Latest Articles

Seyla Benhabib

Critique of humanitarian reason

Never have there been more refugees in the world as today: an estimated 45 million in total. So what's the current relationship between international law, emancipatory politics and the rights of the rightless? Seyla Benhabib on the urgent need to create new political vistas. [Estonian version added] [ more ]

Martha Albertson Fineman, Mirjam Katzin

The human condition

Camille Robcis, Aro Velmet

Universalist politics and its crises

Robin Detje

Impertinence, beauty, opposition

Eurozine Review

Eurozine Review

Stand fast and hold firm

"Kultura Liberalna" speaks to Anne Applebaum; "Osteuropa" analyses Poland's conservative revolution; "Wespennest" devotes an issue to the charismatic hormone, testosterone; "Esprit" wonders what's next after western Middle East fatigue; "Arena" asks if art is important; "Merkur" listens to echoes of Victor Hugo; and "RozRazil" goes to the pub.

Eurozine Review

It's something new

Eurozine Review

Leaping the boundaries

Eurozine Review

Drastic measures

Eurozine Review

Unholy alliances

My Eurozine

If you want to be kept up to date, you can subscribe to Eurozine's rss-newsfeed or our Newsletter.

Share |

Arab books and human development

The challenges faced by Arabic book publishing are considerable but is it really responsible for all the problems of the Arab world?

The 2002 Arab Human Development Report was a landmark document. Written by Arab social scientists, it was the first auto-critique to address the challenges faced by the Arab world at the start of a new century. The Report set out an agenda of reform based on three perceived "deficits": the freedom deficit, a deficit of empowerment of women and the "human capabilities/knowledge deficit relative to income". To support their bold assertions, the Report's authors assembled data from a wide range of sources and, drawing on the model of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Reports, sought to view the social and economic challenges from new and innovative angles. Consequently, the AHDR 2002 provided a wealth of new ideas to stimulate discussion and debate on the contemporary Arab world.

Given the weight of data and arguments, the general reader might be forgiven for having overlooked a brief paragraph, in a chapter otherwise dedicated to research and information technology, on the state of books in the Arab world. "There are no reliable figures on the production of books," the Report contends, "but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content." Drawing on the 1999 study of S. Galal, Translation in the Arab Homeland: Reality and Challenge, published by Cairo's higher council for culture, the Report continues:

The figures for translated books are also discouraging. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa'moun's (sic) time is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.

It is no coincidence that the authors chose the Caliph Ma'mun as a starting point. The Caliph is credited with initiating one of the most important translation projects in human history. A convinced rationalist, al-Ma'mun (r 813-33) established in Baghdad the famous "House of Wisdom" (Dar al-Hikma) dedicated to the translation of Greek philosophical works, preserving in Arabic the wisdom of ancient Greece for all posterity. There is an irony in the thought that the Arab world today, representing 270 million people spread over 22 countries, can only manage one fifth the translations of modern Greece. Such round figures are hard to substantiate: the National Book Centre of Greece, founded by the ministry of culture, does not keep records on translations into Greek. However, they reported a total of 6,826 books published in Greece in 2002. While it is possible that one quarter of Greece's publications were translations, it is not clear that this would be a sign of publishing vitality. The figure for Spain is spurious; its total figure for book publishing, of which translations would be a minor part, does not exceed the tens of thousands each year. Yet these shortcomings in the statistics have not hindered the international reception of the AHDR's data on Arab book publishing.

Its figures were seized upon by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to illustrate the isolation of the Arabs in an increasingly globalised world.

On education, the report reveals that the whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually - one fifth the number that Greece alone translates; investment in research and development is less than one seventh the world average; and Internet connectivity is worse than in sub-Saharan Africa. ('Arabs at the crossroads' NYT 2 July 2002)

Friedman derived the title of his column from a quote in the AHDR: "The Arab world is at a crossroads. The fundamental choice is whether its trajectory will remain marked by inertia ... or whether prospects for an Arab renaissance, anchored in human development, will be actively pursued." The authority of the AHDR and the New York Times combined to give these data great weight in public debate. Respected analysts noted for their sympathy with the Arab world, such as Vartan Gregorian, quoted the book figures to demonstrate the need for an opening of the Arab mind to outside influences as a strategy for countering the power of Islam in Arab politics. US secretary of state Colin Powell, too, explicitly cited the "crossroads" quote to validate a new US policy to invest in social change in the Arab world. Books in the Arab world had come to be associated with the forces inhibiting an Arab renaissance. And so the authors of the AHDR 2003 returned to the subject in some detail. While cautioning readers about the lack of reliable statistics "on the actual amount of literary production in the Arab world", they draw on UNESCO figures to assert that, in 1991, "Arab countries produced 6,500 books compared to 102,000 books in North America and 42,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean". Still drawing on UNESCO figures, the 2003 Report claimed:

