Up For Contemplation: Cultural Differences In Reading Habits

The most fascinating thing about blogging, without a shred of a doubt, is other blogs. Populating every nook and cranny of this globe, there are REAL people willing to share their view of the world with you. Often, a seemingly mundane snippet torn from their every-day life provides enough reflective fodder to keep my cogs spinning for a week.

An example of this is the post below, published by Eastraveller. It offers an insight, which goes some way towards explaining her observation that few people in the Middle East appear to be reading books simply for fun.

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Three Bad Boys Who Gave Reading A Bad Name – Posted by Eastraveller on 11 March 2013

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:)

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PoppyReading this post sparked off a train of thought, which made me reflect on my own experience of growing up in a region where the local dialect differs considerably from the ‘official’ standard version of the national language.

Now, I know more about soil composition on Mars than I do about the culture of any Middle Eastern country, so the validity of the comparison I’m drawing here is, at best, questionable.

As you may have guessed, I love reading. It’s the only thing that kept me from chewing off my own toes during my teenage years, spent languishing in a tiny Bavarian village.

Bavaria is a region (and a state) of Germany where Bavarian, a dialect of German that is largely unintelligible to other Germans, is spoken. It’s still German, but it diverges, on occasions quite significantly, in pronunciation and vocabulary from standard High German (Hochdeutsch).

All Bavarians understand and (except perhaps for some elderly people living in rural areas) also speak Hochdeutsch; it’s the language of education, the media, literature, etc. Bavarian, by contrast, is not a written language, although there are a handful of authors, notably Ludwig Thoma, who have authored books in Bavarian, the latter with notable literary success.

I digress – the main point I’m trying to get at is that Bavarians read books just like Germans from other parts of the country. Bavarian is what you speak at home, with your friends, with your (Bavarian) work colleagues. Being a native Bavarian speaker is in no way detrimental one’s ability to understand and enjoy material produced in Hochdeutsch, or, heaven forbid, receiving an education. Bavaria is home to Siemens, BMW and Audi. It is, in fact, the most prosperous of all German states, despite its natives talking funny and having a reputation in other parts of the country of being…erm… let’s say, a tad eccentric.

I’m not going to pretend that I have even a sliver of a clue as to what degree the ‘standard’ Arabic used in written communication and news casts deviates from the versions spoken by people in the street, but I find the idea, that the two are light years removed from each other, disturbing. By the sounds of it, it leaves the average person effectively cut off, not only from education, but from communicating with anyone outside of their locale…?

This begs the question: Why isn’t there a thriving publishing industry in Middle Eastern countries churning out everything from leisure time reading (like novels etc) to educational material that people can actually understand and, even more importantly, enjoy? Is it because Middle Eastern economies are, by and large, underdeveloped with many ordinary people struggling to meet basic needs and hence, reading (for pleasure or otherwise) is way down on their list of priorities? And could this maybe be due to a lack of accessible education…? Who stands to benefit from this state of affairs if not the ruling classes, who, ironically, send their kids abroad to be schooled…?

So many questions…

[Here is a link to Eastraveller’s blog]

8 thoughts on “Up For Contemplation: Cultural Differences In Reading Habits

  1. northern_star

    That’s completely fascinating, about the Middle East, and it makes perfect sense. But imagine… no reading for fun! I’m shuddering at the very thought.


  2. traveller

    It’s a good question. I think the issue of translation is a hard one, with many implications.
    And then there’s the market, still waiting for that first publisher. The one willing to break the ice and take the risk that the book will not be an instant success. It takes time, it takes changing habits…


      1. traveller

        That is a debatable issue and it’s not equally true everywhere in the region.
        My point was more to do with light-hearted reading for pleasure and the potential readers themselves, their lack of motivation arising from very understandable circumstances which don’t affect European cultures in the same way.


      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        It’s a bit of a catch-22 I reckon… if you don’t offer something, there will be no apparent demand. I think humans have an intrinsic need for lighthearted diversion, regardless of life circumstances/conditions. It’s just expressed in a different way, depending on the culture and what is on offer.


  3. aishasoasis

    Lol, I enjoyed this double post very much! I’m struggling in egypt, and failing miserably I must add, to learn the language here. Standard arabic, fusha, is on the tv and in the newspapers, and street egyptian dialect is in the street, but there is a blending of the two that requires a diplomatic passport and immunity yto comprehend the protocol. Good manners with polite society requires properly educated speech, so nobody understands my limited vocabulary, and street vendors, microbus drivers, etc requires garbled, drawled slang, so they dont understand me either… lol, my best audience is in the age category of 7 to 15, they are so forgiving and flexible, if it wasnt for kids, I would have given up by now!

    But about the books, maybe thats a regional thing, because Egyptians typically love to read, especially newspapers, but theres no end to book sellers on every street in downtown cairo! I personally love the magazines, I can enjoy the fashion photos without worrying about the words.

    anyway, excellent post, and greetings once again from an american expat blogging about life in egypt after eloping with an egyptian man I met online during a mid life crisis!


    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi again, and thanks for your informative feedback on this matter! It’s heartening to hear that there’s plenty of reading going on in Egypt 🙂

      As far as I gather, you’ve not been in Egypt for that long, have you…? It takes a good while to get the hang of the language, lots of effort and composure, especially with one that’s so different from your native tongue. Have you started to learn to read?



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