As an Arabic-speaking mother of three, Abir Ballan was eager that her children be familiar with their mother tongue. Yet when the 35-year-old public health worker scoured libraries and bookshops in search of entertaining children's books in Arabic for her oldest son, Zein, then seven, she came up against an unexpected stumbling block: although plenty of translations of adult English literature filled the shelves, there was very little in the way of original, engaging fiction for young inquiring minds.
Undeterred, Ballan, who is originally from Beirut but lives in Dubai, set about writing a children's book herself, turning the "crazy stories I used to tell my children to make them laugh" into lively printed form.
Today she has six hugely popular picture books in print, including Fie al Ittihad al Quwa (United We Stand), which tells the story of National Day in the Emirates through a child's eyes, and Ahlum An Ankoun (I Wish I Were).
But while her success story has inspired other writers and created a fan base of youngsters hungry for more creative fiction in their mother tongue, the obstacles she was forced to overcome represent just a fraction of a widespread problem: why are so few people reading Arabic books?
The scale of the problem was spelt out in a recent survey on reading habits in the Middle East. Commissioned to mark World Book Day last month, it produced depressing results for any Arab writer or publisher: only one in five read on a regular basis and among those under 25 - nearly 65 per cent of the 3,667 questioned by Yahoo! Maktoob Research - about one in three seldom or never read a book for pleasure.
Broken down by country, the results make equally uncomfortable reading. In an Arab League table of readers by nation, the UAE comes fifth behind Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq. In the Emirates, just 22 per cent of people regard themselves as regular readers. Most of those were well into their 40s and older.
Behind the figures is a sense that Arabic, at least in written form, is in serious trouble. The causes are complex and much debated. A diaspora, particularly among young educated professionals, means many young Arabs educated and living abroad are more comfortable writing in English.
A general lack of educational opportunities, particularly among poorer Arabs, is also to blame. Research for the Arab League estimates that about 100 million people - almost one in three - struggle to read and write. A recent Unesco report found that in the UAE, one in 10 people is illiterate.
Then there is something more intangible but equally damaging: a culture based on globalisation that is increasingly dominated by foreign-language products. Films, magazines, TV programmes, the printed word - everything that is culturally shiny and enticing to young minds. Among young Emiratis, the most popular section at the Book World superstore in Dubai Mall is English translations of Japanese manga comics.
One result is that, as Ballan found, there are simply not enough books being published in Arabic, particular for children and teenagers. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. The market is not big enough to make it worthwhile, so there are not enough people writing.
"The quality of Arabic books is not of the standard of English books, which are nicely illustrated and cater to children's emotional needs," she says.
"Arab culture does not promote reading. I do not think parents see the importance of reading to their children in Arabic unless they are learning the alphabet. They do not see that books need to be read for fun, too."
Without anyone at home or school opening up to them the large and creative world of Arabic books, children equate literature in their own language with dull lessons and become less likely to pick up a book of their own accord, she adds.
"If you only use books in the classroom, you are not learning about the joy of reading. Getting children to laugh and be entertained is just as important as learning grammar."
There are moves to reverse this trend. As Mohammed Achaari and Raja Alem went on stage at a glittering ceremony in Abu Dhabi to jointly receive this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi, there were hopes that their books would soon be on the shelves of bookshops from London to New York.
Popularly called the Arabic Booker after the famous British literary prize on which is it based, IPAF awards the successful author not just a substantial Dh220,000 cheque (the five runners-up get Dh36,700 each) but the promise that the winning work will be translated into English.
Sponsored by the Emirates Foundation for Philosophy, the Arabic Booker is a conscious attempt to stimulate interest in Arab writers in the rest of the world at a time when they need the help - and when 80 per cent of books printed in Arabic are translations.
We asked a series of people - educators, professors, librarians, publishers and authors - to define the problem and offer solutions. The prospects are not entirely bleak. In the UAE, a number of initiatives are under way to boost the popularity of written Arabic, including public libraries and better teaching materials in school.
The Arabic Booker may represent the most high-profile stimulus for Arab writers. At the other end, Kitab, which runs Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, would like parents to simply sit down with their children and read them a story. If the problem is defined by the young, the solution also begins with them.
Educators and academics
Researching methods of teaching the mother tongue in schools, Mohammed Iqbal, an Arabic professor at Ajman University, found much of the pedagogy outdated and uninspiring. Worse still, many of those joining the teaching ranks had failed in their first-choice careers and saw working in schools as a fallback position.
