What do Saudis Read?

Not much. I’ve had a few Saudis who after visiting a western country comment on how many westerners carry books around with them and read in public. They are always surprised that average people might actually enjoy reading. Books here are considered very intellectual. Once I was sitting in a waiting room at the hospital reading a David Lodge book and the woman sitting next to me took me for a college student studying. She wished me luck on my exam. And when I brought up reading for pleasure to my students many of them said “fathiya” (translation: nothing better to do or get a life). After these conversations, I get a little depressed. If only they knew how wonderful books are, especially for young women who are cooped up for most of the day. If only they knew the astronomical difference reading would change in how they view the world. They could read something as low as Tucker Max or read something that would help make them more aware of one of our cultural minorities like God of Small Things.  Unfortunately, they limit themselves to Arabic women magazines. The most popular of which is Sayidty.

This limitation of what they read starts early in a Saudi’s life. In schools they are not taught to appreciate all books. They are taught that if it’s not religious, scientific or at least a hundred years old then it’s rubbish. The majority of schools do not even have a library. The poor quality of Arabic children literature also plays a role. These books lack in creativity and publishing quality. And finally the difficulty of accessing books. Bookstores are few and far in between.

By the time they reach adulthood this lack of appreciation becomes ingrained. And the sort of Arabic literature available currently doesn’t help the situation. Most books are bad translations from English. The problem with translation is the translator might get the words and sentences right but the context and culture stays just out of reach. So a Saudi might enjoy a couple of these books but eventually gets bored with the minimally relatable characters. And then we come to Arabic literature. The issue here is what form of Arabic to use. Classical Arabic makes a book more respectable and less realistic. No one uses classical Arabic in real life and I repeat no one except passionate Arabic language scholar and even those use their own dialect outside of professional settings. However, if a writer uses a local dialect or somewhat contemporary Arabic, it won’t matter what the book is about, it will not be considered literature. And here let me refer you to Raja Al Sanea’s Girls of Riyadh. When it was first published it got banned from Saudi Arabia. The effect of that ban naturally increased its sales and Saudis from all walks of life secretly got the book and read it. I’m pretty sure they enjoyed it too. But if you were to ask Saudis what they thought of the book, most would dismiss it saying the author didn’t even bother to use classical Arabic. It isn’t “real” literature. The depictions were too close to life. It’s like gossip. She purposely put our dirty laundry on display. They don’t get that that is the point and that’s what makes the book literature.


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13 responses to “What do Saudis Read?

  1. How true. Most of my life in SA, I’ve been involved with literary groups. They all loved to read. However, once you step out of that env’t, like you said, it shocks and hurts how out of place you might feel carrying a book. A very intellectual Saudi journalist lady said to me once, “At this stage, I would do anything to give up all this knoweldge in my brain that had brought me nothing but sadness and alienation. I would do anything to being ignorant.”
    I guess there’re only two choices really: for us readers to get everyone else to read, or give up reading all together 😀

  2. [They don’t get that that is the point and that’s what makes the book literature.] *Smart point!

  3. Totally agree. Just want to point out to this new project to encourage mothers to instill the love of reading in their children. Here’s the project website.

  4. Coolred38

    Having lived in neighboring Bahrain for over 20 years now I have still not come to terms with how very little Arabs enjoy reading. It just doesnt seem to occur to them you can read a book for pleasure…and not just for memorizing for a school test etc then forgotten.

    Go into most homes and you wont find books other then the Quran and maybe the hadith collections…but generally magazines are everywhere.

    To open ones mind to other peoples cultures and ways of life…means to see those other peoples as living viable human beings sharing the planet with you. If you cant do this through travel…then do it through reading…but to not read is to starve yourself from life in my opinion.

    Im never sure if Im more sad for people that want to read but cant…or more sad for those that can read but choose not to.

    nice blog. glad I came across it.


