Last year Magrudy's bookstores announced that the popularity of Arabic books was rising, and claimed that Arabic titles now accounted for "nearly 20 per cent" of its sales in the UAE.
A little literary triumph
Last year Magrudy's bookstores announced that the popularity of Arabic books was rising, and claimed that Arabic titles now accounted for "nearly 20 per cent" of its sales in the UAE. The flipside to that statement is, of course, that the vast majority of sales are of foreign-language titles. Reading in Arabic is not, it is fair to say, the region's favourite pastime.
This imbalance is not isolated to the Emirates either. It blights the region - Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and the Maghreb - and it begins in childhood. Indeed, many Arabic-speaking parents want their children to learn to read in English or French rather than Arabic, believing that both these languages will open more doors for their offspring in later life.
Nevertheless, there are some signs of revival. This process began in 1996 when the Jordanian author Taghreed Najjar founded the Al Salwa Publishing House, a publisher of fun Arabic books established (in part) as a counterpoint to the rather earnest path Arabic children's literature had embarked upon two decades previously - which may also help to explain why the sector fell into decline.
"Arabic children's literature was very morally related [in the Seventies]," according to Najjar. "Books had to have a clear-cut moral. The illustrations were generic and a lot of time in black and white, unless they were translated books."
A little more than a decade ago, however, Amira Abou al Magd became head of children's publishing at Egypt's Dar el Shorouk. Syria's Bright Fingers arrived six years ago and the UAE's Kalimat, one of the powerhouses of Arabic children's publishing, opened its doors in 2007. Bloomsbury-Qatar started printing quality Arabic children's books in 2010.
"For a long time, it was just a handful of dedicated individuals from different parts of the Arab world trying to make a difference. Now it's become a whole movement," Najjar said.
Child-focused book businesses - such as Jordan's Hakawati, Dubai's Buzoor, and Cairo's Al Balsam Books - have also opened their doors. Meanwhile a number of children's-book prizes have appeared in recent years, including, most notably, the world's biggest prize for a single work: the Dh1m Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children's Literature. In 2010 it went to Walid Taher's El Noqta El Sooda (The Black Dot), a charming fable about a dark splodge that threatens to engulf the world until a small boy finds a way to get rid of it.
Progress is also being made in schools. Buzoor and Magrudy's have both staged workshops designed to help educators in the UAE make better use of Arabic literature in the classroom. Elsewhere in the region, Bloomsbury-Qatar is developing printed material to help teachers integrate fun Arabic books into the curriculum.
Even so, the situation is far from ideal. A recent UN report suggests that less than two per cent of the world's Arabic-speaking population reads a book a year. Sadly, many Arabic speakers associate books with rote learning rather than recreational enjoyment. Even among those parents who believe in the benefits of reading, the focus remains on foreign-language books.
Najjar says that while the quality of Arabic children's books has risen considerably since the low tide of the Seventies, some parents continue to think "that foreign is better." This situation is replicated in schools, despite the recent efforts of the region's publishing industry.
"I have been to schools," she says, "where Arabic books occupy just a small percentage of the library - one or two shelves, tops. Everything else is in English. The unconscious message that's sent out to children is that English is better."
Would-be Arabic-language authors also face difficulties not encountered by their English or French-language counterparts. Indeed, bookstores in the Arabic-reading world often reserve prime shelf space for books in English, French, or even German, leaving Arabic-language books to gather dust.
Buzoor's founder Zeyna al Jabri also notes that educators and shop-owners have had a particular problem tempting teenagers to pick up Arabic books.
This would help explain why relatively few young-adult novels have been written in Arabic, although Faten, penned by the award-winning author Fatima Sharafeddine, did surface at last year's Sharjah International Book Fair. Much is expected of this title, although few teenagers currently read either contemporary or historic Arabic literature.
Neither is that situation likely to change soon."We will," said al Jabri, "either need some miracles falling from the sky to grab the attention of that age group, or we will have to wait until the generation of toddlers who are being currently raised around enjoyable Arabic books… grows up with the love for Arabic in their blood."
Arabic-speaking children who grow up reading fluently in their mother tongue are likely - education experts say - to read more fluently in foreign languages, to write better and to be more creative. If the lack of reading begins in childhood, al Jabri says, then so does the solution."Start with your children when they are young," he says. "If you plant the seed of Arabic in them, it will grow."
M Lynx Qualey lives in Cairo. She blogs about Arabic children's literature at Read Kutub Kids.