A Blog from Amman, Jordan, Online Since 2004.

Reading in the Arab World

Yahoo Maktoob recently released some research on reading habits in the Arab world.

The survey polled 3,503 online folks, which means that it should definitely be taken with several grains of salt. Internet penetration in the Arab world does not go beyond 35%, and the fact that the poll takers are online already says a lot about them.

Here are the findings, my observations in brackets:

1. A quarter of people in the Arab world hardly ever or never read books for personal enjoyment (I would think that this figure is much higher, closer to 50%)

2. People in Jordan, Lebanon and Algeria read the least, with more than 30 percent of respondents in these countries stating that they hardly ever or never read (how embarrassing for Jordan!)

3. The countries that read the most: Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco, followed Iraq and the United Arab Emirates

4. Historical fiction is the most popular genre of literature in the Arab world with 14 percent of the overall vote, followed by political with 12 percent (this is a very big WTF, HISTORICAL FICTION? SERIOUSLY?)

The weirdest part of the survey though was the list of most popular authors, ranked in order of popularity:

1. Naguib Mahfouz (Egyptian)

2. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (Egyptian)

3. Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Algerian)

4. Tayeb Salih (Sudanese)

5. Edward Said (Palestinian-American)

6. Alaa El Aswany (Egyptian)

7. Nawal Sa’adawi (Egyptian)

8. Abdul Rahman Munif (Saudi Arabia)

9. Youssef Zidan (Egyptian)

10. Amin Maalouf (Lebanese)

There lies our problem, and the dismal numbers of readers.

Edward Said? Heikal? Naguib Mahfouz? Nawal Sa’adawi? SERIOUSLY?

These authors don’t exactly write the most enjoyable books. Don’t get me wrong, they’re most definitely amazing authors, but you can’t really encourage kids to read by handing them a copy of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”. I have been a bookworm my entire life, and it took me years and many re-readings to even begin understanding his work. I’m still suffering with Naguib Mahfouz.

The best selling titles in Arabic are intellectualist, pushing away the younger generations from reading. Reading, after all, is all about enjoyment. It is only after you know how to enjoy the act of reading with truly entertaining books that you will start enjoying reading heavier content a la Edward Said.

We need more Arabic pulp fiction. We need more best sellers that have nothing to do with politics, history, and religion. We need mysteries like Nancy Drew. We need romances like Sydney Sheldon. We need thrillers like Stephen King.

The act of reading isn’t just about learning. It is also about enjoyment. Until we have a wide array of titles that would suit the common taste, those book stats won’t be getting high.

Any budding authors out there?


And… ArabNet 2011


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  1. adem

    And here is a view from a saudi kid on arabic books

  2. adem

    And here is a view from a saudi kid on arabic books

  3. Yes, reading should be a way of life. Couldn’t live without books, I agree with what you say about the choices in the list. I’ve just discovered Amin Maalouf, thanks to a tweet by a Jordanian minister who encouraged me to read him. I find his books brilliant. But I still don’t have the courage to get into Mahfouz… Reading should start at home, at a very young age and be encouraged in school. It is a long process… and then we might get more varied writers :-)

  4. Adem, thanks for the link.

    Mich, I really enjoy Amin Ma’alouf. I think he might be the only author on that list who is truly entertaining to read.

  5. Omar

    Do you want to bet that none of those who named Najib Mahfouz or Edward Said have ever read any book of theirs?

  6. “2. People in Jordan, Lebanon and Algeria read the least, with more than 30 percent of respondents in these countries stating that they hardly ever or never read (how embarrassing for Jordan!) ”

    How embarrassing for Jordan? How embarrassing for ME!!! I’m half Lebanese & half Jordanian.. I should start reading more… someone needs to start lifting that percentage!!

  7. Omar, you are probably correct :)

    Yousif, yalla, start :P

  8. An interesting post, Roba. Having spent most of the past decade in the Emirates I am not unaware of the reading deficit in the region. And I find it quite extraordinary that there are few writers working in Arabic whose books can be called ‘entertainment’. There are, after all, competent storytellers plying their craft as scriptwriters for television series which are constantly improving in quality.

    I don’t speak Arabic, unfortunately. But I wonder if there is a cultural inhibition about using the Arabic language in written form, given the immediate association of ‘a book’ with Holy Scripture. Could the language seem to some to be too noble to be used for anything as profane and ephemeral as words-on-paper entertainment?

  9. Ohoud

    I do agree with you Roba to some extent. I remember as a kid, the Arabic fiction books that my dad bought us were all translated ones and I did enjoy them tremendously…

    But you also have to keep in mind the culture of our world and how that affects the whole genre of literature. There has been (and still going on) so much upheaval in our region. It is a natural reaction that it is thus reflected in our writings.

