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2010-02-05

Tunisia's ranks of readers thinning, survey finds

By Mona Yahia for Magharebia in Tunis – 05/02/10

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Tunisians' interest in the printed page is flagging, and the government is mulling ways to spur more reading, the Ministry of Culture announced on January 28th.

The initial results of a recent ministry survey of 1,029 Tunisians revealed that 75% do not set foot in public libraries, and 22.74% have never read a single book. The reasons given for this low reading rate were varied, but 18% said they just don't like to read.

The results of the survey, which were unveiled by ministry official Reda Najjar in Sfax, have prompted the government to plan new pro-reading measures. Based on further consultations, the ministry will create a strategy for book production and distribution, co-ordinate with libraries and develop an overall reading action plan.

"I think this has to do with the image and status of books in general within Tunisian society," writer and publisher Walid Sliman told Magharebia on Wednesday (February 3rd). "Books need institutional promotion because they are held in low esteem in Tunisian society."

"In addition, there's the problem of intruders in the publishing world who market books that don't meet publishing specs, in terms of image and content," he added. "A good number of the books on the market don't meet those specs, which further alienates Tunisians."

The survey, which was conducted through cell phone voting, a field study, and nation-wide surveys, asked 1,029 respondents to disclose their reading tastes and their general relationship with books.

Not surprisingly, Tunisian publishing houses and bookstores are suffering from slim sales. Despite repeated attempts to attract Tunisians to books, such as holding exhibitions in cinemas and public transportation stations, Tunisian families allocate less than 30 dinars a year for books.

Ordinary Tunisians gave Magharebia varied reasons for their reading habits.

"The first culprit is education in Tunisia. We were never encouraged to read," said Noura Khalil, an artist. "Even the books selected for students to read were incredibly dull. In addition, unlike the attractively designed, high-quality foreign books, ours seem cheap and of poor quality."

The survey also examined the places where Tunisians prefer to read. As it turns out, only 13.15% head for public libraries, while 48.71% see libraries merely as places to do schoolwork.

In many cases, the reading drought is not for lack of opportunities. Tunisia has 378 public libraries, in addition to 30 roaming libraries.

The crisis of reading is not unique to Tunisia; other Maghreb countries are grappling with it as well. In that light, Moroccan writers recently gathered to discuss restoring readers' love of books.

Moroccan author Hassan Ouezzani painted a bleak picture of the state of reading in the country. Citing Ministry of Culture research from 2001, he said that Moroccans read only 2.5 books per year, while 1 in 10 do not read books at all.

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    Jo 2010-2-6

    Everything is going well. Perhaps Tunisians are not (or are no longer) interested in French culture. Its model and its literature cannot be our own. Perhaps this is a people whose language, Dérja, even though it is written, does not serve as an appropriate reference in terms of science and culture. (I am sorry, but their language is not Arabic.) Perhaps Tunisians have discovered that French is just translations and are looking for the source so that they can interact with a more advanced, larger community. I am speaking of English.

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    chrifal 2010-2-6

    Why don't Tunisians read? It's because the media and the various means of communication (cinema, theatre, festivals, internet and so on) provide too much information on activities without any relation to literary, historic, social, political, psychological, etc. topics of interest, which are to be found in books. In effect, our mass media only discusses football, reality shows, low-brow music and low-brow politics. Books themselves, even if they are well marketed, no longer suffice to be sold and consumed; they have to be offered in a commercial, political, social, etc. environment, which is opportune to motivating reading. In the West, we still see “best sellers” because three principle conditions have been satisfied: First, the freedom of thought, criticism and expression provide the desire to read and think about various subjects (political, social, historic, literary, geostrategic, economic, etc.), whereas here the readers wonder why they read if they will never be able to use these new readings to form criticisms and express themselves without any constraint. Second, the price of books in the West is affordable for average citizens, whereas here good books are expensive. Third, books need to be the object of multimedia communication and promotion. Books need to be an important part of television broadcasting in the form of literary programmes, short films, variety shows, commercials and so on and, also, in long and short films, plays (even one-man shows) and internet forums and blogs. All means of traditional and technological communication are, without censorship, good for promoting books.

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    Anonymous 2010-2-5

    I will limit myself to the Tunisian’s crisis of reading. They no longer want to read because they are bored stiff with the stories of Ben Ali and his 7 November, the date of his coup d’état, everywhere. The propaganda unceasingly repeats that this was the day of the Change of Tunisia — a change that Tunisians want to blot out of their lives. The editor who said that specs for “image and content” do not meet the aspirations of Tunisians and further alienates them from reading, could have been a clearer. But this is dangerous in Tunisia. What he wants to say is that Tunisians are tired of reading the vibrant homages delivered to them night and day in the strong letters of thanks that continue to be lavished upon Ben Ali. They are tired of seeing his portrait in administrative buildings, cafés, restaurants, libraries, garages and even around the beds where they perform the oldest profession in the world. When will there be a real change that will rid Tunisia of this pollution of texts and portraits, which hang there like a wall of silence?

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