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Looking at Reading Rates Beyond Bogus Statistics

Yes, Arabs Read! But How Much?
Naomi Pham

As UNESCO celebrates World Book Day, many countries have turned their attention to not just books but also the reading rates of their citizens and how they compare globally. Many speculate that Arabs do not read as much as Europeans and North Americans. Time and time again, major publications and news outlets fill their headlines with the claim that Arab citizens read an average of only six minutes a year. This figure was cited in the early 2000s, attributed to the December 2011 4th Annual Cultural Development Report by the Arab Thought Foundation, which has yet to be published online. The number appeared in a TEDxRamallah panel in April 2011 by Fadi Ghandour, CEO of Aramex in Jordan, who claimed his source was UNESCO (UNESCO has denied ever publishing the statistic). According to Thana Atwi, a spokeswoman for the Arab Thought Foundation, the number was never meant to be read at face value but as a symbolic figure, as cited by Leah Cladwell on the website Hekmah. Regardless of right or wrong, one cannot deny that the reading rates in the Arab world are low, which may be why the erroneous “six-minute myth” has been repeated for over a decade and continues to be a statistic that many significant publications take seriously.

The Catcher in the Bulgur?

Coming of Age Story Witnesses Tribulations of Growing up Arab American in Brooklyn
D.W. Aossey
Coming of age stories can be tricky. In no other genre do authors willingly stick out their necks, relying on a single, flawed adolescent to heroically carry the day. No clever plot twist can save our young protagonists if they’re not up to the task; no quirky sidekicks or kinky lovers can plaster over the holes. The vulnerability of a Holden Caulfield, the dimwitted charm of a Forrest Gump, or even the precocious morality of a Kevin Arnold was always destined to shine. And then we have Michael Haddad, the teenager at the center of “Arab Boy Delivered” by author Michael Aziz Zarou.
It’s the early 1960s. A Palestinian family takes over a neighborhood grocery store in an Italian part of Brooklyn, where working-class residents pop in and out for bread, milk, beer, and cigarettes. They’re mild to outright discriminatory against Arabs. “Camel jockey assholes, go back to the desert!” comes up more than once; vandalism and other mischief loom. The police have little help. Michael, the young son of old country proprietors Aziz and Jamila Haddad, searches his parent’s worried expressions and philosophizes. He listens to 60s music and goes through his coming-of-age routine, seeming more grown-up than he should be. He looks at himself in the mirror and thinks. 

Mona al-Saudi (1945-2022): The Sculptor Who Befriended Stone and Challenged Traditions

Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala

Ensconced in her garden of stone and statues, Jordanian poet, artist, and sculptor Mona al-Saudi has always been connected to the earth around her. She spent her earliest years playing amidst the ruins of the Roman Nymphaeum near her home in Amman, enamored with the geometric forms. Staring at the towering structures, her mind wandered to the more existential questions of life from a young age. “I would leave my little friends to play with the statues, converse with them, contemplate their folds, and I felt that they were silent creatures full of life… These legendary archaeological sites gave me the feeling of man’s ability to create great works that remain for eternity. And that is how my dreams began,” she said, as cited by Ghazi Anayem in Thaqafat. This love of heritage and history followed her wherever she went, inspiring all her creations for years to come. She told Gulf News, “Our house was only three meters away, and when I opened the door of my house, I could step into the Nymphaeum, with its Roman baths, columns, and scattered sculptures all over. These were literally historical stones. And I used to play in these ruins. That is why I belong to this kind of era, which I feel endures.”

Multiple Pressures From State Repression, Fundamentalist Retribution, Cultural Critiques and Competition From Global Media Choking Off The Voice Of The Arab Intellectual

Elie Chalala
Many definitions of Arab intellectuals are rooted in the idealistic tradition that glorifies them as guardians of values and ethics, as figures closer to “angels” and “faqihs,” who stand above politics and power struggles and enjoy a monopoly over the authority of knowledge. These notions reflect social illusions and popular perceptions of the time when intellectuals were considered part of a sacred class. A recurrent list of names often cited and idealized as intellectuals include Mahmoud Abbas al-Akkad, Taha Hussein, and Naguib Mahfouz. These perceptions clearly distinguish the intellectual from the politician.

The Wonders of a Village Childhood

Lynne Rogers
Stories My Father Told Me: Memories of a Childhood in Syria and Lebanon
By Elia Zughaib and Helen Zughaib
Cune Press, 2020
“Stories My Father Told Me: Memories of a Childhood in Syria and Lebanon” is a delightful collection of short one-page stories told to Elia Zughaib by his father, accompanied by paintings by his daughter, Helen Zughaib.

A Book Fair Writes an Old Story: How a Poster — And Regional Politics — Sank Effort to Invigorate Lebanon’s Publishing Industry

Elie Chalala

Book publishers, journalists, authors, and cultural activists received a large blow earlier this month. The anticipated return of the Beirut International and Arab Book Fair was met with disappointment and anger as violence broke out over Hezbollah’s presence through some publishing houses, which many argued overshadowed the spirit of the event. For over half a century, the book fair has held a celebrated place in Lebanon’s culture. Considered the oldest Arab fair, the tradition began in April 1956 at the American University of Beirut, becoming a prestigious event showcasing thousands of titles and visited by tens of thousands for decades since its launch. Not even ceasing during the Lebanese civil war, the only time the book fair was previously canceled was in December 2006 during the anti-government sit-ins in downtown Beirut. The outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the explosion of Beirut’s port later that year, and the worsening economic crisis forced it to once again close its doors until the surprise announcement of its return, marking its 63rd session, running from March 3 to March 13.

The Tragedies and Political Realities of Aleppo’s Old Red Light District

Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala
In a tale that spans generations, a recent novel shows the suffering of Syrian society through the abuse of sex workers and a struggle to make their smothered voices heard. Syrian novelist Ibtisam Ibrahim Tracy’s latest work, “Daughters of Lahlouha” (House of Culture for Publishing and Distribution, 2021), introduces readers to Syrian women suffering under both French mandate and Syrian regimes, social oppression, political tyranny, and the machinations of intelligence services over the past century. The novel was recently reviewed by Salman Zainuddin in Independent Arabia.
The corpse of the novelist Farida al-Raydah greets readers in the opening pages of the novel, crumpled in a chair with torn remnants of paper in her hands. On her computer lies an open, blank document entitled “Novel.” When a deliveryman named Abdel al-Salam discovers her, he searches through her belongings and finds the ready-to-publish manuscript of her novel discarded in the neighborhood trash bin.