    I don’t think that anyone would think about pollution and how the world will be in 2050 with homes on mars and living with aliens while there are homes being destroyed and people being killed.

    The priority thus to anyone with literary talent would be to write about that…it is just natural.

    Our fictional imagination is also way different than that of the west. We have the concept of “al Ghoul” or “Al bo’ bo'”, which you can find in “الخراريف الفلسطينية which is a collective book of oral fiction told by our ancestors. It is extremely entertaining and is even written in the Palestinian dialect. As a kid, I was looking forward to the end of each day so my father would read me my bed time story that I would pick from that book!

    I think when we have better times; people will have the peace of mind and the will to write about something more fun. But at this stage we as Arabs are just too emotionally led by what has happened and still happening to want to write about anything else…

  10. Ohoud, that’s a fantastic comment. You are right of course, it’s much more complicated than just that :) Though I daresay that looking at our movies, television shows, and reality series, we definitely do have the imagination to write things beyond politics and problems. But they may turn out to be as fake.
    Thank you for your 2 cents.

  11. So true. nice article.

  12. Sami

    “Do you want to bet that none of those who named Najib Mahfouz or Edward Said have ever read any book of theirs?”

    I will go even beyond that and bet anyone that 99% of those surveyed won’t be able to name one book for Edward Said or Najib Mahfouz. They just said so because they hear about them on Aljazeera from Azmi Bishara and the likes.

  13. Chris

    Ohoud’s comment in quite nice. Yes, sign of the times. The Yacoubian Building struck a nerve for a reason… And reading books is nice. I still follow world events closely, but I’m on a bit of a break, reading a few after not doing so for a couple months. Relaxing. I mainly read just plain historical. And I enjoy ’em. Seriously. But whatever floats your boat is fine by me :) Though creepy, mysterious, torrid tales are indeed enjoyable. And I would love to read some more pulpy Arabic fiction but not many titles to choose from. I guess I’ll just have to write one myself. I don’t know, maybe: An earthquake hits Jordan and knocks off that urn on top of Petra’s Treasury that people used to shoot at. But the legend is wrong, it’s not full of earthly treasures… it’s full of gorgeous vampire genies! Then they congregate in Amman, causing beautiful mayhem. Cha-ching!$!

  14. Call me an elitist… but I’d rather Arabs don’t read than read pulp. I personally enjoy reading, but after discovering that I won’t go blind if I watch TV too much, and the invention of the Internet and the modern gaming console, I found many more engaging ways to have fun.

    If I can go back in time I’d exchange all of my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys reading years with internet time, it can be much more fun and engaging if you do it right, but ultimately they’re all valid ways to have fun. I still advocate reading of course, it improves the language, and engages the intellect, so actually kinda like the choices of the Arab readers, and I just wish more people will start reading the same stuff, and more people start writing great novels. (speaking in third person because ashamedly, I did not read for any of these authors (yet)) =/

    We also need an Arab Roald Dahl, for the sake of the kids (and a John Grisham won’t hurt as well).

  15. wail

    اتركي عنك مكتوب و إحصائته لأنه مين بتتوقعي يشارك في هيك إحصاء و احد عمره 15 سنة
    و على في كتب عربية وقصص رومنسية و خيال علمي و غيره بس لازم تطلعي أكثر و يمكن تروحي مصر لأنه مكتبات زي العالم و الناس أصلاً ما عنا في الاردن

  16. wail

    اتركي عنك مكتوب و إحصائته لأنه مين بتتوقعي يشارك في هيك إحصاء و احد عمره 15 سنة
    و على في كتب عربية وقصص رومنسية و خيال علمي و غيره بس لازم تطلعي أكثر و يمكن تروحي مصر لأنه مكتبات زي العالم و الناس أصلاً ما عنا في الاردن

  17. أختلف معك في الرأي ، نحن يجب أن ننغمس ونسبح ونغوض في السياسة ، السياسة هي البحت عن الوجود وفن الحياة، كل للشعوب يجب أن تأكل وتشرب سياسة ليلا نهاراً، ليس لنا خيار

  18. FaketheFun

    Sir, yes sir! Gotta start working on my pulp writing again…as much as I enjoyed doing so as a teenager. Problem is my Arabic ain’t that strong to be honest. Reading’s fine – but writing? Hmm…so let me start writing as a mad man in Arabic before I going for it. Would love to create the first Arabic Bukowski?!

    Also, I would suggest more graphic novels too!

