To read, and not to read, in Lebanon

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

A 2007 study found that Lebanese spent an average of 49 minutes a day, 12 days each month, reading books. Photo courtesy Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star

May 9, 2014

BEIRUT: For years, a startling statistic about Middle East literacy has made the rounds. On average, it suggests, Arabs spend six minutes a year reading – about six pages. This vague figure has been attributed to UNESCO, the Arab Thought Foundation and UNDP, but the source of the figure remains unknown. A 2007 study by the Next Page Foundation “What Arabs Read: A Pan-Arab Survey on Readership,” uncovered quite different results. Of the 1,000 Lebanese polled, 44 percent spent an average of 31 minutes a day perusing newspapers and magazines and 50 minutes a day reading online. They spent an average of 49 minutes about 12 days each month reading books.

Najwa Sahmarani was shocked when she read the six-minute stat in a 2011 Arab Thought Foundation report. A passionate advocate of reading for pleasure, she decided to do some research of her own. The Tripoli-based entrepreneur polled 550 students and young professionals resident in the northern city – half through an online survey spread via social media, the other half in person at the Tripoli Book Fair.

She asked respondents the last time they’d finished a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, for pleasure.

“Seventy percent chose the answers either: ‘I’ve never finished a book’ or ‘Before last year,’” Sahmarani recalls. Another 44 percent said they’d read more if part of a reading club or literary community, had easier access to books or received guidance on what to read.

This is how Sahmarani came to establish Alkindy. This Tripoli-based space devoted to literary culture will include a small library, a bookshop specializing in titles absent at local bookstores, private meeting rooms and a cafe.

Alkindy is named for the ninth-century Iraqi philosopher, mathematician, physician and musician, who is known as “the philosopher of the Arabs.”

“He started translating works of Greek philosophy into Arabic,” Sahmarani notes, “so he was open to other cultures, … This is what I want to highlight most: openness and tolerance and flexibility.”

A Zoomaal crowdfunding campaign has demonstrated wide support for the project, raising more than $17,000 of the $25,000 goal in just over two weeks.

Tripoli has free public libraries but Alkindy aims to provide something different. Students and professionals are often unable to visit libraries during opening hours, Sahmarani says, and Tripoli doesn’t yet have the same public reading culture as Beirut.

“In Beirut, it’s different,” she remarks. “You have cafes for that. In Tripoli, it hasn’t become a habit yet, so when you’re sitting somewhere and reading, you [feel] awkward.”

Membership to Alkindy will cost $20 a month, she says, and will entitle members to borrow up to four books at a time, free Wi-Fi use, a cafe discount and twice-monthly access to the private meeting room.

Public events are integral to Sahmarani’s project.

“The point is to have activities and create a community through different events,” she explains, “so we’re going to launch a book club, and we will have a workshop for people who’ve never finished a book.”

Sahmarani is not alone in her mission to promote casual reading in Lebanon. Though statistics on literary culture are scarce, professionals agree that reading levels are waning.

“Most people’s grandparents still read all the time, but most of the younger generation [don’t],” Sahmarini says. “Maybe it’s because older generations didn’t have access to what we do now. They found that reading is their doorway to what they don’t know. But now, with the Internet it’s easy access.”

It’s long been assumed that the Internet would raze book culture. Others, such as Amina Kleit, attribute the decline in reading to social, cultural and economic causes.

Kleit is director of the Iqra’ Association, an NGO founded in 1994 to promote reading in public schools. Iqra’ works with children from underprivileged backgrounds, without television or Internet access.

Citing the statistic that Arabs read “an average of six pages a year,” Kleit explains that over 20 years, the association has been working to promote reading in Lebanon’s public schools. Working one-on-one with more than 12,000 struggling students and establishing libraries in 140 schools, they learned that children loved reading when supervised; when left to their own devices, they didn’t use the libraries.

“In 2009, we did a small pilot project,” she recalls, “to measure why they loved to read with us but they never read on their own. … We found that children’s love for reading is not tempered [but] they don’t really know how to read independently. … They’re surrounded by adults who don’t read themselves, not because they are illiterate, only because they lack interest.

“What we do for children who are engaged with reading is … take the parents into the classroom to witness their children’s love of reading and learning, and we encourage them to support that and nurture it at home.”

The parents’ want of interest in reading, she says, can be traced to economic and cultural shifts. “The older generation used to communicate more,” she explains. “They used to focus more on telling stories and on sharing experiences.

“Reading does not have to come only from books. The love of reading comes from telling stories over generations. This is missing now. … We also noticed that parents now are overwhelmed by the cost of living. … They used to feel more secure and they had more opportunities to be together and to share experiences.”

In other social spheres, says Assabil Association president Antoine Boulad, the decline in reading is most evident in 20-somethings. Founded in 1997, the association aims to promote reading for pleasure through a nationwide network of public libraries.

Assabil provides support and expertise to 25 libraries across the country, as well as directly managing three libraries in Beirut and running two mobile collections that visit suburban schools.

“The youth is, I think, reading less and less,” he says. “We have book clubs in our libraries and … the [members] are usually women aged 30 and above. [We don’t see people] between the ages of 20 and 30.”

The Next Page Foundation’s study seconds this observation. The paper found that “nonreaders” had on average read seven books a year before abandoning reading for pleasure, citing too little time, between the ages of 19 to 25.

Boulad believes technology may encourage this demographic to rediscover reading.

“Assabil [decided] to develop our IT services,” he says, to “attract more young people to the public libraries, hoping that they’ll use it for searching for information, but also maybe reading for pleasure.”

Private schools, many of which have well-stocked libraries, are also shifting toward technology. Andrea Norman, head librarian at Beirut’s American Community School, says that ACS is working with technologies such as e-books to encourage student reading.

In her experience, she says, a love of reading is down to the individual.

“I don’t know … where the love of reading is coming from,” she says. “Is it coming from their family? Is it coming from this culture? Is it coming from another culture they were exposed to? I can think of individual students who’ve never left Lebanon who read all the time, and others who don’t.”

Reading, she says, offers unparalleled advantages for young people.

“I think that reading is interactive, television is not. We bring much to our reading because it’s not all given to us. … I think strong readers very definitely have an edge … all the way through college, and I think they have an edge as far as general background knowledge.”

For Sahmarani too, reading is about far more than entertainment.

“It helps us to understand others,” she says, “to have more empathy, understand ourselves better [and] have different perspectives. It accelerates self-improvement … more than any other thing.”

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