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Tuesday, January 08, 2008 

Paper tigers

Why doesn't the Arab world read enough?

Take two scenes:

Transport in London.



And transport in Damascus.



Spot the difference.

Ok, it's unscientific, I know, but most of people in the first picture have newspapers or books. None of the people in the second picture do (I know there are only three!).

Is it that we don't crave knowledge? That can't be right, because Al Jazeera is the Arab world's most popular TV channel. But to quote my hero Sami Moubayed:

"To [the imposter elite of Damascus], intellectuality is obtained not by reading, thinking, and interacting with different people and schools of thought, but rather, by watching 9 pm news on al-Jazeera, throwing out critical statements against the government, or splashing a few words of French and English."

So maybe knowledge isn't important to us - except to the extent that it makes us appear intellectual.

But why? Much of the blame can be laid at the door of Arab media. Take a look at Tishreen on any given day, and more likely than not the top story will be 'the President received a letter from the President of randomistan' - regardless of what's going on in the world.

Yemen TV News devotes its first ten minutes to un-narrated shots of President Ali Abduallah Salah greeting someone in a suit.

The same is true of state media in every Arab country.

But that doesn't explain why we don't act differently when we are presented with a free press. Take London. A city of three hundred thousand Arabs, with publications like Al Quds (independent), Al Arab (Libyan funded) and Al Hayat (Saudi funded) - papers to rival anything written in English. But they sell pitifully few copies.

Part of it could be down to the nature of society. Arab society is much more social. British society is more individual. A book, or a newspaper, is a mask - something to bury yourself in on the train or bus - not just physically, but emotionally too. Anything to avoid making eye contact with a stranger, or even remembering that there are strangers nearby.

Reading a newspaper at home, or in the office is almost unheard of. It's just a companion for the journey.

Newspaper penetration in Britain has always been one of the highest in the world. But it really took off when Rupert Murdoch started throwing free newspapers at commuters. One million copies of the 'Metro' are published every day. Commuters leave them on trains and buses when they've finished, and within seconds, they'll get snatched by another reader.

They're free and funded by advertisements.

So imagine my delight when I was handed a free newspaper in Damascus. Called Ya Hala, it's given out in front of newstands. They've got the bit about the adverts right. But they forgot to put any news in it.

I left Ya Hala where it belongs:

When finding out about my profession, a lass I know happily told me that we should know the same people because we are both part of the intelectual class. I told her that for me to be considered an intelectual is an insult.

Try to compare flights. If a flight is headed to an Arab country which means it's mainly full of Arabs, you will hardly be able to spot anyone with a book...no matter how long the flight is (Canada-Jordan)...whereas on a flight between Montreal and Charlottetown, 1 hour and 15 minutes trip, on a plane that takes around 40 passengers, you would see at least 10 or 15 passengers reading something...mainly books and novels....

which means....we don't need as much knowledge as the west needs...we have it innate!

Hey there! That famous Arab hospitality is on display again! You give the poor people on the Tube train in London too much credit. They are reading newspapers, yes - but the 'news' in them is fecking awful. I despair of my country. The best-selling 'news'papers are tabloids which are filled only with racism, xenophobia, celebrity gossip, sport and how much Iraqis are grateful for us overthrowing their awful dictator. In short, nothing worth reading.

Your Damascan bus is much better. At least they are sitting enjoying the view out of the window rather than filling their minds with irrelevance and/or spite.

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  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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