I am an obsessive reader. I read everything I can get my hands (or eyes) on.
I suffer withdrawal symptoms when I haven’t got enough reading matter at hand (and despite being a reading addict I am quite selective about what I like to read, which makes my daily foraging task doubly difficult).
When I first came to the Middle East my confessions on the subject were met with suspicion.
Hello! What are you doing?
I’m reading a book.
It soon became apparent that most of my my bright, charming, lovely new friends hated it with the same passion I hated chemistry in school- and as I came to realise, for pretty much the same reasons: incomprehensible, deadly boring stuff somebody forces upon you for no obvious benefit. As filled with pleasure as a fork in the eye.
A young Syrian guy I know went to London and he came back full of praise and awe. Everything was so beautiful, he said, but there was one thing I didn’t understand: people read everywhere, on the tube, train, side of the road, cafe, you name it. His mate listened to this account in disbelief, then said: “You must have been in a university district of some sort, they were probably studying for an exam.”
Every time reading comes up as an entertainment option people shudder in horror.
So when I said to my inner detective, dear Watson, we must get to the bottom of this, here’s what he found:
1. There are two Arabic languages. There is Fusha (classical Arabic), the language of books, university lectures, news, serious stuff. And there is colloquial Arabic, which people speak every day and which, by some accounts, bears as much resemblance to Fusha as Dutch does to German.
Now if you or I had to read the latest Nick Hornby in the language of Beowulf, we’d probably also find that a type of torture. Students are made to read a lot in school and all of it is in a difficult (though beautiful and poetic) language they don’t speak. No wonder the memory of it all is akin to my chemistry nightmares.
I know somebody who needed private tutoring during university to cope with the language of the courses. Eventually, he decided it would be easier to just switch to English.
2. Reading is seen as a solitary occupation. You basically sit and read and ignore the rest of the world. Now here this is a big no no. The social structure of big families with very strong ties, in permanent verbal contact, means you are very rarely on your own.
It would be supremely rude of you to sit in a corner engulfed in Pride and Prejudice while Uncle Ahmad is relaying the latest news of your cousin. And if you are on the bus alone, your phone rings every 2 minutes for much of the same, so no time at all to open that Orhan Pamuk novel you thought you might like.
Obviously, this is a huge generalisation. There are people who love to read, who master the two languages (and more) with an intellectual ease that makes me green with envy.
But for those who don’t, I have a suspicion that taking the combined baddies of Forced, Solitary and Hard out of the reading would make it fly.
Book clubs, dialogues, reading circles, a spoken follow up to anything you read would just inject life in its tired veins. Take the word of a reading junkie:)