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.