  5. I once read [see?! reading IS good! helps you look smart when you post comments on other people’s blogs!!]there are common streaks in countries that rely on their natural resources for national income:
    1. They’re more religious-minded
    2. They don’t read

    If we look back at the social history, we’d see that these countries have skipped a cultural stepping stone from oral culture to digital culture. Between the oral tradition of passing literature between generations, there was supposed to be a time when written text was the main venue. But what happened was, in countries like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, reading and writing habits hadn’t been well-installed into the culture when the television took over. Orated histories and poems that were passed on in warm settings of family gatherings after dinner, and later was supposed to be replaced by book and newspaper reading time, was rudely overstepped by by TV-Dinners instead.

    The cultural skip made a dent on thinking and reading habits.

    The skip caused an imbalanced individualistic society: people become more engrossed in their own selves, face-to-face conversations were soon replaced by instant messaging, and society disappeared when all of the individuals decided to go inside and watch reruns of F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

    I was once asked, “how can you make a child love reading?” and the answer was just like what the Arab News article had said, “give example, you fools!”. My ancient nanny was illiterate; she could not read a word much less sign her own name (may she rest in peace for never knowing what kind of a disaster I grew up to become). Nevertheless, she opened up children’s books for my sake, making up stories based on the pictures and – along the way,– made the sound of paper when turned in a book sothing music to my ears.

    Sarcastically speaking, I’ve stopped watching television 7 years ago, and am now limited to printed word and the internet for the necessary cultural and social contact. So instead of having to put up with hours of advertisement and channelsurfing, I’m now spending more of my valuable time sieving through pop-lit and spam blocking.

    In my defense, at least I still read.

  6. It really is a shame that reading for pleasure is not encouraged more here. But I wanted to let you and your readers know about the first children’s library in Jeddah which a new friend of mine (an ex-pat wife of a Saudi) helped to start. It opened in 2005. Here is the link: http://www.mylibraryjed.com

  7. Anon

    So gossip and airing dirty laundry is what makes a book “literature”?

    I’ve always loved reading, but I can’t see where reading something like “Girls of Riyadh” is so beneficial to anyone (except the author and her publisher).

  8. saudiwoman

    Hi Anon,
    I just wonder if you could give me a title of a contemporary book that you would deem literature and beneficial while still being reasonably entertaining.

  9. I cannot imagine life without books! I know how you are feeling! when I go to Saudi, they look at my book collection and say ” you must be smart to be reading all of this”

    um, no! its not about being smart (Although you do become a great writer just by reading) its about experiencing, acknowledging, and learning that you cannot get from a lesson 🙂

    I pity those who find reading a bore! I just hope that someday they will stop this nonsense and pick up a book 🙂

  10. Pingback: Saudi Arabia: Literacy and the Written Word « American Bedu

  11. Seamo T

    Today I was conversing with my Saudi friend and the subject of literature came up. He told me that Saudi’s do not read for pleasure/leisure and I asked him to repeat himself. I think my jaw actually dropped slightly amid an expression of horror. It really just has not occurred to me before that a developed civilisation would regard literacy as ….well, as less than what it is in western countries!

  12. Thank you for such a candid and thoughtful post. I first arrived in Saudi Arabia in AH 1412, and I’ve taught here, off and on, ever since. A good friend of mine saw that I was reading Clan of the Cave Bear, so he picked it up, flipped through it and asked, “How can you just read and read and read a book that doesn’t even have pictures? What’s the point?” And the same attitude has been reflected in my classes on many occasions. What I try to do is introduce my students to readings that match their hobbies, which has had some success. Problem is that reading for fun is such a novel idea to them that they quickly give up, as most readings are beyond their capabilities. Now, here in 1438, I’m facing the same difficulty in sparking a genuine interest in reading among students who may be sent to the US for further English study. If there are any native Arabic-speaker English teachers reading this, I’d love to hear from you with ideas about how to pique my students’ interest in reading for reading’s sake.

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