How surprised can one be when a Saudi high school student, when asked about the kind of books that he has at home, answers “some big, some small!”
This question was put to 60 high school students, half of whom admit that they do not have a collection of books at home, with only 6 understanding the meaning of “reading for pleasure!" Before delving into the justifications given by the young Saudi students for lack of reading, it has to be noted that this deficiency is found in all Arab societies.
According to the latest statistics by UNESCO, on average, the individual Arab citizen spends no more than six minutes reading for pleasure per year! Moreover, the UNDP’s Arab Development Report for 2003 revealed that every year, Spain alone translates more books than the Arab World in its entirety. Not only was the quantity of reading material on the decline but so was the quality, the report added.
To return to the young Saudi students, one of the sixty participants, a boy called Nasser, said, “There is no time for reading for pleasure given all the homework we are assigned which takes up approximately two hours of our time every day. I want to have a social life as well. I do not want to be confined to my house!”
His colleague, Ammar asked, “What is the point of additional reading? We learn all we need to in school.” The majority of his fellow classmates supported his attitude.
Of the sixty students, no one had heard of Turki Al Hamad, and no one had attempted to search for the controversial novel, “Banat Al Riyadh,” (Daughters of Riyadh) by Rajaa Al Sanea. However, all of them knew mainstream poets who frequently feature in popular Saudi magazines. Some defined these poets as their favorite “writers.”
I do not believe it is necessary to illustrate the essential value of reading and the important role educational institutions, family, cultural and literary clubs, and civil organizations play in establishing and supporting reading for pleasure. Advertisement campaigns for book fairs should be stronger. It is unbelievable that some fairs take place in cities where residents have not heard about them!
At this point, I feel it is important to retell two indicative stories and relate to the reader an equally analytical decision by the Ministry of Education from two years ago.
The first incident took place last year during a university lecture. Our professor said the student who knew whether the library door opened to the right or to the left would be rewarded. My colleague and I decided that one of us would answer left and the other right. To our surprise, the lecturer informed us the library had been shut for over a year!
The second story, took place three years ago at a high school where the Arabic language teacher asked students to write poetry. One of the classmates borrowed a verse from the famous poet, Jibran Khalil Jibran. The teacher praised him and asked him to recite what he had written to the class. He encouraged him to read more in order to develop his talent! How could an Arabic language teacher not recognize the words of Jibran? The answer might be in the Ministry of Education”s decision, two years ago, to withdraw fourteen books from the school library at once. The decision was based on the pretense that some books contained pictures that should have been covered, while others contained material that should have been censored.