Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Arab Books and Human Development

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Arab Books and Human Development

Article excerpt

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 2002 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 a 1999 study, (1) the Report continued:

   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 (the
   ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain
   translates in one year. (AHDR 2002, p. 78)

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. The irony of the quote is to say 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 6826 books total published in Greece in 2002. (2) While it is possible that one quarter of Greece's publications were translations, it is not clear to me 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 several thousand each year. Yet these shortcomings in the statistics have not hindered the international reception of the AHDR's data on Arab book publishing.

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

   On education, the report reveals that the whole Arab world
   translates about three hundred 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.

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. …

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