Fostering a culture of reading begins at an early age. As Oman seeks to bolster its worldwide English literacy rankings, we look at factors that lie behind a reluctant approach to reading in the Sultanate and how a book in hand can open a window on the world.
That moment you open a book for the first time – it’s magical. The anticipation of a good read is overpowered by a whiff of fresh air, coupled with the untainted scent of new paper, and a book cover smoother than Jay-Z’s rap game. It’s a feeling unlike any other – but sadly, it’s something much of the youth of today will never experience.
While much of that can be attributed to digital media, smartphones, and e-books and e-readers, our real concern lies in the fact that less of today’s youth spend time reading for pleasure anymore.
The matter only becomes more alarming when you realise that Omani kids spend less time in a year reading than they spend playing games or sports.
In fact, a report published in 2016 titled, ‘Establishing a Reading Culture in Arabic and English in Oman’, reports that Arab children only read books (not counting school and religious materials) for around six minutes a year.
In comparison, the average Western child reads 12,000 minutes a year.
Case in point: when we interview with Y, Saeed al Mahrooqi, an Omani student in grade 8, he tells us: “I do (read) online. I think social media is good enough for me to gain the necessary knowledge.
“Why should I spend hours reading books when I can simply go to the Internet,” he asks.
“Besides, I already have to read so many books at school. I don’t want [any] more [books].”
Such aversion to books, as per Samira al Zadjali, a teacher in a private school in Oman, comes from an attitude that stems from children observing their elders.
“We have parent-teacher conferences here at school, and it’s surprising how some parents – mostly the fathers – actually tease the teacher when they ask the child to read,” the teacher says.
“I had one colleague come to me and tell me how she was completely insulted when the father laughed at the son’s report card and said that it was ‘OK’ that he was performing badly in English Literature.
“Some think it’s cool to not be involved in a part of the reading culture,” she adds.
Though, the stats from the report take a turn for the better as they grow older – on average only one in 80 Arabs read a book in one year.
All of this means that Omanis struggle when it comes to proficiency in English. As per a report compiled following an online language test conducted by International Education Company, Education First, Omanis were only able to rank 58 out of 70 worldwide in English proficiency.
In an earlier interview with Y, Abdulaziz al Jahdhami, a published Omani writer, told us: “Reading is a way to empower your mind.
“There are so many ways by which you can expand your thinking – but the best way is to simply grab a book and begin to read it. That will motivate you to open up your mind to what others have to say.
“And only then can you reach newer goals.”
Though, Abdulaziz is a renowned writer in Oman, he is also an avid reader. And it is from there that he has gained his grasp of the English language.
But things are slowly changing, today. As a part of Dar Al Atta’a’s ‘Let’s Read’ campaign – which is intended to develop reading among the youth – Maktabati, Oman’s first mobile library was launched.
Moreover, libraries such as ‘My Book and Me’, ‘The Public Knowledge Library’, ‘House of Prose’, and ‘Rawazin Bookshop’ all push for spreading the “reading culture” within the youth of the Sultanate.
In recent news, we also learned that Oman Avenues Mall and Dar Al Atta’a joined hands to establish one of the nation’s largest free-to-public children’s libraries and charity bookshops in Oman.
At the heart of the project is a “strategic vision to inculcate reading habits in the children and youth of Oman, by offering them an experience that indulges them in the joy and love of books and reading in a playful environment”.
Aisha al Barwani, a life-coach specialising on the youth of Oman says: “Omani kids are lucky.
“It’s one of the few GCC countries that actually provides everyone with the opportunity to get their hands on the best books that are currently out there.
“The only reason person holding you back is you. At the end of the day, really, it’s just your call whether you want to spend your time reading or watching a movie.
“But one thing is for sure, visual education is the best way to improve your knowledge, and reading books can open up new worlds to the reader. It gives the individual the gift of imagination, which they can use to improve their mental skills.
“By reading – especially novels, you also not only morph your mind into thinking like the character in the book, but also develop traits such as empathy.
“This enables you to understand yourself better – and that’s what reading is all about. It’s about improving yourself.”