But it’s no secret that the Arab world has a huge literacy problem, though most of us in the West are unaware of just how severe it is. Not only are very few books published in Arabic overall, virtually none are translated into Arabic from other languages. This intellectual starvation and isolation contrasts with the many millions of books published in, and the hundreds of thousands translated into, alphabetic languages each year. (…)
I’m in the process of exploring this complex subject at greater length elsewhere and can only briefly sketch a few of its implications here. But their broad outlines should be plain enough to anyone familiar with the extraordinary cultural obscurantism and despair roiling not only the Arab world, but also non-Arab cultures from Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan that have historically relied on Arabic script. Or to anyone who knows that consonantal writing, unlike the free-floating alphabet, has always been closely anchored to ancient religious scriptures. Or that those scriptures retailed not new, challenging, and explicitly articulated ideas, but stories and sayings that were already familiar in the oral cultures from which they sprang. Or that, because passages in those scriptures can so often be read in different ways, they have always been accompanied by group study, intensive linguistic commentary, and rigid interpretation by old men with beards, whose grim determination to control the message never seems to flag.
Or that, over thousands of miles and two continents, the very same controlling male anger that has spilt so much blood through the centuries even now strives to retain its “traditional” iron grip on cultural authority through the kidnap, rape, and murder of young girls who insist on learning to read for themselves. Boko Haram means “Western education forbidden.” Haram in Arabic is used to denote Islamic religious prohibition, and the word boko is thought to be a corruption of “book.”