Found in Translation

Caption and image are The Economist's fault, not mine.

A (satiric) collage*

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh?

The Middle East has a bad reputation when it comes to books; nowhere else do so few people read them. Statistics show that most Arabs do not read more than six minutes per year and children do not visit libraries or book clubs.

Compounding this is the dearth of translated works, which limits the extent to which the global conversation seeps into the Arab world, hindering intellectual curiosity, access to knowledge and development. In fact, it found that in the past 1,000 years only about 10,000 books have been translated into Arabic – equivalent to the number of books translated in Spain each year.

There are still plenty of pious women around who wear a veil or headscarf.

But what about literature? There will be good books and not so good ones, just as with American fiction. But the great novel of the Arab spring has yet to be published.

It is no accident that Arab countries are mucking up democracy, and it is no accident that Japan and Germany have the No. 1 and No. 2 carmakers. It is too soon to say that the Arab Spring is gone, never to resurface. But the Arab Winter has clearly arrived.

Good art, like revolutionary change, takes time.

*Sentences (and headline) borrowed in their entirety from:

The Economist: Revolution between hard covers

The New Yorker: Found in Translation

The Peninsular Qatar: Survey finds poor reading habit among children 

The Media Line: Obstacles to Reading 

NY Daily News: Autumn Settles Over Arab Spring

Inside Story: On the edge of the Arab Spring 

And, more importantly:

Debunking the “myth of the six minutes”: In al-Akhbar

Debunking the myth that “in the past 1,000 years only X novels have been translated, which means Arabs are dumb”:

ArabLit: Translation is Not Dialogue

RAYA: Yasmina Jraissati 

Al Masry Al Youm: Richard Jacquemond 


  1. What do headscarves have to do with anything? I hate how people always have to passive aggressively sneak that in grrr

    1. Of course I didn’t have to throw it in my re-telling of the English-language news, but I found it suited The Economist’s silly image & caption.

      1. Yes, that comment wasn’t directed at you, it was directed at them for sure!
        lol I totally agree about the silly image and caption! It’s always the same thing with the US media.

  2. so we basically have statements from Us Media degrading Arab readers and coming up with “facts ” which as anyone knows can be completely manipulated- a US specialiy (such as weapons of mass destruction). Does anyone know how many copies of Mahfouz’ novels have sold in Egypt?
    Does anyone how many copies of Darwish’s poems have sold in Palestine, and throughout the Middle East- to the point they were memorized by school children as were the works of Pablo Neruda?
    Thanks for sharing some of the irony. It’s true that everyone could read more, dont get me wrong. It is up the writers and their fans and beloved ones to make sure that increases. This blog is one great way to reach out and accomplilsh such a worthwhile endeavor to broaden our worlds.

    1. I certainly think Arabic-language readers could read more, sure! But I just get tired of these memes that reporters echo without checking into them: the “6 minutes”, the “1,000 years”, and now—thanks to The Economist—“nowhere else do so few people read books” (!).

  3. I think the Middle East still lags behind in the reading of books, but I just love how the revolution has opened the minds of the people and how you find even the bawab (doorman), the drivers, the women in the metro (the women’s section) or the guy who copies my keys, read the newspaper.. I just love it!!

    1. Honestly, ya Yasmine, I think I will start my itinerant book-selling business one of these days…where I hawk cheap little tomes on the metro….

  4. 🙂 that’s the way to go.. the Metro!!

  5. Nice collection of reporters’ lazy narratives.

    Just yesterday a professor of literature in Cairo was telling me how even teenagers (!) have started to read these days, particularly works written in dialect. There should always be more reading, of course. But it’s way to easy to tell these simplistic stories about ‘backward’ Arab culture.

    1. That’s “way too easy” of course.

  6. It was The Economist that sent me over the edge. I used to work as a daily-news reporter. Did I spew out that sort of drivel? Anyhow, I hope not.

  7. The last couple of times I’ve been in Cairo (over about the past 18 months), one of the employees at Dar al-Shuruq told me that novels are selling hard and fast–they can’t keep enough copies! (I was unable to find a few I wanted, for that reason.) So who is “not reading”?? Too bad these journalists don’t do their field research. – Marilyn

  8. these days, i seem to be wondering an awful lot why we keep reading (and believing) the economist in the first place.
    i agree with marylin and ed: i think people are reading (more). but i guess “arabs exchanging reading suggestions in the queue at the XYZ bookshop” (true story, as witnessed by me. several times.) just isn’t a catchy headline. 🙂

  9. Another thing is that the number of books or newspapers sold is not an accurate indicator of the number read, especially in places that are under severe economic pressure. Why would you buy a book if your friend had it? You’d just borrow it. Newspapers can get passed around until they fall to pieces.

    It is IMPOSSIBLE that The Economist undertook research of the magnitude required not only to compare Middle Eastern countries to all the other countries IN THE WORLD, but also to trace individual books and newspapers closely enough to get even a rough estimate of the number of actual readers.

    Shoddy and unethical reporting, for sure.

    1. Haha, can you imagine? Besides, what would that even mean, reading in “The Middle East”? So it’s the median average reading in this agglomeration of countries vs… what?

    1. I doubt it was Max. Among other things, he was out of the country for most of the book fair.

    2. It just couldn’t be. I suspect Intern #7.

  10. it doesn’t really sound like max, either.

  11. Dear Marcia, I have enjoyed reding the comments as well and see how you defend the reading habits of Arab readers. 🙂

    Well I have been in book business for almost 6 years now and I can assure you that numbers are increasing of people who read or want to start the habit … I am talking about Cairo where I work even if they read -the young ones- in delicate Arabic, it is a start and we should encourage and embrace dearly.

    Your tremendous efforts here is a value-add of course to non-Arabic speakers who might be interested to know about us.
    Best Regards,
    Karam Youssef

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