‘Arabs don’t read’: A myth made real by the internet?

Emerging trends show a growing interest in Arabic language publishing, both digitally and in print.
Sunday 21/01/2018
To read or not to read. Young citizens talk about politics as they read the newspaper at a cafe in central Tunis. (AFP)

An internet search for the phrase “Arabs don’t read” reveals a plethora of articles, particularly since 2003. It’s not particularly surprising that the notion has become popular. It’s a pithy statement, a declarative pronouncement that sounds irrefutable and plausible. It is attractive and marketable in its certainty and its ignorance.

It is, however, a profoundly dan­gerous statement. To say “Arabs don’t read” is symbolically violent towards a 422 million-strong people as well as towards Arabic-speaking ethnic groups in Western and other societies. It feeds an inferiority complex that makes Arabs feel they are not equipped to succeed in the knowledge economy and to be digital natives in the 21st century. Reading is very much linked to the concept of knowledge, intelligence and intel­lectual ability.

There are various theories as to what prompted the idea that Arabs don’t read, not least the suggestion that the Arab Thought Founda­tion’s Fourth Arab Report on Cul­tural Development was the source in 2011. The claim that “Arabs read six minutes a year on average’’ received considerable attention in the news and social media that year but the Arab Thought Foun­dation denied “six minutes” was a precise figure and said it was more a symbol of a larger issue.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was also cited but the UN body denied ownership of the statistic. In 2012, Al Akhbar pub­lished a telling story on the claims and counterclaims about Arabs reading just six minutes a year or approximately four words a day. It was headlined: “The Arab Reader and the Myth of Six Minutes.” As saying goes, a lie repeated often enough can become the truth or at least appear to be fact.

How to move from the “Arabs-don’t-read” myth to a digital informational society? A transfor­mational agenda needs research, which must consider nuanced realities. Only then can societal re­ality be leveraged against societal aims.

Has the Arab world defined its reading standards, the minimum it expects from little children, from older ones, from adolescents and from young adults? Are there ac­curate and accessible data on the reading habits of Arabic-speaking populations in the region and be­yond? Answers to these questions are important if a solution is to be found to the digital gap.

Emerging trends show a growing interest in Arabic language pub­lishing, both digitally and in print. Across the region, local players are championing Arabic publishing. Mawdoo3.com, which provides high-quality articles, is registering 186 million page views a month. Arabs are perusing Jamalon. com, the e-bookseller sometimes described as the Arab Amazon. It is growing its print-on-demand business.

Across the Atlantic, Western me­dia groups are entering the region with quality products in Arabic. Scientific American, National Geo­graphic and Vice offer Arabic text and content. These multimillion-dollar companies must have solid business reasons for investing in the Arab world. Their reasons probably challenge the false gener­alisation that “Arabs don’t read.”