Arabs need to turn the page on poor reading habits

In our modern times, knowledge-seeking has been relegated as a low priority in intellectual and cognitive development, a luxury that is optional at best.

Many of us find it rather comforting to see book fairs as annual rituals to celebrate not only publishing, but also the human knowledge embodied in the experience of reading. If knowledge is power, then we should realise that reading is integral to our personal and community development.
At the many book fairs I have attended in this part of the world, including the recent Sharjah International Book Fair, I have always been impressed by the visitor turnouts. In fact, I get somewhat sentimental seeing the crowds' interest in books of this region.
But, as the experience of the past few years suggests, this apparent connection to the written word in the Arab world may be illusory. Statistics suggest that Europeans read an average of 35 books a year per individual, while one book a year is read for every 80 Arabs. In a region with high illiteracy and increasing digital alternatives, Arabs' disenchantment with reading could continue for decades to come.
To address this deficiency, we need to build a culture of reading that no longer sees it as a luxury, but as a key to personal and social empowerment.
Every time the issue is raised in this region, we see a great deal of finger pointing - at families, schools, colleges, cultural institutions and even governments. A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera hosted a conversation that alluded to state conspiracies to keep populations ill-informed to pre-empt opposition.
Critics also claim that new digital technologies discourage younger generations from reading by erecting a "pseudo-culture" that appeals to the senses rather than the intellect. In 2007, a Unesco report blamed the region's educational system for failing to motivate students to find fulfilment in reading.
From my standpoint as a person with a long career in higher education, poor reading practices among young people have never been more obvious. At the end of each semester, it is normal to see piles of textbooks lying at exam room entrances. For many students, their relationship with those textbooks (some of which are very expensive) stops the moment they sit for the exam. The knowledge in those books is no longer relevant.
During trips to Europe and North America, I used to notice the difference on the subway - many passengers immersed themselves in their books and newspapers, while my Arab colleagues were busy talking and looking around. The explanation my colleagues gave me? "We read at home and college. It's not appropriate to read in public places."
I find it intriguing that reading was the first sacred commandment from Allah to Prophet Mohammed - a command that was fully heeded throughout Arab-Islamic history and observed as a knowledge-seeking practice. Yet, in our modern times, this habit has been relegated as a low priority in intellectual and cognitive development, a luxury that is optional at best.
If we truly believe that reading is the first step in knowledge acquisition, then we need to give this issue its due attention. We should stop the finger-pointing game and realise that reading can be fostered in our societies only if we see it as a culture that needs to be fostered over a period of years.
Of course, there are some sincere projects in the making. During this year's Sharjah book fair, I learnt a lot from my involvement with Culture Without Borders, an initiative by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, to provide hundreds of families with libraries to encourage better reading habits.
The project is promising not only because it enables families to keep a stimulating collection of books easily at hand, but also because it promotes the idea that reading is a life-long experience that should continue beyond the confines of formal education.
Muhammad Ayish is a media consultant based in Sharjah