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With the growth of tablets, Kindles and smart phones, it can be difficult to gage reading habits by empirical methods alone. But judging by the record breaking sales of books such as the Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code and A Game of Thrones, it appears that reading is still an important pastime for millions across the world. Here in Oman, there have been remarkable achievements in the fields of education and a huge expansion of Internet access in the country but many have pointed to a lack of literature available to the public that has made it difficult to foster a culture where reading is something that is done for pleasure. As is well known, Oman’s experiences in literacy have been remarkable. In 1970, only three formal schools covered the entire population of Oman. Following the education reforms that have been put in place since 1970 there has been a revolutionary effect on literacy rates in the country; now practically all young people in the country are considered literate. This is without the country having to go through aggressive literacy programmes that have been established in other developing countries. However, despite these impressive leaps Oman has made over the past forty years, experts say the country is still falling short of establishing a strong reading culture among youth and has an impact on all levels of education.
Dr Rahma Al-Mahrooqi is an Associate Professor at Sultan Qaboos University’s Department of English, with a PhD from the University of Pittsburg who has done extensive research on English language teaching, reading, literature, and both intercultural and cross-cultural communication. She says, “My findings show that we have a weak reading culture in Oman in both Arabic and English. The inadequate number of public libraries and good bookshops across the country is, I think, a contributing factor to this. Because reading is a foundational skill which affects children’s social, intellectual and psychological development, failing to develop it at an early stage might negatively affect students’ adjustment to school and later their educational development as a whole.” Dr Al Mahrooqi has been a longtime advocate of reading in Oman. Through her position at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), she has been able to encourage students to use books as a source of pleasure and learning. Yet, with literature not readily available to youngsters in the country, this has proved to be an uphill battle. “Oman’s inadequate number of libraries is certainly counter-productive in terms of students’ education and formation as good citizens — a process which must really begin in infancy,” she says.
Despite the fact that she teaches at one of Oman’s most prestigious higher education institutes, she says that the effects of this can be seen at the lectures she holds for some of her second-year English major students. “I have found that many of them possess insufficient reading skills. Many read slowly and laboriously. Their vocabulary knowledge is limited and so, alas, is their general knowledge of the world. Hence, their ability to speak or write about a whole variety of topics is jeopardised.” Sultan Qaboos University does, however, boast one of the most extensive collections of books in the country and Dr Al Mahrooqi says that is the reason that many of these students are able to catch up after entering their undergraduate courses, as books are freely available in university and college libraries. Despite common misconceptions, smaller libraries can be found in Oman, such as those organised by the Diwan and the Public Knowledge Library based at the Petroleum Development Oman offices in Qurum. But it is the lack of awareness of these places that have stopped them from being fully utilised by the public. Libraries to her are ‘houses of learning’, where the only distractions are the books themselves.
Although a Children’s Public Library is being constructed in Muscat, which should provide such an environment for children, she says that there could be more promotion or advertising of what it will offer and its purpose. She does believe that if it has a wide range of well selected books, including some on tape, TV and computer programmes promoting literacy, and well-trained staff who can relay literature through storytelling, it will go a long way in improving Oman’s reading culture for future generations. That is not to say that literary culture does not exist in Oman. Dr Al Mahrooqi points out that poetry and oral story telling are well ingrained in Omani society. “There is an ancient tradition of oral literature, comprising folktales, songs and rhymes, and our traditional dances are adorned with songs and music. Then, too, poetry galore is found everywhere in Oman. The emphasis on reading is as recent as the Omani Renaissance, which started in 1970,” she says.
However, she says that some school libraries have not been sufficiently well stocked or equipped to deal with contemporary learning methods, but that recent efforts by the Ministry of Education should sufficiently improve school library holdings. “This is not to say, of course, that there is no need for public libraries and good bookshops,” she adds. “There is, let me stress, a dire need for these. Well-stocked school libraries, public libraries and bookshops have to exist, side-by-side, if a country wants to provide diverse educational facilities for its youngsters and encourage its adults to gain knowledge from the very best sources available.” Despite the efforts being made by the government to boost reading culture in Oman, there are ways in which the private sector can contribute to this, notably by book stores offering a wider range of literature at more reasonable prices. The dearth in book stores and the range of books are common complaints by customers. Residents and nationals we spoke to pointed out the high price of books and that many bookstores concentrate on business, cookery and contemporary literature, rather than classics, history and reference guides.
The Associate Professor agrees with this point: “there is a serious lack of good bookstores across the country. Apart from other effects, this hinders educated parents’ efforts to buy books for their children, which will impart literacy skills and introduce them to knowledge beyond their cultural context. A lack of reading is bound to have an effect on children’s educational and intellectual development and research shows that those children who are read to by their parents are better at adjusting to school in their early years and quicker at gaining the most important literacy skills of reading and writing.” Yet many have pointed out that while publishing remains an important industry, today young people are increasingly turning to the World Wide Web for information. The Internet has revolutionised the way in which we access information. From keeping updated with breaking news, to the growth of online publishing, and a new trend in academia of ‘electronifying’ manuscripts and journals, the Internet has opened the doors for information to people across the world. Of course, the reliability of many online sources is still open to question.
Dr Al Mahrooqi agrees that the Internet is becoming an important source of information for students and teachers alike, and that many young people are turning to Kindle and tablet devices to download novels. “However, it is hard to control what young children might be exposed to via the Internet and in any case, as a parent myself, I like to see my children reading from actual books… If parents take an interest in what their children read on the Internet without wanting just to sound censorious, then this can be a social and an educational endeavour for parents and children alike.” Only collected efforts from the public, government and private sector will help improve children’s love of literature. Dr Al Mahrooqi says that schools must have well-stocked libraries backed by good teachers; public libraries must exist in every city, town and village, and good bookshops available in every part of the country. “An orchestrated effort from everyone is necessary… Parents must believe in the value of reading to very young children. Only if our efforts are coordinated and orchestrated can we promote a reading culture in our beloved Oman.”