Book Buying in the Arab World

Only a couple of weeks left before the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the Arab world will be the guest of honor. The Guardian‘s Brian Whitaker examines the U.S. administration’s claims of a Middle-East knowledge deficit, which was dutifully bemoaned and used as fodder for Bush’s laughably named “greater Middle East initiative.”

“The Greater Middle East region, once the cradle of scientific discovery and learning, has largely failed to keep up with today’s knowledge-oriented world,” the US said in a working paper for the G8 summit. “Arab countries’ output of books represents just 1.1% of the world total.”

The Middle East itself only makes up about 3% of the world’s population, so the number of books it produces isn’t completely off-base, but the statistic has a shock value that served the purpose of the initiative. In addition, this number is about 13 years old, only takes into account books for which authorized translation rights have been purchased, and, as Whitaker points out, there are really no accurate statistics on the actual amount of books produced in the Arab world anyway. Regardless of numbers, I think the greater question is really about what is being produced. Too often, books that challenge set ways of thought are threatened by the loony fringe. I was just reading an article last week about how, a while back, a member of the PJD in Morocco had challenged the late Choukri to read his classic For Bread Alone on television, saying that if he did, the public would be shocked. The public, the honorable PJD member should have been reminded, had gobbled up Choukri’s book, but that seemed beside the point. In addition to the trouble with conservatives, book selling suffers because books are simply too expensive for the average Arab buyer. Two solutions have presented themselves: publishing books in violation of copyright (and, mind you, these books don’t get counted by the Bushites) or, and equally depressing, photocopying of books, which is particularly used for textbooks and reference books. Whitaker points this out in his article too, although he trots out the meme of “330 books a year”.

The American G8 working paper also highlighted the relatively small number of books that are translated into Arabic – allegedly about 330 a year. “Five times as many books are translated into Greek (spoken by just 11 million people) as Arabic,” it said.

Whitaker does explain that the average Arab reader often reads books in other languages, thus foregoing translations, but he misses the irony that, in the United States itself, very few foreign books are translated and published. About 300, it turns out. Who’s the isolationist?