Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2008
Issue No. 912
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Leafing through

Following Mrs Suzanne Mubarak's inauguration of a new cultural centre in the Delta city of Mansoura recently, Dina Ezzat investigates the impact of attempts to promote reading

Click to view caption
The Mansoura branch of the National Library overlooking the Nile (top); manuscripts housed at the Mansoura and Luxor Mubarak libraries; and Amir at the Mansoura Cultural Tent inaugurated by Mrs Mubarak last week (left)

"I like to come here during the afternoons between shifts at the mechanic's workshop where I work. It is nice, peaceful and quiet and there are enough interesting books. The most important thing is that it is free. I don't have the money even for a small subscription," said Amir, a 17-year-old high school graduate, as he momentarily suspended his reading of the biography of prominent Egyptian mathematician Moustafa Musharafah at the "Cultural Tent" that Mrs Suzanne Mubarak inaugurated on the corniche of the Delta city of Mansoura a little over a week ago.

The "Cultural Tent" is actually quite a small tent with bookshelves carrying a few hundred titles -- mostly art, literature, a few biographies and children's books. It is part of a recent fashion that was introduced to the steadily expanding reading promotion campaign launched by Mrs Mubarak over 20 years ago.

Along with other cultural outposts and a variety of public libraries -- including some installed in trucks that rove through poorer villages and cities across Egypt -- and cultural centres, the campaign offers several literary prizes and it attempts to provide low-cost editions of thousands of titles, especially the classics.

Last week, along with the inauguration of the "cultural tent" in Mansoura Mrs Mubarak also inaugurated the recently renovated cultural centre in the city and inspected the upgrading of the Mansoura Mubarak Library.

In a brief statement at the end of her tour, Mrs Mubarak promised a continued commitment to widening the availability and increasing the size of public libraries across Egypt. She said that making as many books available, for free or for very little, to as many Egyptians as possible was part of the ongoing national campaign.

At present, the offerings to be found in Egypt's public libraries can be anything from generous -- sometimes even extremely generous -- to disappointingly limited. The Luxor Mubarak Library, for example, offers visitors an impressive Egyptology department that, in the account of one visiting tour-guide, is "a true treasure."

"From the Pharaonic to the Graeco-Roman, Egyptian history is very well covered here by some very impressive titles. There are even some rare titles and the original catalogues of the country's most important museums," said Hassan, a Luxor-based tour guide.

Ashraf Abdel-Halim, director of the Luxor Mubarak Library, takes pride in the collection of rare maps of all the historic sites that his library offers to visitors, while Soheir Mohamed, director of the Mansoura Mubarak Library, frequently refers to the volumes of the Description de l'Egypte that are to be found on the first floor of her library.

Similarly, Sana' Mohamed of the branch of the Dar Al-Kutub in Mansoura enjoys showing off the old and rare titles -- albeit sometimes in a decaying state -- that her library offers. "We even have some of the records of the earliest sessions of the Egyptian Parliament here, and we have a good part of the private library of Ahmed Lotfy Al-Sayed that we share with the Governorate Public Library," she said with almost personal pride.

According to Amal, a post-graduate student of Urdu at Mansoura University, the library has some very interesting titles. "I found some titles on comparative Urdu and Arabic literary criticism that I would not have thought it was possible to find outside the capital," he said.

The Mubarak Public Libraries in Cairo, Mansoura and Luxor also cater to different markets: teenagers of different backgrounds are clearly excited to have found enough copies of Harry Potter in the original English version and the Arabic and French translations to go round.

However, not everyone is happy with the books the public library system provides. For Mohamed, a recent graduate of the department of commerce at Mansoura University, most of the books on the shelves of the Mubarak Library, the branch of the Dar Al-Kutab and the recently inaugurated "cultural tent" and cultural centre are simply "not interesting."

"I found nothing that I wanted to read. I did walk along the corniche, but the same books are on offer in each place," he said. Mohamed is not interested in the literary production of Naguib Mahfouz, the poetry of Ahmed Shawki, or the history of Egypt. "This is not what I want to read about, and I don't understand why they all have to offer the same collection of books. What use it is for me to see the volumes of a book on the 'description of Egypt'? I want to learn about the new economy and to read self-help books and modern philosophy titles, not the history of Egyptian cinema or the books of Abbas Al-Akkad."

