Why is Jeddah reading? (or not)

Art by Igor Morski

Sometimes, I tend to keep a couple of things to myself. Sometimes, work demands not to. People have asked, are asking. So, what is ‘Jeddah Reads’? Some people mistook it for a book club and some, for a random Facebook page. It is none of the two and this is the story behind it. 

About two years back, in November 2014 to be exact, I was interning with a social enterprise here in Jeddah, called the Young Initiative Group. It was part of my college’s requirement to intern in the social development sector. One thing I have been extremely grateful to my college for, because it didn’t only allow me to go venture out to intern but, it opened my eyes to the social and development sector and the hidden influence media and advertising had to offer in this sector. During this internship, I also met two of the most genuine people in my life, Fidaa Al-Hassan and Dania Al-Masri who have been my guardian angels to say the least and older sisters throughout my internship and also, ahead in this project.

We had a small office, I was as always very quiet amongst everyone but I think three of us shared the common introversion connection and our shared passion for social causes (and books). One day, Fidaa who is an advertising graduate herself, asked me about my prospects in my field and what I loved about it. I shared with her my aspirations of taking up media and advertising in specific because I thought it could be applied wonderfully for social causes, if implemented correctly. Something, I delved into deeper during a course module on 'Social Change Communication'. I didn't really want to work for brands and commercial products. I wanted to use communication that would go beyond commercialisation and perhaps, change perceptions of not wanting to buy products but instead towards a particular cause or maybe just at being better people? We were on the same page on this one and she asked me to use my office time to research on different social causes that needed attention in Jeddah.

After a few days, I had a list of ten causes I thought were important locally, with basic research on each one of them. The list included causes such as respect for all nationalities, giving to the needy, attitude towards the opposite gender, women empowerment, treatment of maid servants, traffic rules, cleanliness, promoting books and reading, unemployment and wastage of food. She then asked me to pick the three most important and feasible ones and trowel into more research and finally, we would pick one that I could work on as my own independent project. At that point in time, given the high penetration and use of social media in the region, I was mostly looking at it as a ‘Social Media for a Cause’ project and the three shortlisted causes were; a) Treatment towards maid servants, b) Promoting an active books and reading culture and c) Women Empowerment (of course!) 

Obviously, the cause of reading won the popular vote, not only because I was passionate about it myself but because, there was nothing like it in the region and the consequences of not having it, undoubtedly creates ripple effects. If you're reading this I don't think I need to tell you why exactly it is important. It's not even about the field of literature  but, just a basic habit that is essential in everyone's life regardless of what he or she does professionally.

The cause to work on had been decided but I couldn’t do anything without the right research.  There was a share of secondary research, but nothing Jeddah specific and nothing concrete. I spent the next two weeks developing questionnaires, spread across diverse people in Jeddah. People who came from different countries, worked at different companies and went to different universities and schools. It wasn’t too widespread per se, but it was enough to determine the significant data I needed at that point, some insights being, 96.5% of the respondents believing that there was a definite need to create awareness for a positive and inviting reading culture in the city. Out of the respondents, 48% of them were readers themselves.

What more motivation did I need, right?

The reasons behind the lack of such a culture cannot be attributed towards one reason alone but, is really just a combination of different things. Some of them being simple things that we may have taken for granted, like a library in our schools. You will be surprised at the lack of libraries in many public schools in Jeddah and education is supposed to be free here, locally, at least. There is no lack of funds but, there is a lack of interest, a lack of awareness, the lack of effort. Other reasons include the access to good books. There are namely two bookstore chains here. Jarir Bookstores and Virgin Megastores, apart from that you will not see independent bookstores or anything more than just these two or of course there are many, only selling school textbooks though. Sadly, even the bookstores hold a limited variety of books than what we are used to in other places, and even then, they’re pricey. I was lucky I was part of the Indian Embassy School during my schooling years in Jeddah. We had a well stocked library and library classes dedicated to quiet reading times. I spent my last one and half years of high-school in another school, Indian oriented but a private school partnership of the like, and we had just one tiny room that was supposed to be a library. It didn’t include anything beyond a few children books and we were barely made to visit the library. It was a pathetic excuse for a library, really. Today, my sister who is in the same school talks about how they’re rather discouraged to read for pleasure because, “pay attention to your academics” almost forgetting that academic books alone will not help children prosper.