  19. Mireille

    @ Roba, great posting! I agree, it really is a shame and a pity that Arabs have not discovered the joy of reading for fun.
    I was wondering why you have such a low opinion of Historical Fiction? I love Historical Fiction because it is educational and entertaining at the same time. Great contemporary authors like Isabell Allende and Carlos Ruiz Zafon write wonderful Historical Fiction and so do some of the Arabic authors on your top 10 list, who do not all write ‘ intellectual’ books! Amin Maalouf and Alla El Aswany are two of my favourite authors. They write wonderful stories that are beautifully written in simple flowing language. ( Historical Fiction as well)
    @ Malcolm, great point! It really made me think. I think you are right in saying that the written word is taken very seriously in the Arabic culture and it might very possibly be due to the association with the whole idea of ‘Holy scripture’.

    As a teacher at a primary school here in Amman, I notice that parents regard books primarily as a source of knowledge. They want textbooks to study from and lessons to memorize rather than novels to enjoy and expand their children’s language. I also think that the lack of interest in reading can be linked to the fact that children in this part of the world are pushed to learn how to read at a very early age. It becomes a frusterating experience for many and is presented to them as a duty , a school plight, linked to exams and stress. Something you want nothing to do with in your spare time and something to break free from as an adult.
    Anyway, there is lots to say about this issue and all the comments above explain a part of the problem.

  20. Nathalie

    I’ve read “Bayn al-Qasrayn” by Naguib Mahfuz, the first part of the Cairo Trilogy in a French translation and really appreciated the storyline. I consider reading the next two parts. It would be interesting to write a follow up to these series, a fourth volume set in the 21st century and telling the story of the great grandchildren of the Trilogy’s main protagonist. In the first book one of the main character’s sons dies while protesting against the British rule over Misr. The fourth volume could include
    a similar story about the recent revolution and the events of the Tahrir square.

  21. Mireille الشعب مش قادر يشتري الخبز ما بالك الكتب بكفي أستشراق عنصري، الشعوب يجب أن تسحق كل الانظمة الزائفة حتي يتسنى لنا شق طريقنا

  22. Hi Roba,

    It wasn’t always like this. Your parent’s generation – which is probably my generation – read a lot, and we did not complain of lack of pulp fiction (alongside the heavier diet of both Arab writers and foreign writers translated into Arabic).

    When I was a young kid, I grew up on Riwayat Al Jeib; small paperbacks of awefully badly translated Alexander Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Balzac and Jules Verne. Then came Adham Sabri and his impossible missions :-) Poetry was fashionable: Ahmed Fouad Nagm and Amal Dongol, Nazar Gabbani and others who were not exactly the staple your teachers wanted you to read.

    So what happened? I have been away many years now.. But when I do occassionaly go back to Cairo, I find the quality of printed matter deteriorating.

    Maybe it is time to collect all our grandmother’s stories and put them into illustrated print? What is happening with comics in the Middle East? Comincs were my introduction into the love of words. I still read them (now they do politics and philosophy as comics in the West).

    Stay well!

  23. Ali

    I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago and I’m glad I did. I’m a Jordanian currently going to the states for college and through my college experience, I’ve noticed the same thing. People in Jordan didn’t really read for pleasure at all. I know there are some exceptions but the majority of people simply don’t, and that included me as well.

    Since moving here I’ve been reading much more and I’ve noticed the pleasures and the importance of reading. One thing I’m not proud of is the way I’ve been neglecting to read my own language. I decided earlier this semester that I would try and read more Arabic and I’ve only been doing so on online newspapers and websites like I’m mostly trying to get my hands on some more politically progressive pieces of writing since I myself share that mindset.

    I feel like it’s time to invest in some Arabic books so I can retain my Arabic and maybe even attempt to write a few articles to improve my writing.
    Any suggestions for someone who hasn’t really read much Arabic for the past three years? I just need specific names of books that you feel keep the reader engaged and interested.

  24. Aseel

    UAE?? and Bahrain?? seriously?? do you know the percentage of the imported population in these two countries as opposed to the local population.. its not that I have anything against them..

    well, my “humble” personal opinion, this study is biased.. Why? well, not that I’m Jordanian and want to defend my country, but Jordan has proven to be the highest educated population in the Arab world. I know education does not mean high intellect.. but most of readers and intellectuals happen to be well educated as well. ma 3aleena… and I do agree with you on the last paragraph

  25. what are someinteresting facts abount egypt writing kid facts i am not good at understanding bid word or meanings

  26. sam

    Dear Roba,
    I wonder what kind of “bookworm my entire life” struggle with Edward Said and N. Mahfouz…maybe you should stick to magazines and avoid literature without pictures.

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