Looking at Reading Rates Beyond Bogus Statistics

Yes, Arabs Read! But How Much?
Naomi Pham
“Present, Past, Future” by Pierpaolo Rovero.

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.
Findings from the Arab Reading Index released during the Knowledge Summit of December 2016 revealed that, on average, Arab citizens read 35 hours and 17 books a year. They conducted this study in all 22 Arab countries, compiling data gathered from 148,000 people. Of the 35 hours, research showed that Arabs typically spent 16 hours reading print material and 19 hours reading electronically.
These numbers do not reflect recent changes, notably the ongoing pandemic, which increased the consumption of books in many parts of the world during its early stages. But in the Arab world, reading figures face several obstacles which begin at the earliest stages of youth.
Fostering respect and enjoyment for reading at an early age is vital to developing reading habits that turn young readers into avid readers in adulthood. In the words of Ursula Lindsey in Al Fanar Media, “A lot of evidence shows that this habit and the pleasure of reading begins at a young age and that the presence of books at home beside one’s reading when one is a child are important factors in building a lifelong habit of reading.” The education sector has made great strides in the Arab world in recent years, with the establishment of schools, high enrollment rates, and government support for students, according to Sara al-Mulla in Arab News. In 2016, the Emirate of Dubai launched a fund of 100 million UAE dirhams (over 27 million U.S. dollars) to support the National Reading Support Fund. This project jumpstarted the year-long “Arab Reading Challenge” that aimed to increase the rate of early childhood reading and continuous reading and support local publishers. Literacy rates increased from 43% in 1973 to 79% in 2019, according to data from the World Bank, as cited by al-Mulla. However, reportedly 50 million adults are illiterate, and about 6 million children cannot access education because of conflicts and poverty.
Many communities face rampant poverty, and children must work to help their families make ends meet. Ongoing crises, including wars and economic meltdowns, have exacerbated all these problems, not to mention the effects of the pandemic. Books and reading for these families are a luxury rather than a necessity. Hassan al-Nuaimi states, “If the child finds care and guidance from home regarding reading, as well as from school, there is nothing to hinder them from reaching what they want….the problem is not a problem of cultural institutions, but in the development and discovery of early abilities in the child.”
Families facing poverty receive little support from the government to improve their situations. According to al-Mulla, “low economic productivity in many Arab nations has limited public funding for schools and reduced financial support for families as tuition subsidies and scholarships.” This “exodus” of children from schools removes them from learning opportunities necessary for creating reading skills. Because survival takes precedence over the luxury of reading, many children living in poverty also do not learn the value or culture of reading from their parents. They are “working for a living to provide a decent life for their children, and do not have the time to inculcate educational values or a love of reading in particular,” as cited by Hammam Sarhan of the website Swiss Info. Gender discrimination in many parts of the region also plays a significant role in enrollment, “resulting in limited female enrolment in schools because of early marriage and pregnancy, violence or cultural norms about the role of women,” in the words of al-Mulla.
Children who can access education face other obstacles inherent in the education system. Abdul Aziz al-Sabeel suggests that school can play a negative role in reading “because it is sometimes a limiting factor for further reading for those who wish to enter manifold cognitive worlds.”
Meager funding in the classroom can vastly limit a child’s exposure to reading, despite teachers’ best efforts to encourage it. In an ideal environment, teachers can foster an appreciation for their students’ reading culture. Still, according to Amina Khairy, financial pressures and the costs of books mean teachers must dedicate most of their resources to lessons. High prices also deprive students of valuable resources, making environments for research like libraries inaccessible, as cited by Abdul Aziz al-Saqabi. Maryam el-Tiji explains that in Morocco, the construction of public libraries stopped many years ago, except for the National Library in Rabat, as cited by Sarhan. “Old libraries that overlook from the womb of history rarely receive official attention. They offer short-day operations and close their doors as soon as the working hours are over, or even earlier, neglecting the need for those wishing to visit libraries earlier. These limited hours of operations make us wonder about their role, especially since readers think about going to libraries after work, and students seek libraries after leaving the classroom.”