I think we undermine the power schools and our curriculums have at large in inculcating a basic and one of life’s most important habit and of course, the problem doesn't end there. Some of us may have even grown up with libraries in our schools but yet, as we grow up we lose touch due to different reasons and thanks to the distractive digital age right now, the chances of being turned away to our screens and not our books is pretty high and to be honest, I am guilty about this myself. 

The problems are multifaceted. It includes the local system, the lack of effort, lack of a literary market, the lack of literary events, the baffled mindset, the cultural barriers and so much more. I could write a paragraph on each of the causes and their respective effects in this context but I will leave that maybe, for another time.

Under the research conducted, out of a list of reasons to pick from, most respondents believed “Lack of good bookstores and public libraries”, “Lack of awareness and exposure” and “Attitude of the people” were the top three hindrances contributing to the lack of such a culture and an interesting insight from one of them, when asked what got them to read said; 

Being an Arab, I read a fact about readers across the globe that said,
An average Israeli reads 8 books a year.
An average American reads 4 books a year.
In ever 4 Arabs, ONE reads a book a year.
So I decided to increase the number of books I read to 1 book each month.”

Other inputs on the same, included; 

"I've always loved stories, but what attracts me most is the understanding of human psyche that I get from books. With all the reading that I've done, I've come to understand people, cultures and societies better - but most of all I've developed an acceptance for all kinds of people. "

"I was inspired by my siblings and my family friends who meet up every now and then to discuss a book they've read, more like a book club."

"It helps you relate and think you're not alone in the struggle whatever it is. Also books and words make you feel like you're part of a bigger world."

"Intellectual stimulation"

It was heartwarming to learn what got people to start reading, it was motivating to learn that this project did have more potential than I thought. I was highly determined to go forward with this. I created a digital campaign plan, a content calendar to go with it and looked up more than 30 social campaigns on similar causes over the world to keep me inspired and told myself, okay, this is it. Except, I had to go back to India and back to college (cause, of course I need my degree) and with time I realized even just having it solely on the internet is probably not going to change anything. I told myself I'd work on it whenever I got back to Jeddah.

I was in the beginning of my second year back then and eventually with time, I learned that everything I was learning could be applied towards what I wanted to do. I knew I couldn't do it unless I am physically in Jeddah but it's never too early to start planning. I'm the kind of person who always tends to carry a little notebook around, so during flights, classes, lectures and random evenings, I would always be jotting down ideas, pointers and rough plans. When I moved back to Jeddah, I sat down with my notes, with all the different ideas and I began figuring where to fit all the pieces together and before I could do that, there were always a few obstacles, family commitments and last minute travels. Months passed but, finally I settled in by November. I met some lovely people. Before kickstarting it all, I needed to go out there, locally, look at what I could find and Alhumdulillah, I'm glad I've found people who are supportive and open to the idea and are always willing to help in different ways. I want to give people the credit they deserve, Fidaa and Dania who have always helped me to brainstorm every other week and refine my ideas and Mariam Al-Abbas from The Humming Tree who allowed me to put together my plan in a clearer manner. 

It's February 2017 now. I have managed to put together my pieces together and to be honest, things are not extremely easy to do here, especially in comparison to India so I don't know how far this project will reach but I'm hoping I can achieve what I have set my mind to. When people ask, what is it, this is what I have to say. It is a project, that aims at building a vibrant reading culture in the region, through different initiatives. It involves many layers because problems that are multifaceted, do not have single solutions. It includes building libraries in schools that don't have any, it includes inculcating reading cultures within work environments, it involves meaningful local collaborations, community events and bringing in the reading culture within public spaces and a lot more that I don't want to give away too soon but what I can give away is, I've managed to learn and adapt a lot of what I've learnt in Advertising to this model. Advertisers and Communication professionals around the world work tremendously to convince, influence people's mindsets and behaviours and it is safe to say that, it is exactly what I'm trying to do, too. I want to make Jeddah Read.  

P.S: For everyone who has asked about how they can help and support this project, there are a few ways you can help in kind, I will be putting up another post on how to go about it, by tomorrow.

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Fathima Zahra said...

As a kid who grew up in Saudi, I second this. There was never enough bookstores or campaigns to promote our interests.
What you're doing is truly commendable, Huda!

Huda Merchant said...

Thank you Fatima, I hope it all works out positively, Inshallah.

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