There are some readers for whom obtaining a first edition copy of their favorite book or author is of great import and this is evidenced by people standing in long lines to get their hands on new books. While this may be a common site in the West, many believe this is not the case in the Arab world.
There is a common perception too about the number of Arabs that frequent libraries. That number mirrors the nature of a reading culture and can be used to evaluate reading habits among its generations.
Earlier this year, a debate on how to foster reading habits among Arab youth was prompted after the Arab Thought Foundation’s Fikr released its fourth annual cultural development report in January, saying that the average Arab child reads “six minutes” a year in comparison to 12,000 minutes its Western counterpart spends.
It also reported that an Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to the 11 books read by an American and seven books by a British person.
“If we adopt the minimum average time that youth is on the Internet, that gives us 365 hours a year, and if we compare that with the average time an individual Arab spends reading, which is six minutes a year, then the difference between the two becomes clear, and the importance of the Internet in youths’ lives becomes apparent,” the report said.
Soon after these statistics were released, both skeptical and furious debates took place on social media forums like Twitter, with people highlighting the number of challenges facing their society.
Some comments suggested more active usage of e-books to encourage reading habits among the youth at a university level. Others attributed the decline in reading to inappropriate educational environments across the Arab region and families rarely visiting public libraries together.
Family trips to libraries are considered rare across the Arab world. Hind Saud, a student tweeted that TV has become the focal gathering point for families. “We never had a chance to read or discuss a book together as a family.”
Ghader al-Shehabi, a medical student at Riyadh College of dentistry told Al Arabiya that her reading habits only developed after attending university. “We are required to do in-depth research and I’m enjoying it. We used to rely on one text book at school but the more you read, the better you become. I encourage everyone to bring change to their lives by reading.”
Another survey on reading habits in the Middle East in April 2011 made for a depressing read. Only one in five read on a regular basis and among those under 25 ─ nearly 65 per cent of the 3,667 questioned by Yahoo! Maktoob Research ─ about one in three seldom or never read a book for pleasure.
The survey’s results shows similar reading habits across countries. In an Arab League table of readers by nations, the United Arab Emirates placed fifth behind Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq. In the UAE, just 22 per cent of people described themselves as regular readers.
A general lack of educational opportunities in poor Arab countries can also add to these facts. Research for the Arab League region estimates that about 100 million people ─ almost one in three – struggle to read and write. A 2011 UNESCO report found that in the UAE, one in 10 people is illiterate.
Other factors to consider in the decline of reading can be attributed to people shunning the Arabic language in favor of English. Noura Farouq, a teacher based in the UAE, told The National in April that she has seen a decline in appreciation of Arabic in her 20 year career. “Students do not see the importance of learning their mother tongue. Their parents put a lot of emphasis on English as they think it will further their careers, so they tend to develop an indifferent attitude towards Arabic.”
Despite the benefits of implementing an English language teaching curricula in elementary schools, it has created a language of culturally deprived children. Most of these children are not linked to the narrative perspective of their mother tongue novels, which have created a parallel gap between them and the book.
Bringing children to the habit of choosing their favorite novels, adding to develop reading sessions, or a frequent individual reading classes at schools propose a reading support techniques for young generations.