x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Archaic' lessons hurt literacy, writers say

Experts at International Festival of Literature say children need to be encouraged to read books in their native language.

DUBAI // The fight against illiteracy is being hampered by 'archaic' Arabic lessons that discourage schoolchildren from reading in their own language, a panel of children's authors and publishers warned yesterday. Experts at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature said there was little encouragement from schools and in the home for Arab children to read for pleasure in their native tongue, which was having an impact on literacy levels.

And a group of budding Emirati writers who undertook a project to devise a series of children's books admitted that even they had decided to write in English initially. Nadine Touma, a Lebanese children's author and publisher, said: "There is a huge emphasis on learning English, almost to the neglect of Arabic. "This is an issue not just pertaining to the Emirates but to the Arab world. Sometimes you have beautiful art books that are produced by different publishers around the Arab world but they do not find their way into Arab schools.

"It is a really archaic system of learning Arabic. If you ask what the most traumatic classes were for us [when we were growing up], that would be Arabic. Without sounding like Joan of Arc, I love the language in both the spoken and written word but we have a problem." Audience members agreed that the austere nature of Arabic lessons acted as a deterrent rather than an encouragement to read. Noora al Ibrahim, a 21-year-old Emirati student, said: "The teachers were really strict and you felt you had to do it, rather than wanting to.

"The teaching tools were not interesting, they were boring. Other teachers use games to make things more lively." According to the Arab League, 100 million Arabs do not know how to read and write. Today, 3,000 schoolchildren will be treated to readings and talks from 25 authors in Al Mamzar, near Sharjah, as part of an initiative launched by the festival organisers to combat illiteracy. A spokeswoman said: "It is to bring the festival to schoolchildren who might not otherwise get to take part. Last year we had children trying completely different books from what they were used to because they had met the author. One of the visions of Isabel Abulhoul [the festival director] is to encourage children to read more.

"Reading has such an important impact on literacy levels, which are low in this part of the world. We want to encourage writers to write in Arabic and children to read them." More than 100 authors - up from 80 last year - will take part in discussion panels, readings and presentations during the four-day event at the Intercontinental hotel in Dubai Festival City. They include Martin Amis, who was due to speak last night, Kate Adie and John Simpson, both British foreign correspondents, Alexander McCall Smith and William Dalrymple.

The British-born Indian chef Anjum Anand and Shobhaa De, former editor of Bollywood's Stardust magazine will also be attending. The Emirati poet Khalid al Budoor will be launching his anthology. There will be 17 children's sessions featuring the likes of the poet Roger McGough and the writer Jacqueline Wilson. Ms Abulhoul, the festival director, said: "Every one of us will leave this mortal coil sooner or later but writers live on through their words, leaving a lasting and powerful legacy for the future. This is why our festival is so important.

"Can we help in the fight against illiteracy? I believe with this wonderful band of authors from all over the globe, we can." @Email:tyaqoob@thenational.ae