Iraqi youth initiatives signal active role of civil society
Baghdad - We Listen in Order to Read and Dar Dor are educational initiatives undertaken by three Iraqi women for the benefit of blind people and other students, indicating a growing active civil society in a country where public, social and educational services have been wrecked by years of war and unrest.
Hoda al-Janabi, Sarah Jalal and Zeinab Mehdy are young professionals who share a passion for reading and felt the need to step in where the government has been unable to deliver. Janabi, 26, concentrated on facilitating access to poetry and bestsellers to the blind. Jalal and Mehdy, also in their mid- 20s, sought to assist students with difficulties in regular studies.
“The idea of recording my voice while reciting poems and recounting books in both Arabic and English came to me by coincidence,” Janabi said of We Listen in Order to Read. “Being passionate about books and reading, which I feel it is a must for everyone regardless of their condition, I could not but feel sad thinking how much people who have lost their eyesight are missing out on good literature and stories.
“Seeing a blind man crossing the street while I was on my way to the doctor in Shatt Hula (south of Baghdad) was the trigger, especially that in Iraq Braille books are hardly available. I wanted to give them access to literature that they know about but do not have a chance to read or listen to.”
The medical school student was further encouraged in her endeavour by the positive response she received. “Many asked me to record specific bestsellers. Some students requested tapes of English-language lectures, which I did with the help of my mother,” she said.
Janabi said she has recorded 11 bestsellers and several famous Arabic poems and reflections but was unable to win financial support from the government or private sources.
She said, though, she was not discouraged. “I am planning with a friend of mine to set up a website in English and Arabic from which all the recordings could be downloaded. I hope this will encourage others to contribute in disseminating the culture of audio readings for those who need it,” she said.
Financial constraints kept Janabi from participating in last year’s TEDxBaghdad conference, a global platform for ideas worth spreading.
TEDxBaghdad President Yehya Abdali pointed out that there is a high demand for conference participation, especially among young Iraqis, making it difficult to find room for all.
“Up to 98% of participants are young Iraqis longing to expose their ideas and inventions through our yearly platform. We have received some 800 applications last year and the number is constantly increasing,” Abdali said.
“We are trying as much as possible to spread and promote those ideas and creations in a progressive and scientific way making them accessible to the West for them to follow up and select what they think is the best.”
“The chapter’s role is limited to assisting participants in the promotion and dissemination of their ideas. As for the financial support, it is upon every participant to secure depending on how serious he or she is in developing their work in order to attract international attention and interest,” he added.
Dar Dor, an initiative put together by Jalal, a communication engineer, and Mehdy, a technologist, is as ambitious as Janabi’s. The women, who are regular visitors to al-Mutanabi Street, Baghdad’s cultural hub, set up a website and created an application to help students with learning difficulties.
“The idea came after we had several encounters with parents seeking school books on al-Mutanabi Street to reinforce the learning capacities of their children. We did an investigation and found out that the majority have been complaining about the high cost of private tutoring in addition to the prices of regular school books that constitute a real burden on their limited budget,” Jalal said.
The curricula and classes can easily be downloaded. To access them, users need to buy a chip that costs about $7, a negligible amount compared to private teachers’ fees that can be more than $430 per subject.
Mehdy noted that the pair was pleasantly surprised by the private teachers’ positive reception of the project. “Many (teachers) have offered to interact with the students through a special window on the website,” she said.
The project currently covers curricula of secondary classes but the aim is to include classes in all grades. “We lacked sufficient financial and human resources to expand the project which has cost us $20,000 so far. We did not have enough means to cover all curricula and had to limit ourselves to the secondary classes,” Mehdy said.