Book production in Arab countries was just 1.1 per cent of world production, although Arabs constitute 5 per cent of the world's population. The publication of literary works was lower than the average level of book production. In 1996, Arab countries produced no more than 1945 literary and artistic books, which represents 0.8 per cent of international production. This is less than what a country such as Turkey produces, with a population about one-quarter that of the Arab countries. In general, Arab book production centres mainly on religious topics and less on other fields such as literature, art and the social sciences.

This preoccupation with religious books, first raised in the 2002 Report, recurs throughout the 2003 text. "There are no accurate statistics on the types of books preferred by Arab readers," it notes, "but according to many publishers and observers, the bestsellers at the Cairo International Book Fair are religious books, followed by books categorised as educational." The Report then directs the reader to a table that purports to support these generalisations. Comparing the relative distribution of published books, by field, in ten Arab countries and the rest of the world in 1996, the table shows that the Arab world did produce more than three times the world relative distribution of books on religion - some 17.5 per cent compared to just over 5 per cent of the rest of the world. However, religious books represented a distinct minority - and the smallest category overall - of the relative distribution of books in Arabic, with the social sciences representing closer to 20 per cent, the sciences exceeding 20 per cent and the arts and literature tallying the highest figure of some 22.5 per cent.

The Arab book, the 2003 Report concludes, is a 'threatened species' and the challenges faced by Arab book publishing are very real. Print runs of books are low, ranging for the average novel from 1,000-3,000 copies. "A book that sells 5,000 copies is considered a bestseller" it states. With fewer books being published and small runs, publishing runs the risk of becoming "economically unfeasible".

According to Fathi Khalil al-Biss, vice president of the Arab Publishers Union, who is quoted in the report, Arab book publishing has been threatened by three factors: censorship and the practice of banning books among the 22 Arab states; low readership, blamed on economic stagnation and competition from the mass media; the lack of adequate distribution of books across the Arab world. Al-Biss added that a lack of respect for intellectual property rights was also a deterrent.

Just as Colin Powell drew on the first AHDR to justify the "US-Middle East Partnership Initiative" of 2002, so the US administration drew on the two reports in drafting their 2004 working paper for the G-8 in which it set out the parameters of a "Greater Middle East Partnership". On the basis of the now familiar numbers - however unreliable - it blames the dearth of Arab publishing for the underlying problems in education and literacy and is, yet again, preoccupied with the relative share of Islamic books. The "US Working Paper for G-8 Sherpas" quoted in Al-Hayat concludes:

The region's growing knowledge gap and continuing brain drain challenge its development prospects. Arab countries' output of books represents just 1.1 per cent of the world total (with religious books constituting over 15 per cent of this.) ... Five times as many books are translated into Greek (spoken by just 11 million people) as Arabic.

Given the concerns for "building a knowledge society" set out in the 2003 Report, the state of the Arab book deserves further examination. After all, books are one of the most important vehicles for the dissemination of knowledge in a society. While the issues raised by the two reports are very real, the paucity of hard statistics, the normative value assigned to certain types of books and the unspoken assumption that the Arab world lags behind the rest of the world in intellectual terms for want of a sufficient number of translated works, are matters that need further discussion.


Published 2004-04-27

Original in English
Contributed by Index on Censorship
© Eurozine
© Index on Censorship

Focal points     click for more

Ukraine in European dialogue
Post-revolutionary Ukrainian society displays a unique mix of hope, enthusiasm, social creativity, collective trauma of war, radicalism and disillusionment. Two years after the country's uprising, the focal point "Ukraine in European dialogue" takes stock. [more]

Culture and the commons
Across Europe, citizens are engaging in new forms of cultural cooperation while developing alternative and participatory democratic practices. The commons is where cultural and social activists meet a broader public to create new ways of living together. [more]

2016 Jean Améry Prize collection
To coincide with the awarding of the 2016 Jean Améry Prize for European essay writing, Eurozine publishes essays by authors nominated for the prize, including by a representative selection of Eurozine partner journals. [more]

