Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Arab Populations Don't Read Enough

Shaping national literacy strategies and empowering individuals to excel should be a government's highest priority
By Joseph A. Kechichian

In one of his numerous speeches to what must surely be one of the most multi-faceted audiences ever invented by man, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's third secretary-general, recently declared that Israelis "assume[d] Arabs do not read". "Perhaps many Arabs do not read yet," he continued, adding: "In fact some Israeli generals say that they wrote books on all their previous wars before staging" them and that they executed various battles according to what they allegedly penned.
Nasrallah concluded his lecture by announcing that what distinguished the "resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine" was that "they are very well read".
While few ought to question such an assertion, given that Hezbollah cadre members are probably as well read as any other similar organisation, it behooves one to ask whether the Lebanese masses in particular and the Arabs in general are well read. What do the statistics tell us?
Regrettably, and save for professionals whose work requires hours of reading and analysis every day, the 300 million-strong Arab populations are not good readers. Greeks, with a minuscule population of 11 million, publish, buy, and read more books than all Arabs combined. Similar contrasts may be drawn with Italy or France or any number of countries.
In fact, annual figures from the UN Development Programme on global readership reveal that among 187 surveyed countries, Qatar ranked the highest among Arab states, standing in 37th place. Ironically, as the least populous Arab nation, Qatar's position was an honour. Not surprisingly, Sudan ranked last in the region, at 169th place, although it may now share this distinction with South Sudan.
Others fared slightly better: Bahrain came in 42nd, followed by Saudi Arabia (56) Kuwait (63), Libya (64), Lebanon (71), Oman (89), Tunisia (94), Jordan (95) and Algeria (96). Egypt, where an entire publishing industry flourished for centuries, filled the 113th place, followed by the Occupied Territories (114), with Morocco (130), Iraq (132) and Yemen (154) checking in at less distinguished levels. Israel secured the 17th global spot.
Statistics do not reveal everything, of course, and one should not assume that such categorisations indicate lack of attention. Moreover, one ought to factor in a variety of reasons why the average Arab does not consume more literature, or allocate specific hours each day to reading economic tomes or philosophical manuscripts or even psychological studies.
To be sure, the primary culprits are illiteracy and finances. In 2010, literacy rates in Yemen, Mauritania and Somalia were less that 60 per cent, and while Lebanon (95 per cent) and most GCC states boasted very high rates (over 90 per cent), average Arab literacy hovered around 70 per cent. The most populous Arab country, Egypt, could only claim a literacy rate of 66 per cent among its 82 million-strong realm.
Truth be told, and sadly, illiteracy weighed heavily on this part of the world. Most Arabs relied on television for entertainment and education, which were limited to say the least. Some even believed that ‘knowledge' was the privilege of doctors of law or religious authorities.
In contrast, modernising societies devoted countless hours to provide as many options as possible to their citizens, all to increase the number of volumes bought, or checked out from public libraries — perhaps the most important investment any local government agency can ever envisage to serve residents — that shape national literacy strategies, and empower individuals to excel.
Finland stood on top of this global food chain. In 2005, the last year for which such statistics were available, the average Finn devoted 46 minutes per day to reading. Canadians came in second (40), followed by Australians (39), Germans (38), Norwegians (36), Swedes (32), Brits (26), French (23), Americans (21) and Italians (18). The highest ranked Arab readers were Iraqis, at 9 minutes per day, though these averages ought to be assessed with relative care.
Regrettably, and notwithstanding Nasrallah's pronouncements regarding what Hezbollah cadre members focused on, Arabs did not read. When they did, most concentrated on religious, or spiritual fare.
Reading was a powerful tool because of its liberating powers. It intensified one's discipline to hone whatever skills one could muster to develop critical thinking that, mercifully, was an acquired ability. While intrinsic talent helped guide, one learned, improved his vocabulary, corrected grammatical mistakes, referred to previous works that enriched lives and, overall, added value by limiting errors.
It was a painful exercise, but still one of the key ingredients for freedom, which was always earned — never granted.
-This commentary was published in Gulf News on 17/05/2012
-Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia

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