"Allah maakon," he bids them farewell. God be with you.
"They are very sensitive to politics and criticism of politicians," says Abu Hossein, who has been working at his family shop for decades. "But there are some books that are banned arbitrarily. Sometimes a censor will ban a book for a sentence he doesn't like."
A thickly bearded man wearing a headdress and flowing white dishdasha walks in. He's one of the regulars, a Saudi religious scholar named Thaer Balawi who perhaps enjoys the challenge of subjecting his puritanical Salafist beliefs to the scrutiny of critical intellects. "You can't stop an idea by censoring it," he says.
"Mamnoueh maqroubieh," goes the Arabic proverb. All that is forbidden is desired.
Abu Hossein recalls a memoir by a former interior minister that the censors immediately forbade for its sensitive revelations. It became a bestseller. But later, the political sands shifted, and the book was removed from the blacklist. Now it hardly sells.
In walks Raed Toguj, iPod ear buds firmly in place, a Web designer in his 20s with a penchant for philosophy and social theory. Censorship, he says, is a product of political ideology. "What I see as the solution is critical thinking," he says.
Toguj acknowledges that the Internet has made his task superfluous. Many banned books are already available for download, and those with money can order copies from online bookstores abroad.
But Abu Hossein and his customers insisted that there's something special about holding a book in your hand, feeling its pages, gabbing with the bookseller and fellow seekers of knowledge, like Carol Kaplanian, a 29-year-old doctoral student writing a thesis on honor killings of women in the Middle East, picking through a pile of books on gender relations.
The afternoon wears on. Abu Hossein keeps serving cups of coffee for his guests, the Salafist, the communist, the feminist and the Web dude with a passion for philosophy. They sift through titles and chat quietly, their murmurs softened by the stacks of books surrounding them.