Furthermore, Mohamed's complaints about the titles on offer in the public library system are not exceptional. Other visitors to the public libraries -- especially those who do not frequent the bigger libraries -- have complaints as well. There are not enough books on Information Technology, not enough books on sports, and there are hardly any books on human rights and freedoms.

"When I go to the Diwan or Koutob Khan [fashionable Cairo bookstore-cafes] I find interesting modern titles that I do not find here. These expensive titles should be purchased and offered to readers at the public libraries, but instead these libraries do not seem to be acquiring the newest publications," said Mariane as she examined the shelves of the Heliopolis public library.

Such problems are not restricted to the books on offer. At first glance, the reading rooms of some public libraries can seem quite empty. While some librarians say that this is because it is summer, and people are more interested in going out than in reading, others admit that their libraries can be deserted throughout the year.

In the words of one Heliopolis librarian, "the highest turnover on any day of the year, whether summer or winter, is 50 people". In Luxor and Mansoura, some librarians have claimed double this figure, but they still admit that visitor rates are low despite the very low cost of using the libraries. Many of the so-called "winter readers" are actually students who drop by to do their homework, rather than use the libraries for reading, they add.

Ibrahim, a high-school student who frequents the Luxor Mubarak Library, said that he visits for homework purposes only, for example. During the year that he visited the library, he said that he was never tempted to pick up any of the books, even if just to browse through them. "I am not interested in reading, and I don't want to go through all those books to see if there is something in them that I would like to read about," he said.

The display and classification of the books, librarians acknowledge, might be unattractive to teenagers with little interest in reading.

However, according to a librarian at the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek, "the issue is not about the display or the collection of books. Rather, it is about the fact that despite the many efforts that have been made to promote reading most people are not interested in it. People come to the library to meet and not to read; it is almost a meeting place for young couples, who come here under the cover of reading," he lamented.

Clerks at public bookstores that have low-price books on sale, sometimes for less than LE2 a title, also argue that there are few readers out there who take advantage of these low prices. Sales should be much higher in view of the wide variety of titles and the low prices, they say.

Official estimates of the number of readers who make use of public reading facilities also vary. Some officials suggest that close to 20 million people -- including those who visit the libraries to read and borrow books and those who buy subsidized copies -- benefit from the wide network of public libraries and the Reading for All campaign every year, while others suggest that this number does not exceed a mere three million.

On state radio and TV reading is extensively promoted. In promotion spots appearing on television, for example, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak calls on every family member to join the campaign. Film and sports stars also appear in the advertisements.

Nevertheless, for the most part the public libraries, especially the Mubarak Libraries -- the larger libraries that will soon number 12 across Egypt -- and the culture centres still serve more as places to learn foreign languages and to do summer activities than they do to engage in serious reading.

12-year-old Zeinab and 10-year-old Marwa from Luxor say they walk for about a quarter of an hour to reach the Mubarak Library, for example, in order to join the different activities on offer there. "I mostly come to join the drawing lessons and to play with plasticine, but sometimes I pick up a book to read," Zeinab says.

Yet, librarians and activity trainers at the public libraries are encouraged by the fact that children do frequent their libraries, arguing that even if reading is not the prime objective it is ultimately something that the children will get round to, even if their engagement is not extensive or deep.

Indeed, at every library there seems to be an account of a won-over reader: a girl who used the library as an outlet for internet chat and ended up being an addicted history reader, for example, or a young couple who used to use the library as a dating spot, but are now regularly borrowing literature titles, or students who frequent the libraries for narrow homework purposes, but end up with a passion for reading science.

"I was not always a dedicated reader. It was only three years ago when my mother asked me to clean the bookshelves of my late father that I got into the world of books," said Amir. "Now I spend at least four hours reading every day."

While such accidental-but-now-addicted readers are still not many, librarians say, the presence in the libraries of young people like Amir is encouraging and may encourage other young people to pick up some of the books on display.

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