Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Currency of the mind

Nevine El-Aref takes stock of two new initiatives designed to encourage the public to read

Al-Ahram Weekly

“In the old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody” — Oscar Wilde

Reading books, these days, is both a habit and a thing of the past. Many people read, but rarely for pleasure. Although there are now hundreds of bookstores and public libraries around the country, people seem to be reading less than they did in the past.

The Internet and television have become most people’s main form of entertainment. Looking at a screen seems to require less brainpower than reading, and this may explain the apparent lack of enthusiasm for books.

Others say that a shortage of time is a big factor, as people are so busy that they do not have the time to read. The cost of books has also gone up, and many people cannot afford to buy them.

Some put the blame on schools and parents who do not push their children to read. Instead, they let children play video games, which have killed not only their attention spans but also their imaginations.

Whatever the reasons for the fall in reading, the Ministry of Culture has decided to fight back. Two new initiatives are being launched to promote reading, especially people from economically disadvantaged communities, by providing books at more affordable prices.

Iqraa, or “Read,” is the first initiative. It aims to encourage young people to read by providing book outlets at universities across Egypt.

Books published by the ministry’s different branches will be sold at reasonable prices at the outlets.

“It is a great opportunity to encourage young people to read, to increase their cultural awareness and to protect their thoughts from dark and destructive ideas,” Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said that the initiative, financed by the Cultural Development Fund (CDF), was launched in collaboration with the Supreme Education Council and will be implemented in two phases.

CDF head Mohamed Abusaeda described the initiative as “brilliant” and “a concrete and positive achievement in support of reading.”

Through the initiative, Abusaeda said, the ministry will be able to spread the culture of owning books among the public and help university students establish their own home libraries.

“This is not the first initiative to make reading accessible to all, especially people from economically disadvantaged communities,” he said.

Abusaeda was referring to the “Reading for All” campaign and “Family Library”, both of which were launched in the early 2000s by the ministry. The objective then was to reprint popular titles and offer them for sale at low prices.

He said that the first phase of the new project will see book outlets established in all state universities in Egypt; the second phase will include private universities. As a first step, outlets will be set up in five universities: Cairo, Alexandria, Ain Shams, Beni Sweif and Assiut.

The outlets are in the form of kiosks built from wood and aluminum, with bookshelves and large windows. The walls will be decorated with posters showing famous Egyptian authors, musicians, singers, artists and actors. Among the poster subjects will be the writer Taha Hussein, composer Baligh Hamdi and singer Um Kalthoum. A short biography of each subject will be provided, in order to acquaint people better with the country’s artistic pioneers.

Abusaeda said the outlets will also offer CDs, DVDs and a selection of handicrafts made at Al-Fustat Ceramics Centre. These will be sold at a 40 per cent discount.

“Mobile outlets will also be provided within the framework of the initiative,” said Abusaeda, adding that these will be set up in clubs, syndicates and youth centres.

The initiative has not forgotten the reading needs of school children. Because schools have their own libraries, the ministry, as part of an agreement signed two months ago with the Ministry of Education, will provide the books it publishes to school libraries at the same discount.

Monthly excursions to cultural institutions will also be organised, including Al-Fustat Ceramics Centre, where pupils will be able to admire the production of ceramics in Egypt from the ancient Egyptian era to modern times, and the newly renovated National Theatre.

“I am very happy about this initiative, as now I will be able to buy the books I want within my budget,” said Ahmed Ali, a student at the Faculty of Law at Cairo University, adding that his colleagues called him Al-Maqrizi (The Egyptian historian) due to his fondness for reading.

Ali said that tough economic conditions have forced people to reduce down their expenses, and so they have very little to spend on books. “I am one of those who really profited from the earlier ‘Reading for All’ campaign, which provided good books at low prices,” Ali said, adding that he hopes the new “Read” initiative will do the same.

But not everyone was enthusiastic. Mustafa Al-Fernawi, a student at the Faculty of Business at Ain Shams University, said the initiative was “nonsense.” He said that reading is a habit a person picks up when he or she is young, and it is impossible to get people to read if they are not used to it.

“I think this campaign is only for those who already want to read and cannot afford books that the initiative is supposed to provide,” he said.

But Noha Hasouna, a student at the Faculty of Art at Alexandria University, said that it was “the best initiative.” She said she is sure that young men and women can be lured into reading if they are approached in the right way.

 The second initiative is the ministry’s “Book Banks” which aims to encourage people to donate their used books. Instead of throwing books away after they have been read, or leaving them on the bookshelf to gather dust, Abusaeda said that it is better to donate them so other people have something to read.

