The news that the illiteracy rate in the UAE has dropped to less than 1 per cent is clear cause for celebration. Reducing the rate of illiteracy among adults is one of the goals of the Dakar Conference, an aim for all countries around the world by next year.
Certainly, the raising of the literacy rate to the highest international standards brings to an end one part of the literacy challenge. The next is to create a truly literate society.
What does that mean? Literacy is a minimum standard that all nationals must reach. Many of the benefits of the UAE, such as jobs in the public and private sectors, will be out of reach to those who aren’t literate. But there are other challenges, chief among them is making sure as many people as possible are not just literate in Arabic, but functionally literate too – that they are able to understand and read the language fluently to as high a standard as possible. (One could also add that being fluent in English, now very much the international language, would be of immense benefit to the country.)
Beyond that, a truly literate society would be one that valued the written word in all its forms. Muslims are especially proud that the first word of the Quran revealed to the Prophet Mohammed was “Read”. Arabs have historically taken that injunction to heart, building libraries, writing poetry and memorising the written word.
The challenge now is to entrench that love in society at large. This is hardly a problem limited to the Arab world, but the Arabic language does suffer unique problems, mainly because it is often perceived as an excessively formal language. In that regard, awards such as the Emirates Novel Award and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, won last year by the Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi, help by making great Arabic literature accessible and widely known.
The challenge is also to make the written word appealing to a new generation, one endlessly distracted by films, television and video games. A great library would be a start – a place that would convey to young people something of the grandeur of literature, while also being accessible. In that way, young Arabs, in the UAE, in the Gulf and elsewhere, could go beyond just understanding their own language, and create literature that takes it to new heights.