Exciting times for bookworms in the UAE as the government tackles the Arab reading crisis
Hot on the heels of those clever Smart Palms I blogged about last year (offering free wi-fi and charging points), there’s a new initiative coming to Dubai’s beaches which book lovers are going to love.
The first set of library kiosks are being installed at Kite Beach in Umm Suqueim and Al Mamzar Beach, so sun-seekers can borrow books to read while relaxing. On leaving the beach, you return your book, or you can take a stroll along the sand and hand it back in at any of the other seaside library units.
What a great idea! It’s all part of the 2016 Year of Reading in the UAE – a subject close to my heart as I attempt (and often fail!) to instill a love of reading in my own boys. Each night, after tackling Son2’s Oxford Reading Tree books, I bring out the Kindle and present it to Son1 with a wry smile. I then set the stop watch on my phone: 15 minutes, “That’s ALL! … Right, Go…” I pick books I really think he’ll like, but still he’s reluctant, putting on a scowly face and stopping the moment the alarm rings.
The annual average reading rate for an Arab child is six minutes
Anyway… I will persevere. But it seems my problem is part of a wider, regional trend that’s referred to as “the reading crisis in the Arab world”. My sons are your typical expat kids, but among their Arab compatriots, reading levels are even lower.
The average reading time for an Arab child is six minutes a year, compared with 12,000 minutes for children in the West. To put this in perspective, for every six minutes spent reading by an Arab child, a child of similar age in the West will have been reading for 200 hours.
Last night, at a talk I attended about the future of publishing in the UAE, I heard why this crisis is so severe. Not only is there a lack of diversity in Arabic children’s books, but several studies of UAE readers have found that a national culture of reading for pleasure is still in its early stages. Reading is generally viewed as a duty, with many UAE youth finding it difficult or boring. “The bigger focus in this region has been on oral story telling and poetry,” said Isobel Abulhoul, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Several moves are afoot in the UAE to remedy the situation – such as the introduction of mobile libraries, Sharjah’s library-for-every-home scheme (delivering one million books to families in the emirate); and the Arab Reading Challenge, with AED11m ($3m) in cash prizes. (As someone who’s paid my own kids to read in the past, I can’t comment!).
Julie Till, head of business development at Oxford University Press, also pointed out that the much-loved Oxford Reading Tree books are set to be introduced in Arabic with original content. “We’re looking at things like paper quality, fonts – how to make children want to read the books,” said Julie. “It’s a great step, and I believe we’re at a tipping point in Arabic publishing.”
Changing the mindset of a whole society won’t happen overnight, warns Isobel, but she’s optimistic, and thankful that all the years she’s spent talking about the importance of literacy, reading and writing have been validated with such enthusiasm. “The government has taken a huge leap,” she says, “with the 2016 year of reading and initiatives at the highest levels to ensure the future generation is literate.”
So, watch out kiddos – your 15 minutes-a-night isn’t about to stop any time soon! And readers, look out for the solar-powered library kiosks the next time you’re on Kite or Al Mamzar beaches. There’s going to be titles in English and Arabic, as well as a selection of children’s books, offering bookworms “a cheerful read”. While you’ve got the sand between your toes and the waves crashing in your ears, just be careful not to get the pages covered in suntan lotion and ice cream!