Modernity and Arab Tradition

I was drawn, while in my seat on the aeroplane watching the passengers on their way to board, to a child and his mother each reading a book and glancing every now and then to measure the distance separating them from the aeroplane staircase.

By Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban

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Published: Wed 22 Jul 2009, 9:33 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:04 AM

They only turned the book aside when they climbed the first step of the staircase while they re-attached their eyes to it while their feet were feeling the next steps. The child and his mother were not alone in having their eyes glued to their books. The man in front of me was completely absorbed by a thick book throughout the journey, so was the man to my right and so were most of the passengers, whether moving or sitting, holding to their books.

My imagination took me back to the summer, which our children spent in lazing around, swimming, travelling or playing computer games. I thought of the reading deficiency, which has become a feature of the age thanks to the Internet and television. But the man who invented the Internet still holds fast to the habit of reading which means a great deal, as does the lack of it. I found that the lack of reading has become a characteristic only of Arab society. Can it be believed that in a nation of almost four hundred million people a mere two thousand copies are printed of any book, and even these are hardly sold. Why is this reluctance among our children and youth to make friends with books and reading?

In Western schools, classes are stopped 15 minutes every day for pupils to read their favourite book. This means that every pupil has to look for a favourite book and read for a quarter of an hour every day at school. This will soon grow to hours and then to a wonderful habit, which is nurtured in children so that they experience the pleasure of reading, and discovering the world.

The difference between a nation that reads and a nation that does not is like the difference between light and darkness; for the reading habit develops into a habit of thinking, analysis and production. Nations, which do not read are just satisfied with receiving the view and ideas of others without realising the objective or the impact these ideas have on their life and future.

Reading is not the only habit, which, we claim, was destroyed by modernity. In fact, it is only our modernity which has turned computers into playing things for children and adolescents. Wherever you go in Western cities, which have old buildings and neighbourhoods, you will see the constant efforts made to restore an old building, or even its façade or any trace, which shows the greatness of the achievement of their ancestors. These buildings wear new apparel only in terms of cleanliness and resistance to weather conditions. In many Arab cities, which are hundreds if not thousands of years old, you see bulldozers demolishing buildings which have unparalleled originality and authenticity to be replaced by buildings which have nothing in common with our society, history or environment.

The comparison might be extended to include concern for traditional industries and handicraft and even culture, tradition, dress, singing and music. All aspects of our culture show a laxity with regard to all things original and authentic coupled with blind acquiescence to whatever is Western. They also show a wholesale importation not only of goods but of everything which might introduce a different lifestyle at the expense of our lifestyle, values, tradition and culture.

It might be difficult to separate, in this sense, between what is cultural, political and economic. As we voluntarily give up our language, tradition and heritage, we also neglect promoting our products on the international arena and do not hold fast to our values and views in the face of persistent campaigns, which target our existence, values and the future of our nation.

Dr Bouthaina Shaaban is Syria’s Minister of Political and Media Affairs

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