The Mighty Pen: Literary Consumption in the Arab World

Dear Folks,

One book that a lot of ladies and perhaps men were hoping to find in their stocking at Christmas was the unquenchably popular novel “Fifty Shades of Grey”. The writing may leave something to desire, but women everywhere from Rio to Seoul have gone hot under the collar for Mr. Grey. Women everywhere except in the Arab world, where they are still waiting to enjoy the rich and raunchy details fee arabee. The book has already been translated into Turkish and Hebrew, but still no Arabic.

Suffice to say there are plenty of other books far more deserving of translation than tales of romping with the help of whips and chains, yet why deprive millions of Arab women the chance to read about it?

But for some reason books and reading for pleasure seem to take a backseat in the lives millions in the Arab world. Why is this the case is a question that has many scratching their heads. The Middle East has always been considered a historic hub of intellectual activity. So, what is preventing Arab bookworm from thriving in the 21st century? One of the key reasons is censorship. Governments in numerous Arab states, often work with religious authorities to hold back distribution of books deemed religiously or morally questionable. This prevents many Arab authors and their books from gaining a wider audience. Legislation to protect intellectual property is often not enforced. Lebanese author Elias Khoury, told the UK’s Independent newspaper: “The problem of the Arabic book is the problem of Arabic society,” Khoury insists. “It is dictatorship and censorship. And this censorship isn’t only against writers and books – it’s against the whole society.”

Saudi writer, Abdo Khal, whose books according to the Guardian have been effectively banned in his home country, says that there is a resurgence of interest in reading. However, the Saudi authorities have stifled interest in literary affairs by ceding control to conservative elements, who are suspicious of work that could infringe on Islamic principles. A popular literary club Al-Jouf in Jeddah, of which Khal is a director, was a target of arsonists in 2009, who were upset that women writers were attending. Yet, Khal believes that there is a growing hunger among Saudis to read and combat censorship.

However popular books such as The Da Vinci Code only sold 5000 copies in countries such as Jordan, which is considered successful by Arab publishing standards. Yet, this could be blamed on poor marketing and distribution systems, which prevent books from reaching potential customers. This is hampered further by an insufficient number of bookshops and outlets. Bookshop owners also complain that their profits on the sale of magazines, newspapers and books are insignificant. They have to use ingenious ways to make up for losses by selling other products.

Governments are often cited as failing to create the conditions for young people to take an interest in reading for fun. Ministries of education across the Middle East often force-feed schools with set curricula, which is based on rote learning and as a result curtails intellectual curiosity. Teachers complain that school libraries are not properly maintained and students cannot avail of supplementary reading material other than textbooks. Other observers believe that parents are failing to instil a love for reading in their children, which is worsened by the disappearance of public libraries in numerous Arab cities.

All in all, this leads to gloomy statistics about the poor state of literary consumption. One of the most famous examples, which featured in a 2002 UN report, noted that Greece translates five times more books from English than the entire Arab world. This averages to roughly 330 books annually. In 2010, another UN report suggested that less than 2% of the population in the Arab world reads even one book a year. One of the most controversial findings, featured in the Arab Thought Foundation’s fourth cultural development report released last January, which noted that an Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to 11 books read by an American and seven books by a British person. The report fuelled intense debate, questioning the validity of its findings.

Yet the real elephant in the room is illiteracy. When one looks at some Arab countries, the statistics can be hard to fathom. One of the worst examples is Yemen, which according to the UNDP has an illiteracy rate of 45%, but this figure rises up to 80% among women. Yet, even wealthy countries are not immune. UNESCO in 2011 reported that one in ten people in the UAE are illiterate. Overall, the Arab League estimates that 100 million, i.e. one in three Arabs struggles to read and write. In other words, it is no wonder that books are having a tough time with millions ill-equipped with even basic literacy skills.

But there are dozens who are trying to reverse this analphabetic trend. In the UAE, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan al-Qasimi, works to promote reading for young people and promotes the Kalima translation project, which is state-funded, and aims to translate 100 classic and contemporary books into Arabic every year. It is in Abu Dhabi that the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has been awarded for the past five years. It is considered the Booker Prize of the Arab world. Previous winners include: Bahaa Taher from Egypt, Abdo Khal from Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Achaari from Morocco. One of the goals of the prize is to promote quality translations of Arabic works into other languages.

With regard to the problem of illiteracy, Egypt’s popular Muslim preacher Dr. Amr Khaled, has set up summer camps for young people to come and gain the skills to read and write. There are also initiatives such as “We love Reading”, which works across the Arab world to establish a library in every neighborhood and to instill in young children a love of reading. Schemes like this could not have come at a more crucial time, since one of the key drivers of the Arab Spring was putting fresh ideas about society and democracy into the public sphere. Literacy gives individuals control over their lives and gives them the tools necessary to interpret what is in their interest. Without the aid of responsible governments working towards universal literacy and parents who encourage their children to make reading a hobby, then societies stagnate. Reading is not just for pleasure, but also for progress.

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