Push to get public hooked on reading

The way to increase reading in the country is to start with the children concerned experts say. Too few turn to books for enjoyment despite huge rise in literacy

The UAE has a literacy rate among citizens of more than 90 per cent - but few read for pleasure. Too often, books are read only for exams.
Several years ago, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority (TCA) began a translation project called Kalima to promote reading.
Under the programme, books from other languages would be translated into Arabic, to make them more accessible to the local population.
Fully supported by the Government and book lovers, Kalima has translated 700 books since it launched in 2007.
Historically, Arab culture relied heavily on oral storytelling, largely due to illiteracy. But storytelling evolved into writing, and scholars held discussions to share information and knowledge.
"Today, with the widespread of education and the booming of the print industry, we would expect more people getting into reading habits, but this did not happen," said Mohammed Aboelenein, associate professor of sociology at UAE University (UAEU).
Instead of passing stories along from one generation to another, children are left to television and the internet for entertainment.
Noura Al Khoori, a mother of three who writes children's storybooks, said that in Emirati culture, some people equate reading with studying and do not read in their leisure time.
"When children are used to seeing books as part of their home furniture at an early age, it helps them get attached to reading," Mrs Al Khoori said.
Alia Yunis is an American author and an assistant professor at Zayed University. Her recent book, The Night Counter, is about oral storytelling in the modern world.
Prof Yunis attributed reading issues in the Emirates to the lack of available books in Arabic. But, she stressed, reading "is not an Arab issue, it a worldwide concern".
Shaikha Al Muhairi, manager of library services at the National Library in Abu Dhabi, agreed.
"We hear concerns from the community about the lack of readership. But we do not get to see public talks about the latest books because they are only promoted in traditional media," she said.
She also pinpointed the lack of book reviewers and specialists in the country who might be better suited to help the public get acquainted with new books.
"Another issue is that readers do not share their reading experience with non-readers," she said.
Ms Al Muhairi believes it is the obligation of the nation to encourage each other to read more. "We need to find different ways to help people get in contact with books."
Fathima Al Kendi, a third grader at Khalifa City A school, is part of the new generation. She said she has been reading books since she was three years old.
"I enjoy reading stories because it is nice to read," Fathima said.
Ibthisam Thoban, 23, an education graduate, is caught in the middle. She carries a book wherever she goes, but said she feels uncomfortable reading in public places.
"In the Japanese culture, it is very common to see people reading in public places," she said. "However, in our culture it is not common."
Sarah Al Bakeri, 18, a law student at UAEU, said she enjoyed reading about psychology, politics and law.
"Back in school, we were not encouraged to read much," she said. "Technology has replaced books and many people prefer technology over reading books."
She said she started reading after watching intriguing documentaries on YouTube and wanting more information.
"I personally make sure that not a single week passes by without me reading a few pages," she said.
But some young people do not have the attention span for books. Aliya Al Hameli, 19, a general studies student at Zayed University, has only read the Quran.
"I do not like books because they do not talk," she said. "Most of my friends read, and I respect them, but I am not intrigued to grab a book and read. I have yet to find a book that suits me."
Ms Al Muhairi said that, just as Oprah Winfrey started a trend of book clubs and reading in the US, Arab celebrities could do the same.
"Arab celebrities never talk about books," she said. "They are popular figures and people listen to them. If they take some initiatives in this regard, it would boost the spirit in some people."