In their dictionaries, Arab linguists propose many definitions for the word “reading”. Among them is the definition listed by Ibn Mandhour in his book “Lisan al-Arab”, in which he states that “to read something is to gather it and bring it together”. This definition may be the most fitting to describe the situation of reading among Syrians today and its decline after the war divided everyone and scattered them far and wide. Reading, as an act that brings together and unites people as Ibn Mandhour defines it, has been deeply affected by the war.
“Book worm” – this is what many of her friends call Taima, a Syrian engineer who lives in Sweden. She is always eager to devour any book that falls into her hands “from cover to cover”. However, things have changed. She says, “That was in the past when books used to be available everywhere around me. Today, it’s nearly impossible to find a single Arabic book in my entire area”.
Shipping costs are “extremely” high
Like the majority of Syrian readers, Taima resorts to digital books available online. She says, “Of course nothing competes with the euphoric feeling of reading a print book but I try to comfort myself by telling myself that at least I’m reading and enriching myself intellectually, even momentarily.”
The young woman says that resorting to digital books was the last solution after going through the experience of buying print books on Amazon, “I picked a number of Arabic books and bought them on Amazon. I didn’t expect the shipping charges to be so expensive. I thought it would be just a small sum. I was surprised when the package arrived that the shipping fees were higher than the price of the books… I had to pay the fees and accept the package. Of course I’ve never repeated that same mistake and I wouldn’t even consider doing it again any time in the near future.”
Books in English
In addition to e-books, Taima started reading books in English that are available for free in the public library. She says, “There are thousands of foreign books written in their native language, and most of them are in English. I decided to read these instead of bemoaning the lack of print books in Arabic. We Syrians did not learn English very well in school but I’m trying to get past this. However long it takes to read a book, it would improve my level in English if I continue and it will certainly expand the range of books available to me to read.”
Mohammed, a Syrian programmer who lives in Turkey, has resorted to the same solution as Taima – reading e-books. He says, “Despite the presence of a number of Arab bookshops in Istanbul, the books available in them are limited to popular books that are in demand, such as the writings of Paulo Coelho and Elif Şafak and others. It’s hard to find books that I am looking for such as specialized software books or new books. So now I only read electronic books or I ask a friend who is coming to visit Turkey soon to bring some of the books that are not available.”
Mohammed points out that “e-books” do not refer to PDF files only, which are often just photocopies of the book’s pages, and “not the text itself”. He explains that “in addition to PDF files, there are electronic text files that are available in several formats such as EBUP and Kindle whose formats often provide a better reading experience, with the possibility to enlarge the font size, text selection and other options. These are the book formats I read, either free or paid, as the books available in these formats are often cheaper than print books. This allows me to read relatively new books, which are unavailable in other forms whether electronic or printed.”
Since smartphone screens are only “5 inches”, they are not suitable for long hours of reading, and the notifications of social network applications cause distractions, Mohammed created what he calls his own “reading platform”. He adds, “I bought a tablet that cost a hundred and fifty dollars. It has an 8-inch screen, which is very suitable for reading. I use this device only for reading e-books without using an Internet connection or social network apps. This has significantly increased my productivity and my ability to concentrate on what I read.”
Marwa is an engineering student living in Turkey. She has weakening eyesight due to extended reading sessions on her mobile phone screen. So she decided to stop harming her eyes by resorting to a cost-effective solution that also allows her to have her own home library. She says, “I didn’t want to purchase an electronic device for reading, even if it has a larger screen, because it would make my eyesight worse by staring at the screen and being exposed to strong bright light, which was bad for my eyes. So I bought a small home printer and started printing the digital books I want to read in addition to other documents for my studies at university. Then I made home-made covers for the books.”
Marwa complains that books printed at home are not ideal due to the quality of the paper used but “focusing on the quality of the printing is a luxury I can’t afford given the scarcity of Arabic books. What I’m more concerned about is finding the reading material I need and that is what I’ve started doing.”
A book or “a kilo of meat”?
The decline in reading print books and their shortage are common not only among Syrians who migrate abroad but also affect Syrians inside their homeland. The sole explanation for such a decrease is high prices. Maria, who lives in Damascus and majors in geography, told Enab Baladi, “Unfortunately, I left behind a huge library containing more than a thousand books at our home in eastern al-Ghouta. But accessing these books is just as hard as buying the available books in our remaining bookshops.”
She adds that not buying print books is not rare. In fact, it has become common among visitors to the bookshops she visits most often, “The bookshops that used to be filled with customers are deserted now. The few customers left only come to read the titles on the shelves. A typical purchase would include some school supplies or copying a document at best. Who’s going to buy The Granada Trilogy for five thousand lira (each thousand lira equals 2 American dollars). Would someone who has a family to take care of choose to buy a book or a kilo of meat?”
Maria says that it is possible to find books being sold for low prices (less than 1000 lira) on street stalls, “But such books would not be of significant intellectual or literary value. Bookshops don’t have the latest editions, all the titles on the shelves were published years ago.”
Reading: the numbers
In 2016, the Union of Syrian Publishers organized the international book fair of Damascus in al-Assad library five years after the fair was suspended. Seventy-five Syrian and foreign publishing houses participated, which represents only 75% of the usual rate of participation.
The 2011 Damascus book fair was the last one held during the revolution. Nearly 250 publishing houses participated compared with 400 publishing houses in 2010.
Syria scored 39 points out of 100 on the Arab reading index for 2016. The reading percentage was rated at 45% while reading availability was rated at only 29%. Among a sample of 4700 people, the average number of books read annually was only 13, totaling an average of 33 hours of reading.
Lebanon tops the reading index for 2016, scoring 96 points out 100. Lebanese people read an average of 29 books per year, which works out at an average of 59 hours of reading.
According to the Arab reading index, Syrians mostly read Arabic publications. Digital versions are more widely read than hard copy.