Ukraine: Beyond conflict stories
Follow the critical, informed and nuanced voices that counter the dominant discourse of crisis concerning Ukraine. A media exchange project linking Ukrainian independent media with "alternative" media in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Greece. [more]

The politics of privacy
The Snowden leaks and the ensuing NSA scandal made the whole world debate privacy and data protection. Now the discussion has entered a new phase - and it's all about policy. A focal point on the politics of privacy: claiming a European value. [more]

Beyond Fortress Europe
The fate of migrants attempting to enter Fortress Europe has triggered a new European debate on laws, borders and human rights. A focal point featuring reportage alongside articles on policy and memory. With contributions by Fabrizio Gatti, Seyla Benhabib and Alessandro Leogrande. [more]

Russia in global dialogue
In the two decades after the end of the Cold War, intellectual interaction between Russia and Europe has intensified. It has not, however, prompted a common conversation. The focal point "Russia in global dialogue" seeks to fuel debate on democracy, society and the legacy of empire. [more]

Eurozine BLOG

On the Eurozine BLOG, editors and Eurozine contributors comment on current affairs and events. What's behind the headlines in the world of European intellectual journals?
In memoriam: Ales Debeljak (1961-2016)
On 28 January 2016, Ales Debeljak died in a car crash in Slovenia. He will be much missed as an agile and compelling essayist, a formidable public speaker and a charming personality. [more]

Time to Talk     click for more

Time to Talk, a network of European Houses of Debate, has partnered up with Eurozine to launch an online platform. Here you can watch video highlights from all TTT events, anytime, anywhere.
Neda Deneva, Constantina Kouneva, Irina Nedeva and Yavor Siderov
Does migration intensify distrust in institutions?
How do migration and institutional mistrust relate to one another? As a new wave of populism feeds on and promotes fears of migration, aggrandising itself through the distrust it sows, The Red House hosts a timely debate with a view to untangling the key issues. [more]

Support Eurozine     click for more

If you appreciate Eurozine's work and would like to support our contribution to the establishment of a European public sphere, see information about making a donation.

Vacancies at Eurozine     click for more

There are currently no positions available.

Editor's choice     click for more

Jürgen Habermas, Michaël Foessel
Critique and communication: Philosophy's missions
Decades after first encountering Anglo-Saxon perspectives on democracy in occupied postwar Germany, Jürgen Habermas still stands by his commitment to a critical social theory that advances the cause of human emancipation. This follows a lifetime of philosophical dialogue. [more]

Literature     click for more

Karl Ove Knausgård
Out to where storytelling does not reach
To write is to write one's way through the preconceived and into the world on the other side, to see the world as children can, as fantastic or terrifying, but always rich and wide-open. Karl Ove Knausgård on creating literature. [more]

Jonathan Bousfield
Growing up in Kundera's Central Europe
Jonathan Bousfield talks to three award-winning novelists who spent their formative years in a Central Europe that Milan Kundera once described as the kidnapped West. It transpires that small nations may still be the bearers of important truths. [more]

Literary perspectives
The re-transnationalization of literary criticism
Eurozine's series of essays aims to provide an overview of diverse literary landscapes in Europe. Covered so far: Croatia, Sweden, Austria, Estonia, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Hungary. [more]

Debate series     click for more

Europe talks to Europe
Nationalism in Belgium might be different from nationalism in Ukraine, but if we want to understand the current European crisis and how to overcome it we need to take both into account. The debate series "Europe talks to Europe" is an attempt to turn European intellectual debate into a two-way street. [more]

Conferences     click for more

Eurozine emerged from an informal network dating back to 1983. Since then, European cultural magazines have met annually in European cities to exchange ideas and experiences. Around 100 journals from almost every European country are now regularly involved in these meetings.
Law and Border. House Search in Fortress Europe
The 26th European Meeting of Cultural Journals
Conversano, 3-6 October 2014
Eurozine's 2014 conference in southern Italy, not far from Lampedusa, addressed both EU refugee and immigration policies and intellectual partnerships across the Mediterranean. Speakers included Italian investigative journalist Fabrizio Gatti and Moroccan feminist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rita El Khayat. [more]

Multimedia     click for more
Multimedia section including videos of past Eurozine conferences in Vilnius (2009) and Sibiu (2007). [more]

powered by