Fahd Ali Al-Olayan, a university professor, compares the attitude towards early reading in other countries. In America, for example, he notes how “parents take their children to public libraries when they are young to identify the book and see pictures. Although private libraries are in our homes, parents do not take care of them and do not know their importance… We find some intellectuals prevent their children from entering their private library for fear of ripping books, an early deprivation from entering the world of knowledge.”
Instead, what little exposure students have to reading comes as textbooks that burden and exhaust young minds. According to Khairy, this has created an aversion to books and other paper publications, like magazines and newspapers, in students leading into adulthood. Similarly, adults treat the libraries they have inherited as decoration to be displayed rather than read, limiting access to their children and putting an end to reading as a hobby. Even if they can afford it, parents rarely give their children books as holiday gifts, says Abdo Wazen in Caravan Magazine.
Youth and society relate to cultural products like films and movies over reading. Yassine Adnan in Caravan Magazine examined the culture of reading in Morocco, recalling Moroccan writer Ahmed Bouzfour’s refusal of the Morocco Book Award in 2004. Bouzfour said, “I am ashamed to receive a prize for a book that printed a thousand copies, of which we distributed only five hundred copies in the markets to 30 million people. The books are still on display and have not been sold despite the passing of over two years.” Another well-known author found he sold only seven copies of his book over six months. When one teacher asked his students about the movie “The Neighbors of Abi Musa” by Mohamed Abdel Rahman al-Tazi, all of his students saw the film in theaters or on television. Although the film director adapted the film’s novel from the famous author Ahmad al-Tawfiq, the Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, students still could not recognize it.
“If the university is a measure of reading as an open cultural space, then university students today are completely outside the reading equation and hardly continue reading books assigned in the curriculum,” writes Khalil Sweileh in Caravan Magazine. He consulted a survey conducted by a local newspaper, which found that many students do not read at all and are mainly ignorant of the names of prominent writers. In the admission test for students of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, they found that more applicants recognized the name of singer Ali al-Deek than the Syrian playwright and writer Saadallah Wannous. One bookstore owner in the center of Damascus explained that even the most popular books sell only 100 copies annually. He also asserts that today’s readers are interested in political books, memoirs, and heritage books, with literary books at the bottom of the list, according to Sweileh.
The lessening demand for books spells even more trouble for the Arab book publishing industry, which has been crumbling beneath the weight of worsening financial pressures for years. On top of the pandemic, countries facing economic crises like Lebanon have had little means to afford the production of new books, especially when there is no market for them. In Morocco, where the Ministry of Culture supports Moroccan publishers financially, books remain inaccessible to the public because of their high prices. Exorbitant customs duties, taxes, and printing costs have raised the price of books far above what the average person can afford. Meanwhile, those with the means to purchase books face a severe lack of variety and availability of new titles, resulting in a stagnant market. According to Khairy, the death of reading has closed the doors of about 750 printing presses in Egypt alone. Those who do read turn to secondhand bookstores for their books, as they are vastly more affordable than books directly from publishers.
The book publishing industry doesn’t just face financial difficulties, but also creative blockades. A recent article by Ismael Youssef in Al Estiklal newspaper challenges the notion that “Arabs do not read,” a statement circulated by several foreign reports, including the Economist magazine. Youssef subverts blame from individual Arab readers for “not reading” and instead points to the overlying problems of strict censorship on top of high taxes and fees. A study by the Arab Publishers Union with the 52nd Cairo Book Fair compiled statistics within the Arab publishing industry from 2015 to 2019. Twenty Arab countries reportedly produced 315,000 books in five years, of which there was an increased push for the publication of novels over political or scientific works, cites Youssef. Political books continue to attract readers, but popular topics were limited to biographical literature, political events in the Arab world, and nostalgia for former leaders, according to the study. Novels served as the backbone of the printing industry and the “strongest catalyst currently for the continuity of the Arab publishing movement,” in the words of Youssef.
However, through the General Authority of the National Library and Documentation House, the Egyptian government put new laws in place for registering new books. These include a signed acknowledgment by the writer that they are “responsible for everything stated in their book and bear the consequences of everything they say,” as quoted by Youssef. They forced writers to contend with censorship laws, left to only write about topics the state would approve of or face backlash. One publisher told Abdo Wazen, “We avoid printing books that irritate Arab censors. We understand books should reach people, and books should be good. And we must not forget that this book will enter the house, and the whole family will probably read it.”