“This initiative is a brand new idea in Egypt and the Middle East, though it is well known abroad,” he said.

Book Bank containers will be set up like large mailboxes in public spaces. People can donate their books by dropping them through rectangular openings on the side of the containers. The outside of the boxes will be decorated with posters showing the ministry’s different activities, such as festivals or concerts. The public will be invited to deposit books they had already read and take new ones, free of charge.

“A committee from the CDF will be in charge of these containers,” Abusaeda said, adding that the committee will also collect the donated books and restore them for sale at cheap prices in villages and remote areas.

“School books can also be donated,” Abusaeda told the Weekly, adding that these would be especially valuable to poorer pupils who are not able to purchase such books. “The Book Banks will be set up in creative centres that have after-school classes, like the one in Damanhur,” he added.

The initiative will be implemented in different locations in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria as a first step, before being spread across the country.

In Cairo, kiosks will be set up in four areas: Zamalek, Al-Borsa Street in the downtown district, Al-Azhar Park and Al-Korba Street in Heliopolis. In Giza, they will be in Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandiseen and Mohieddin Abul-Ezz Street, and in Alexandria they will be set up in front of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

“The second phase of the initiative will be introduced if the first phase proves successful,” Abusaeda said. He added that the Book Banks will be set up in public gardens. In such gardens, a Book Bank container could be set up along with a small café and a kiosk where people could donate old books and enjoy reading new ones while sipping coffee or tea.

“This initiative will help provide more books to remote areas as well as poor villages in Upper and Lower Egypt,” Abusaeda said, adding that both initiatives were launched within the framework of the CDF’s diamond jubilee.

Other initiatives still to be launched include youth workshops, a “Future of Our Theatre” programme and another called “Kulthoum’s Voice.”

Will people donate their old books? “Yes, but not all books,” said Dalia Shohayeb, a client services manager. She said that she would only donate books that had touched her, or reminded her of a story that had happened to her, or given her an important experience. “As such books were turning points in my life, I would like other people to be able to read them too,” Shohayeb said.

The case was different for Rehab Younis, contract manager at the Grand Egyptian Museum, and for housewife Lamia El-Alfy. Both women said they would not donate books, saying that they preferred to keep them.

Kamilia Atris, a journalist at Sabah Al-Kheir magazine, said that she would donate books, “but not encyclopedias and history books that are important to keep for my grandchildren.”

For Noha Yassin, who manages her own business, donating books is something she already does. She told the Weekly, “My library is already packed with books, so I have to donate some to my friends and members of my family, in order to provide more space for new ones.” The Book Banks could be a useful solution, she added.

Novelist Hisham Al-Kheshen, who described the Book Bank and Read initiatives as “interesting,” told the Weekly that although it is a dream to encourage more people to read, the initiatives have come too late. “We are living in a digital age, and the ministry should encourage e-books,” Al-Kheshen said.

He said that given the number of young people in Egypt, e-books are the only solution to promote reading among young people, who spent long periods in front of the screens of their computers and iPads.

“The ministry has plenty of books that should be transferred into digital books and put on a website that young people could easily access,” Al-Kheshen said. He added that although such a project would require a significant budget, it is the only way to get young people to read.

As for the donation of books, Al-Kheshen said he would not donate his books, preferring to keep them in his library. “However, it would be a pleasure to donate the books I have written myself to readers,” he said.

Novelist and judge Achraf El-Achmawi described the ideas as “long overdue”, saying they were first suggested in 2009 but ignored.

“Perhaps the previous regime did not want people to read,” he said. He told the Weekly that the initiatives should be extended to buses, metro and main train stations and tobacco and newspaper kiosks.

The Book Banks should be simple in shape and easy to transport, he said, and they should take the shape of a book or a tree trunk.

Donated books could be placed inside, as well as books published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation.

But what if the books are stolen?

“I think they will not be stolen because they do not have a resale value. On the other hand, they have huge moral value as a way of building the nation and the new generations,” El-Achmawi said.

He added that he would like to see every person in Egypt with a book in his hands.

“I still prefer paper books, and I think that they will never disappear, despite the challenge of e-books. This is especially the case in villages in Egypt where paper books still reign,” El-Achmawi said.

“The books in the Book Banks should be on different topics, in order to suit all tastes. I am more than willing to donate books from my own library as well as the five novels I have published,” El-Achmawi added, saying that it would be a great pleasure to support such an initiative.

“As a novelist, I owe my readers a large segment of my success and it is about time I did something for them to show my gratitude,” he said.

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