AbdelRahman, Anna, and Maryanne have made me continue to wrestle with this question, which was raised by 7iber.com last week and discussed here. Clearly, as AbdelRahman notes, it won’t be easy. Nevertheless. There’s the world right in front of you; to stay sane, it helps to at least talk about it. So:
What is the core of the problem? Across social classes, reading books in Arabic is generally not perceived as critical to a good, happy, fulfilling life.
I am speaking specifically of Egypt; perhaps it has echoes elsewhere. And you will correct me if you think I’m wrong.
Who is more likely to change, children or adults? Both—children and young adults. By the time people are my age, however, they’re generally hopeless.
Do adult readers begin as child readers? Probably, in most cases.
Do child readers depend on their schools or parents to give them access to books?
Probably it takes a cultural shift from the parents, which reflects (later?) in the schools.
What makes adults buy books for their children?
In a few cases, the parents are like me: fanatics. Their children read, perhaps by genetic inevitability, perhaps by the books’ every-room availability, perhaps by being surrounded by peers and parents who read.
But in most cases, I think parents buy books if and when they are seen as a route to social mobility.
What then, of the “Arab world”? Or, to focus on what I know: What of Egypt? Inasmuch as there are possibilities for social mobility in Egypt (laugh as you like), people largely associate them with learning English. If parents want their children to have a good life, they don’t buy them books in Arabic. They buy them books in English.
Yes, people teach their children Qur’an, to give them a different sort of good life, but this generally has not seemed to spin off into other children’s books, or other sorts of reading.
Isn’t it just that books are too expensive for most Egyptians?
I say yes, books are too expensive. The managing director of Bloomsbury Qatar, Seif Salmawy, says no. He pointed out to me last week that Egyptians spend quite a lot annually on mobile phones. Then I saw in Bikya Masr that Egyptian smokers spend 110LE a month on cigarettes. Considering about 50% of Egyptian adults are smokers (am I exaggerating? If so, only a little) that’s a lot of LE.
If books were seen as critical for the future of one’s children, a little more money might be found between the couch cushions or inside the cigarette boxes.
How, then, to convince parents that opening their children’s minds, helping their children become critical and creative thinkers, giving them the opportunity to understand their worlds—is absolutely essential? That it will lead their children to a better, happier life?
Or at least that it couldn’t hurt…much….
When I moved here with my kids in the late 80’s good Arabic books where expensive and rare. Now people are translating fun children’s books (like The Hungry Caterpillar) into Arabic and you can get them for very reasonable prices, but a lot of people don’t yet know that they are even available. There is a social tradition here of not talking to children as though they were people who could understand anything until sometime in their teens. When my kids were small they were utter horrified at the peculiar adults who would make “psst” sound at them…the same sounds they would make to a cat. When those same adults, who often were great uncles and so on, were offended because my children hid from them, I had to explain that in the childrens’ experience adults spoke in an understandable language. It’s a lot more than reading…it’s also speaking.
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