If Arab authors cannot freely publish their works, then it falls to foreign books to fill in the gaps. However, the Arab world offers far fewer translated texts than other countries, according to Abdo Wazen, who contemplates the success of Arab book exhibitions compared to the Arab book industry. He points to the lack of variety in Arab publishing. In 2003, 330 books were translated and distributed across the Arab world. This number doesn’t exceed even a fifth of what it translated in a country like Greece alone, writes Wazen. “The cumulative total of books translated into Arabic from the era of al-Ma’mun to the present is about 10,000 books, which is equivalent to what a country like Spain translates in one year. The disparity is clear when we know that the average translated book in the first half of the 80s of the last century was about four books for every one million Arab citizens, while it reached 519 books in Hungary and 920 books in Spain for every one million citizens.” Rather than showing the success of the book industry, the high turnout of book fairs is because they are anticipated social events.
According to Dr. Abu al-Maati al-Ramadi, those under 35 do not read and instead get information through modern means of communication, whether through social media or other sources on the Internet. Today, information is circulated with the effortless press of a button or the swipe of a screen, taking away from the necessity of books and research. Some sources attribute the rise of the digital age to the fall of books and traditional media. Sweileh suggests the widespread scope of satellite channels and internet cafes has contributed to the decline of bookstores.
In some ways, the transition from traditional to digital media has acted as a thorn in the Arab book industry. The popularization of ebooks stifled the appeal of paperback books, typically more affordable if not more accessible because of lax copyright laws and rampant plagiarism. Some publishing houses have also resorted to piracy because copying and redistributing books has been simplified, creating a self-sabotaging culture. The difficulties in implementing copyright rules result from a set of factors: the “lack of reliable book distributors, bureaucratic obstacles in establishing regional distribution networks, the low purchasing power of potential customers, scarcity of bookstores and public libraries, as well as censorship challenges,” says Ursula Lindsey in Al Fanar Media.
However, with books more easily accessible through these methods, why does the Arab world report low reading statistics? According to Lindsey, the prevalence of illegal downloads and the practices of book borrowing and photocopying may be the reason behind official figures that underestimate reading levels. She also adds, “As digital publishing spreads, traditional censorship networks and bureaucratic hurdles can be disrupted,” effectively allowing for publishing books that typically would not have had a chance. “It’s hard to attend book fairs in the region… — and watch the throngs of young people swarming for autograph ceremonies and those looking for bargains — without feeling that there is a huge untapped interest in reading, which must need the right educational policies and unleashing of market mechanisms.”
Social and digital media indeed dominate the attention spans of children into adulthood. In the words of Wazen, “Children in the Arab world have entered the world of technology, and its small screens are hijacking most of their time, especially video games and television programs, which narrow the space for books in their lives.” A young child today, by age six, is proficient at using WhatsApp, digital panels, electronic media, “the most complex of programs,” and yet would not have read a book in his life, says Malika Karkoud in France24. But the Internet and digital technology have made books more easily accessible. We must instill the value of reading at a young age. Society needs to act — from a state-level down to the personal level — to return the role of the Arab book to cultural significance.
Reportage of reading levels in the Arab world is voluminous yet confusing, but the findings of recent studies are not as gloomy as they were a decade ago, when many believed the fictitious “6-minute” myth to be true. Still, figures available through the Arab Reading Index that measure cultural activities such as book publishing, the number of book fairs, funding for educational systems, the issue of censorship, and authoritative assessments by specialists, among others, have shed light on the low state of reading in the Arab world. Antoine Abou Zeid’s recent article “Free Reading is the Arabs’ Delayed Destiny and the Incentive to Progress” inspires much of our concern for reading today. While measuring “free reading” or reading for pleasure is difficult methodologically and otherwise, it remains a habit that is vital not just culturally, but to development and nation-building. “Free reading” perhaps may be the most important thing to saving the Arab book. However, with economic and political factors — namely funding and censorship — barring the way, these issues must be addressed first if the Arab world is to reintroduce reading as a habit among Arab youth and future generations.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid