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A scene from the promotional video for Laysh, which tries to communicate the thrill of reading. Courtesy Laysh
A scene from the promotional video for Laysh, which tries to communicate the thrill of reading. Courtesy Laysh

Laysh is speaking volumes about Arabs and reading

Arab teens are avid readers, and here's the proof.

“I just finished this last week and it changed my life,” a young woman in a hijab and yellow-framed glasses is saying into her smartphone, waving a book. “I couldn’t stop crying for a week.” It’s part of the promo video for “Laysh: to read or not to read”, a campaign launched by TEDxYouth@Doha and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) to get young adults talking about literature.

The initiative encourages teenagers in Qatar and elsewhere in the region to upload their own one to two minute videos about their relationship with reading, in either English or Arabic, to laysh.org. Submissions will be accepted until June 1, and negative responses are welcomed as well as positive ones, according to BQFP’s acting director of reading and writing, Lana Shamma. “I’m still waiting for someone to say why they don’t like reading,” she says with a laugh.

Most literacy campaigns, Shamma says, are aimed either at university students or young children. Laysh targets teenagers, a group that is often forgotten, although children and older adults are welcome to submit testimonials too.

“We wanted to prove that people actually were reading,” she says, referring to a discredited statistic that was circulated in newspapers a couple of years ago, which said that Arabs read for only six minutes a year. “We wanted to take a discussion about books out of school, out of the library and into the media.”

The majority of Arab teenagers certainly read more than that, but TV, smartphones, MP3 players, the internet and video games are increasingly competing with books for their time – and, many studies suggest, reducing their attention spans. “A lot of kids,” Shamma points out, “come home from school, sit down in front of the TV and zone out.”

A report commissioned by the Emirates Publishers Association last year said that young people in the UAE and the Gulf region are less keen on reading than those in China, India and South Korea, despite the Emirates’ high literacy rates. More than 30 per cent of Qatari children say they don’t have time to read, according to Qatar’s Childhood Cultural Centre.

The good news is that Young Adult is a booming category of English-language fiction, with sales jumping almost 150 per cent between 2006 and 2012, due in part to blockbuster sagas such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. Estimates suggest that up to half of such books are bought by adults, but this still leaves a lot of teenagers who are discovering an appetite for books.

The Laysh team has already received enquiries from readers in Kuwait and the UAE, and dozens of submissions are already available to watch at youtube.com/layshqatar. While contributors are invited to express themselves however they like – songs, animations, illustrations and live readings are encouraged – many are simple, straight-to-webcam monologues.

“The first submission was uploaded at 3.41am,” Shamma says, “and [the contributor] talked about being lonely and feeling as though the characters in his favourite books were his friends. It was very moving. Another woman just said: ‘I love romance; I want it in my life.’”

Visit www.laysh.org for more information

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