Bookworms entice Jordanians to read by handing out sweets

Middle East

Despite campaigns to popularize reading by locals and UNESCO, the high price of books puts them out of many Jordanians' reach.

Amman — Some passers-by on the streets of Amman might have believed themselves to be the victims of an April Fools’ Day prank when total strangers offered them books along with sweets. But it was a campaign carried out by Al-Dakhliyah Cir, a group from Jordan’s National Library, to encourage reading in the kingdom.

“Your Book, Your Friend” was launched on the occasion of the UNESCO-sponsored National Book Week, which started the first day of April. Throughout the week, some 1,500 adult and children’s books were distributed around the capital and nearby towns, said Nidal al-Ayasira, the director of the Department of the National Library.

“The initiative aims at a return to print books amid the rise and prevalence of social media and e-books. The National Library has distributed around 150,000 books for free since the campaign ‘Your Book, Your Friend’ was launched in 2012,” Ayasira told Al-Monitor.

Explaining that the decline in reading is a global problem, Ayasira said sustainable campaigns are needed to encourage reading. “We resorted to distributing sweets with books to tell people that books are candy for the mind. People of all age groups welcomed the initiative,” he said.

There are no statistics available on how many books the average Jordanian reads in a year, but a UNDP report in 2018 put the number at 21. Eight of them were curricular or work related, and 13 for leisure.

Both book vendors and readers believe that the high prices of books play a role in low readership. “I do not remember the last time I bought a novel or anything to read for pleasure. Books are simply too expensive,” university student Ali Abu Rabea told Al-Monitor. In Amman, where the average per capita income is about 200 dinars ($282) a month, a $15 novel is beyond the reach of many Jordanians after most of their wages are spent on food, accommodation and transportation.

Hassan Yassine owns one of the biggest bookstores in Amman with rare, electronic and antique books. He told Al-Monitor that he has more than 100,000 books, mainly fiction. He dedicated the first floor to secondhand books that are sold at a lower price of one dinar ($0.70) to encourage reading.

Yassine bought thousands of secondhand books from Egyptian vendors and Jordanian households to build his own bookstore called Azbakeya, named after the historical Soor al-Azbakeya  in Cairo that houses hundreds of bookstores and stands.

He ties the decline in reading to publishers’ prices, which are simply too high for the average reader and impossible for students. Azbakeya holds a discount book fair every year in the Amman art gallery Ras al-Ayn and in various Jordanian universities.

Three years ago, young bibliophile Ghaith Bahdoushi created an initiative to distribute books with the help of “Nancy,” a tattered 1974 Mercedes. The project, “Books on the Road,” collected enough donations to open Kawon Library in a renovated house in the Madaba city center, but “Nancy” still cruises the streets of Jordan.

Bahdousha told Al-Monitor that his project aims to spread the reading culture among different social groups by delivering books to readers wherever they are. “Jordanians’ interest in reading is increasing, but it is still not what it should be,” he observed, adding, “Initiatives are not enough to encourage reading because they operate in their own context, rather than bring books where readers are. The biggest role is for the Ministry of Education and Higher Education — they should devise a strategy for increasing leisure reading among students, make books available and also raise parents’ awareness regarding reading.”

Jordanian Minister of Culture Mohammad Abu Rumman called on Jordanians April 6 via Twitter to buy books and support Jordanian publishing houses, which are on the decline as well.

The Jordan Media Commission has granted permits to 750 publishing houses. Of them, 371 have been officially shuttered and only half, 379, remain operational. Only 140 publishing houses are registered with the Publishers Union, a platform where they collectively bargain for their rights. The number of active members dropped to 72 in 2018. The country has some 900 large and small book vendors, but many are struggling to keep their doors open, according to publishing circles.

Last year, the government imposed a sales tax of 10% on books but lifted it two months later after publishers protested.

Image: Mohammed Ersan

Article: Al Monitor