"How do we expect to have good teachers when students with the worst grades join the colleges of education? The majority of them have no passion for teaching or education," he says.
Fawzi al Akk, an inspector for Sharjah Educational Zone, thinks blame is unfairly apportioned on schools and the curriculum and says teachers are battling the problem of widely varying dialects and the influence of TV shows, which means many children never have the opportunity to hear classical Arabic in its pure form.
"Before, the media used to play an important role in teaching the masses as many programmes were broadcast in classical Arabic. Nowadays the media is moving away from that practice and a lot of programmes, even children's shows, are being produced in local dialects. The problem is that these dialects are being heavily influenced by foreign languages and are moving further away from the classical language," he says.
Although some agree that more exposure to classical Arabic through popular media would be beneficial, most Arabs are united in believing that the growing influence of English-language western media has led to the undermining of Arabic.
Fatima Ahmed, an Arabic teacher, says: "All the new cool technologies and latest fads come to them in foreign languages, so how do we expect them to value their language and have pride in it?"
Noura Farouq, a fellow teacher, says she has seen a decline in appreciation of Arabic in her 20-year career. "Students do not see the importance of learning their mother tongue. Their parents put a lot of emphasis on English as they think it will further their careers, so they tend to develop an indifferent attitude towards Arabic."
That perception is reflected among university students. One, Nabila Ahmed, explains: "We study in English in college and university and hardly ever use Arabic. It has become irrelevant to most of us."
It is a theme close to the heart of Nujoom Alghanem, one of the UAE's leading poets. She insisted her three daughters spoke Arabic at home when they were growing up and believes there has been a "marginalisation of Arabic".
"There is no good establishment promoting the Arabic language," she says. "What good is it learning a second language if you have not mastered your first?
"Here we struggle with the curriculum and the methodology, but in Europe and America, they use presentations, storytelling and practical activities when teaching to engage children."
Rote memorisation and copying are no way to teach a language, she says. "My daughters all complained about the way they were taught Arabic."
Most private schools conduct lessons in English because they have adopted a British or US curriculum. This means the only times Arab children are exposed to Arabic is during language lessons and Islamic studies.
Alghanem says some children are more fluent in English than in their native language. "There are even Arab children taking classes in Arabic as a foreign language," she says.
Writers and publishers
According to Isobel Abulhoul, director of Magrudy's book chain and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, the decline in reading is not unique to the Arab world.
"In studies in England, they noticed children are less literate than they used to be," she says. "The way children access information is more instant."
An appreciation for reading starts from an early age with a bedtime story, something rare in Arab culture.
"People here are fantastic storytellers, but we still need a written culture," Ms Abulhoul says. "A lot of the habits which make someone a reader come from the home. It is the association of pleasurable time, being in a warm and loving environment on your mother's knee: there is nothing to beat it, but I do not think it happens enough anywhere.
"Parents no longer have the time to read to their children at bedtime. That is sending out a message to children saying it is not important. For me, it is about educating parents.
"Public libraries are critical to that, as are year-round events."
Ballan says that in her book readings in schools, she encourages children to interact and peppers classical Arabic with regional dialects to help them understand the text. "By making literature more accessible, they might start to read more."
Jamal al Shehhi, the founder of Kuttab, an Arabic publishing house in Sharjah, finds the problem even more deeply rooted. "The perception among many, even if they do not voice it, is that Arabic is a language connected to backwardness and, in order to be modern, we have to speak and use western languages. Arabic is a beautiful language, but you cannot blame Arabs for not reading as there are not many good Arabic books around that are interesting and encourage a love for reading."
He said most parents do not take their children to libraries and many do not even bother to buy books for them. "How do we expect to be a literate society when we have not encouraged a love of reading?"
Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropology professor at Zayed University, argues that some translation projects have been ill-advised: "The Arabic-language publishing industry has really lagged behind the times, publishing old material or translating odd selections." She cited the Pippi Longstocking series of Swedish children's stories chosen by Kalima, the non-profit book translation organisation funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
Public access to books
It is three years since Al Mankhool Children's Library in the heart of Dubai was completed, but the doors remain locked.Inside, the walls are painted in bright shades of purple and yellow while miniature chairs are parked expectantly at little tables.It has the eerie air of a ghost town.
