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03 November 2012

A Book that is Shut is but a Block*

*Thomas Fuller

A couple of days ago, one of my students told me that he thinks English is very important because it's needed in industries such as business, economics and finance. He told me that he tried looking for a book on finance in Arabic and couldn't find one. He could find a small chapter or an excerpt, but no books. He told me that he looked in the large libraries in Dubai and Egypt without any luck.

It got me thinking about reading/literacy in general in the Arab world. So I decided to ask my friend Google how many libraries are there in the Middle East. Surprise, surprise, there was no straight forward figure. I thought, maybe this was because the Middle East is a large area and no one had compiled a definitive figure. So I asked Google, how many libraries in the UAE. Again, no definite figure, though I found a few articles giving general information about libraries in the UAE. Seeing that this information was not readily available I chose not to search further (that would defy the object of the search).

Anyway, when I was searching for a figure for libraries in the Middle East, I came across the OCLC website.

It had figures on libraries, librarians etc for most countries. Since I could not search for the Middle East as a region, I added up the statistics for Total Libraries and Total Users for the following countries: Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Oman & Yemen.

Using the OCLC's database, these are the figures I came up with:

  • 46,462 libraries
  • 11,959,136 library users

Then I searched for libraries in the UK on the OCLC website and found these statistics:

  • 8,437 libraries
  • 38,432,469 library users

(I also did a general search on Google for the number of UK libraries and found a figure quite easily)

Now I don't know how accurate this database is, and I don't know if or how it takes into account variants such as population density, GDP, distance to closest library, frequency of use of the library and gaps in information (for example, Yemen was recorded to have zero library users). Either way, I thought that the figures gave us an indication on how libraries are a non-essential part of Arab life. 

This made me sad. I personally love to read. I don't read as much as others do nor do I claim to remember much of the books I've read, but I'm always looking for my next book and love my Kindle. I'm not sure if my love of reading is a personal trait, something passed on or taught by parents, or due to my school having a decent library. I guess it's a mixture of all three. Plus, my friends at school were readers too, so that helped because we were constantly recommending books to each other.

My Dad used to read all the time. He used to buy Time and Newsweek magazines every week, was subscribed to National Geographic magazine for over a decade and would read at least two daily newspapers. My Mom likes reading newspapers too, as well as magazines. My brothers however aren't avid readers in the sense that I never saw them with their heads buried in books. They are more into current events and watching news programs though, whereas I'm not. I guess for me reading was a form of escape and a way to unwind. 

Living in the UK was perfect for this hobby as bookstores constantly had 3 for 2 offers and monthly best seller lists. There was a plethora of public libraries to choose from, all for free. There were advertisements everywhere for new releases and wherever you looked, someone would be reading something or another. 

This, unfortunately, is not the case in the Arab Sana'a and Amman in any case. I have seen about five bookstores in Amman, though honestly, at no time did I see someone buying a book. I can't say that I've seen anyone reading a book at a cafe while enjoying a coffee or while waiting for their food to arrive. I have not seen a single Kindle being sold in Amman (I haven't looked very hard, admittedly) nor any advertisements on TV for it.

A bit of research shows that Kindle does not support Arabic text. Readers can transfer Arabic pdfs to their Kindle and read them that way but this is restrictive and doesn't allow you to benefit from features such as the built-in dictionary. I found a website that has Arabic "e-books" for children, but all it contained were children's books that had been scanned onto a computer. Another article here shows that there are Arabic e-reader apps for some Apple products and some Android tablets. To me this indicates that people in the Middle East are more interested in gadgets than reading.

I don't know why Arabs are uninterested in reading. Could it be because people have no time to "waste" waiting for buses/tubes/trams etc? Do people just generally spend more time being social? I know it's not just about libraries and books. The internet is amazing, and education through that is also valuable. But I'm just not sure how many people go online and read something new - I know I'm guilty of not doing that often enough. 

The real problem is how can reading become an integral part of Arab life?

 ~While writing this post I fondly remembered books I've read through my life...Dr. Seuss, Charlie Brown, the Box Car Chikdren, Roald Dahl's stories, R. L. Stine & Christopher Pike. Danielle Steele (& a bunch of other romance writers), the classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird. And I randomly remembered that my favourite part in Disney's Beauty & the Beast was when the Beast unveiled the library he renovated for Belle. Oh how I dreamt of having a library like that! 


  1. I think it depends on how you define 'reading'. For example, educational books in Arabic do not operate in the same way and generally have a more waffling about really really relevant stuff (I base that comment on books about the Yemeni legal system). Therefore, the library where you can research are not as common in the Arabic language. In terms of novella, I think the way books are marketed really does not support reading. For example, you know in Western schools there is an approved reading list where you can really see what you like. For example, I loved The Outsider by Albert Camus, Saba you hated it. Now, if you were forced to read it and your academic future would depend on it, it would have a negative impact on your love of reading. Another point for example, freaking JK Rowling is a celebrity for example, can you name one Arabic writer that has some mass appeal that isn't dead.... Let alone a book that is heavily promoted (until of course that said writer just does shitty tv shows and controversial movies starring some egyptian actor loool) That said though, and fyi, Egypt has a library culture (and book store chains), I just do not think that reading is promoted well in the first place in the Middle East.

  2. Rayan, firstly, I'm so sorry I somehow managed to delete your comment! Can you please repost the YouTube video? I don't think the Arab world is a reader culture at all. Maybe we have large universities and we do have many educated intellectuals, plus young people who are becoming more opinionated and outspoken. This is all good but how about the majority of people? I know that in women's social events they don't talk about books. They occupy their time with gossip, politics and home life.

    And I agree with you, Arabic books are full of irrelevant information and waffling. Hardly a motivating factor.


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