Why Don’t Arabs Read?
Recently, The Economist magazine ran an article about publishing in the Arab world. After interviewing a Lebanese bookstore owner and publisher, the author concluded that: “The biggest challenge is that Arabs simply do not read much, whether about war or peace, in English or in Arabic, despite having achieved near-universal literacy since the 1960s.”
Most Arab countries did not in fact have near-universal literacy in the 1960s, and many of them still have high rates of illiteracy today. (In Egypt a quarter of the population was illiterate in 2013; in Morocco illiteracy stood at 32 percent in 2014; the rise to nearly 90 percent literacy rates in the countries of Persian Gulf is a recent phenomenon). As for the sweeping statement that “Arabs simply do not reach much,” I have heard many variants of it over the years—from Arabs as well as foreigners. It points to a truth, but it doesn’t help us understand it.
Every time I hear someone complain that people don’t read in the Arab world, I wonder: Is that true? And if so, why? The problem with discussions of reading and publishing in the Arab world is the dearth of reliable information. There are many indications that readership is relatively low in the region. But we don’t know the extent of the problem, and partly because of that, we can’t clearly tell what its causes and effects are.
There are no reliable figures on book production and book sales in Arab countries, no independent institutions that gather and verify figures from publishers and bookstores. But there have been efforts to clarify the picture and gather some facts. We know that the average print run of a successful book is between 1,000 to 3,000 copies. The CEO of Neelwafurat, an online Arabic bookstore that lists most new titles, estimates that the number of titles per year produced in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia combined (countries that make up 80 percent of total production), was 17,000 new titles in 2011, among which 2,400 were in translation. According to a report given at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013, this means that “the Arab world, with its population of over 362 million people in 2012,” produced about the same “number of books produced in countries like Romania (with a population of 21.3 millions in 2012) and Ukraine (population 45.6 millions) in 2012.” A report by the RAND center also notes that “religious books constitute 17 percent of all books published in Arab countries” (a considerably higher proportion than in other book markets) and that the number of public libraries in Egypt is about a tenth of those in Germany, which has a comparable population.
The problems for publishers are well known: difficulties enforcing copyrights, the lack of good book distributors, the bureaucratic obstacles to creating regional distribution networks, the low purchasing power of potential customers, the dearth of bookstores and public libraries, the challenges of censorship.
But these factors work in complicated ways. As Gulf countries and in particular Saudi Arabia have become major book markets, censorship restrictions there have had a chilling effect on book publishers in the region, who tailor their books accordingly. Yet at the same time, some taboo-breaking regional bestsellers have been penned by Saudi authors and published elsewhere. And as digital publishing spreads, it may well disrupt traditional censorship networks and bureaucratic hurdles.
Even the pervasive copyright infringement may have a silver lining: Given the number of illegal downloads and the practice of lending and photocopying books, it may also be that official figures underestimate readership levels. It is hard to attend book fairs in the region, as I have—and watch crowds of young people swarm the signings of popular authors and hunt for bargains—and not feel that there is a great untapped interest in reading, which just needs the right educational policies and market mechanisms to be unleashed.
Some of the greatest growth in readers in the region is in the Gulf countries (and particularly among women readers). Dubai recently launched a 100-million-dirham fund (more than $27 million), the National Endowment for Reading, which aims to increase early-childhood reading and lifelong reading, and to support local publishers. The emirate has also, in its usual grandiose way, announced plans to build “the biggest library in the Arab world,” although, as any student of the region knows, it’s best to do a reality check five years from the date of such announcements.
There are also myriad modest ventures designed to get a few books into the hands of people who might not otherwise have the chance or inclination to read.
A few years ago, students in Casablanca, Morocco, organized a lending library for tram passengers. An Egyptian schoolteacher drives a van around the villages of his home province giving away books and holding readings for children. In Arab countries where cultural institutions and heritage have been purposely destroyed, individuals have made efforts to rebuild. Syrian rebels put together a makeshift library of 15,000 volumes in a suburb of Damascus. An art exhibition and Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the library at the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts was a huge success.
All these small and moving efforts by book lovers focus on the readers themselves. There is much evidence that the habit and pleasure of reading starts young, and that having books in the house and being read to when one is a child are significant factors in building a lifelong habit of reading. In households where television reigns supreme, where an older generation may well be illiterate or barely literate, and where one encounters books in school as material to be memorized, is it any surprise that reading is viewed as a chore? The region has a deep historic relationship with the written word and a rich literary heritage. Books are respected, but what is missing from the reading experience may be something very simple: joy.