Why you should care
The U.S. might want to take a page out of Lebanon’s book.
A lot of Westerners I meet are surprised to learn that Arabs aren’t all radicalized desert dwellers — as stereotypes might have them believe. And when it comes to reading, even Arabs perpetuate self-defeating myths, according to Jamal Bin Huwaireb, CEO of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation (MBRF). “Based on unsubstantiated statistics, it was previously believed that on average an Arab citizen reads six minutes, or a quarter of a page, per year,” he says. So MBRF “decided to put this libel at bay.” Teaming up with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the group helped produce the region’s first Arab Reading Index (ARI), published in December 2016.
And they found:
The average Arab reads 17 books a year — five more than the average American.
First, about the data. The ARI surveyed 148,000 respondents across 22 Arab nations at varying levels of development, so averages are heavily skewed. The Lebanese, for example, read on average 29 books a year, compared to four in Djibouti. A 2016 Pew Research Center (PRC) survey that analyzed the reading habits of 1,520 “representative” adult Americans found that they read 12 books a year — five fewer than the average Arab. College-educated Americans, however, read 17 books a year on average — the same number as the average Arab.
Of the 14 books Iraqis read each year, six are written in a language other than Arabic.
But how many Americans you know are capable of reading in more than one language? (According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, fewer than 10 percent of Americans speak, much less read, a second language.) In the Arab world, it’s common. Of the 14 books Iraqis read each year, six are written in a language other than Arabic. Half of the 13 books Syrians read are in a foreign language.
That said, Arab countries score poorly on international literacy assessments. In a recent study by Central Connecticut University, the U.S. ranked seventh and Qatar ranked 45th. But measuring literacy rates is difficult because “there is no agreed-upon definition of literacy,” explains Marcie Craig Post, executive director of the International Literacy Association. And being able to read is not the same as choosing to read. In 2015, the UAE ranked 49th on the PISA reading literacy scale compared to the U.S., which ranked 24th — even though the average Emirati reads 24 books to America’s 12.
Now the UAE wants even more Arabs to read. Last year, 3.5 million Arab students from 21 countries read 150 million books as part of the UAE’s annual Arab Reading Challenge. Huwaireb says MBRF has launched other pan-Arab initiatives also aimed at encouraging reading, including the Dubai Digital Library, which offers a “huge collection of Arabic books,” My Family Reads, a project that distributes books among families in the UAE and the Knowledge Chair, a set of bookshelves that serves as a mini-library and chair that is placed in various public areas.
In the end, it’s not about which country reads more. It’s about encouraging the act itself. And 65 percent of the survey’s respondents said reading makes them feel happy. If enriching the mind is also a joyful activity, well, that’s a win-win.