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Arabs need greater access to books

It has been claimed that Arabs have no interest in reading, but if people by and large can’t find the titles they want, then obviously they will read less.
 
Do Arabs read a lot or very little? Information on the subject is contradictory and confusing. 
Until recently, we had no data, only intuitive views, either insisting that the Arab culture holds high regard for books and reading, or claiming that people in general, and youngsters in particular, don’t seem to read at all, and certainly not books. 
Personal experience, such as mine, seems to confirm both views. Whenever I lecture in the Arab world, I am told that books (mine and others’) are very difficult to obtain, but at the same time I find that people (perhaps not of their fault) read few contemporary works. Indeed, as Arab authors know, rarely do books sell even a thousand copies in a region with a population of more than 300 million and whose holy book starts with the word “read.” And, contrary to what one sees in other parts of the world, people in the Arab world rarely read on buses, metros or planes. 
In the last several years, a number of articles have been written about reading in the Arab world, and one could only come out confused from the mutually contradictory ideas and conclusions presented by the authors of those articles.

It has been claimed that Arabs have no interest in reading, but if people by and large can’t find the titles they want, then obviously they will read less.

Nidhal Guessoum

Much was made in 2011 when a report claimed that Arabs read only six minutes per year on average (the equivalent of four pages per year or four words per day), compared to 200 hours a year for Europeans. The claim was later investigated and found to be totally unfounded. 
Still, the stereotype of a people (Arabs) who don’t read or even hate reading has stuck. In June 2015, author Colin Wells published an article titled “Why Arabs Hate Reading.” In it, he cited the researcher Niloofar Haeri, who in her contribution to the 2009 “Cambridge Handbook of Literacy” concluded that educated people in the Arab world “find reading very difficult, don’t like to do it, and do as little of it as possible — even the librarians!”
In July 2016, The Economist published a short article commenting on the state of reading and publishing in the Arab world. “The biggest challenge is that Arabs simply do not read much,” it said. Commenting on the article, Ursula Lindsey added facts along the same line: In 2012, the entire Arab world published about the same number of books as Romania and Ukraine; bookstores and public libraries are few, badly stocked and rarely visited; and other issues. Lindsey also proposed reasons for that sorry state of affairs, including censorship, turmoil, declining purchasing power, and widespread violations of copyrights (including pirate publishers, illegal downloading, photocopying and distribution of books).
Additional issues make the question of reading in the Arab world multifaceted: Reading the Qur’an often dominates people’s reading habits; many educated Arabs read in other languages (English or French) more than they read in Arabic (sales indicate that only 15-20 percent of books sold are in Arabic); most books read in the region are written by non-Arabs; much reading is done on smartphones; and other complex issues.
But, in December 2016, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation released an interesting Arab Reading Index, which it produced in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program. The index presented a starkly different picture: The average Arab reads 17 books a year (11 in Arabic and 6 in foreign languages) — five more than the average American. Either we’ve made huge progress in the last 15 years (perhaps due to the many initiatives that have been launched in the region, such as the annual “Arab Reading Challenge” and the 2016 “Year of Reading”), or we are comparing apples and oranges. Indeed, reading habits are complex and need to be investigated and analyzed very carefully.
Another important issue I would like to highlight is the stuttering and struggling Arab book publishing industry. First, the very low number of titles produced and sold, estimated at less than 10,000 in the whole Arab world, compared to some 50,000 in Turkey, 80,000 in Spain and 220,000 in the UK. Secondly, the number of copies produced and sold for a typical title is roughly 1,000; an Arab bestseller is a book that sells more than 5,000 in a given year. Thirdly, and most importantly, the distribution network is abysmal: Readers rarely find copies of good books that were published in another (Arab) country. And, last but not least, the percentage of Arabs who can buy online (there are online sellers of Arabic books, and even Amazon has started selling Arabic titles) is very low because most Arabs do not have credit cards.
If Arabs by and large can’t find the books they want to read, then obviously they will read few books. While we need to encourage people to read (serious material), we equally need to ensure the availability of books throughout the Arab world. Only then can we talk about reading habits and statistics.
•  Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. He can be followed on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.