But hopes are pinned on its much-anticipated opening this year, although no date has been announced. Dubai Culture, which recently took over the management of the emirate's eight public libraries from Dubai Municipality, plans to breathe new life into all the venues with "access to books in several languages from around the world, referral materials, audio-visual materials and a vast pool of study and research databases".
In Abu Dhabi there are a number of private libraries, several with good children's sections, while the library at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre announced last month that it had added 300 children's books to its existing collection of 5,000 books and journals.
Unfortunately the only public book-lending service in the capital, the National Library, shut more than a year ago as part of a redevelopment of the Cultural Foundation and is not due to reopen until 2015. With the library's closing went its vast collection of two million books, including 400,000 Arabic and foreign-language titles, all currently stored in a warehouse in Musaffah.
David Hirsch, Abu Dhabi's libraries' adviser, admits that the lack of a permanent public facility in the capital is far from ideal.
Fifteen libraries are eventually expected to open, with the first venue coming to Abu Dhabi Mall this summer. Others will follow in Al Raha and Al Bateen. "There have been a few delays, but we are really anxious to build Arabic and English children's collections," he says. "The Cultural Foundation was heavily used and we want a permanent facility. Libraries play an important part in encouraging children to read."
That will not come soon enough for 10-year-old Noora al Attar, on a trip to Al Safa library in Dubai with her sister Maryam, seven, and mother Lana, a 35-year-old Emirati geology teacher. "I love books in English and Arabic. They're fun with so many different stories that they make the world a bigger place," she says.
"I read three books a week and can't wait to finish my chores so I can come here every evening."
In recognition of the lack of captivating Arabic literature, some initiatives try to provide more material for young minds. Among them are Kalima, which has translated works by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Sylvia Plath and Junot Diaz, and Kalimat, a Sharjah publishing house launched in 2007 by Sheikha Bodour after she realised that her own family was neglecting Arabic.
Kalimat is dedicated to publishing original children's books in Arabic because, as she says, "there was very little in the way of good quality children's reading material in the region".It has also created a project called Horouf to improve teaching materials in schools. Behind the scheme is Dareen Charafeddine. "Students do not like Arabic because the material is too preachy, condescending and outdated," she says. "They prefer to study English because it is more fun and creative. We hope to change that perception and create a generation that grows up enjoying reading in Arabic."
Sharjah is matching efforts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai with a language development centre and this year staged a conference with the Ministry of Education on Arabic teaching in public schools.
Kitab, which runs the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and translates modern and classical literature into Arabic, has, since 2007, launched a number of programmes in the outlying regions to encourage reading among the young, particularly those with limited access to books. The programmes include the book bus, which has visited 250 schools and welcomed 12,000 pupils on board since 2009, and Al Ain Reads, which included storytelling workshops in Bawadi Mall. A reading competition for 10-year-olds was established in schools to encourage them to pick up Arabic books.
Monica Krauss, Kitab's general manager, says it is an achievement every time a child boards the book bus. She says she is just as thrilled by the parents' reactions.
"We have 14,000 children at the book fair and I can see their enthusiasm when they come. Of course there could be much more done. There should be a literary house with workshops and readings, cafes with books, libraries where children and mothers can meet, a children's book festival and events throughout the year.
"The demand is huge, but it is about taking small steps."
An Arabic reading list
Wazifat Mama (Mama’s Job) by Abir Ballan
A girl asks her mother why she does not go to work like everyone else. She replies that she works as a cook, teacher, nurse, secretary, singer, toy engineer and interior designer and only asks for a kiss in payment.
Faten by Fatima Sharafeddine
A prize-winning novel whose heroine is a teenage girl forced to leave her village when her life is disrupted by the Lebanese civil war. Initially fearful about leaving her childhood home, she goes to work as a maid in Beirut and forms a friendship with a girl her age, who battles with her strict, controlling parents, and embarks on a relationship with a boy named Marwen.
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
These books by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning author – Bein el Qasrein (Palace Walk), Qasr el Shoaq (Palace of Desire) and El Sukareyya (Sugar Street) – focus on three generations of a family living under the strict rule of a tyrannical patriarch. Kamal, the youngest son of Al-Sayyid Abd al-Jawad, evolves from childhood in the first novel to a teacher in the third and is seen struggling with faith, love and tradition. Set against the backdrop of the Egyptian revolution against the British, the trilogy spans both world wars and covers the broad spectrum of social and political turmoil in a society stubbornly resisting change.