Monday, February 5, 2007

A Streetcar Named Bica*

A few weeks ago, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I found ourselves leaning against a railing in a subway train in Madrid when I suddenly had one of those rare (for me) epiphanic moments wherein the obvious is suddenly charged with great import.

"Look!" I cried (and probably possibly pointed rather rudely). "Everyone is reading!"

And they were; for the most part, all of our fellow metro passengers were reading books, newspapers and to a lesser degree, magazines.

"So?" Mr. CinR responded. "That's normal."

Lisbon was much the same. On trams, buses, subways and funiculars (like Bica above) alike, commuters were reading. I tried (unsuccessfully) not to gawk at this alien race of people intently staring at the wads of bound paper in their hands. In every city we visited, bookstores successfully competed with clothing stores and cafés, each boasting its own speciality, each with multilingual sections, each packed with browsing & paying customers. Such bliss!

"Is it?” I wondered. Cripes, it is. Where have I been?


Official statistics indicate that Morocco has a 38% illiteracy rate although those in the know (and not on the government payroll) suggest that this number is too low. Nevertheless, Morocco has made great strides in recent years to combat illiteracy. In 2005, UNESCO ranked Morocco 124th out of 177 for its overall literacy. Less than 50 years ago, the rate was a staggering 80%. The “March Towards Light" campaign was inaugurated in 2003 with the objective of keeping kids in school and eradicating illiteracy by the year 2015. At that time, a staggering 3 out of 5 women could not read or write; their numbers swell to 2 out of 3 in rural parts of the country.

It is a laudable but ambitious goal (projected numbers have proved a little over optimistic) considering that the inability to read isn’t the only problem facing campaign organizers: Morocco is not a nation of readers. With the exception of Koranic tracts, newspapers (of which there are 700 in the country with a total readership of a scant 300,000) and the odd Paris Match magazine, I (emphasis on "I") have never seen a soul in Rabat read a book at a café, on a train, or waiting at a bus stop. Simply put, this is not an exaggeration on my part. I wish it were.

And if a nonreading population isn't bad enough, consider this:

“… illiteracy is leading to a split between these people and the elite …But the political elite are not all literate either. Moroccan law requires that members of parliament and municipality leaders must have at least a primary school certificate. After the last elections in 2002 and 2003, many such certificates presented by winning candidates were found to have been forged.” (CinR's emphasis)

This is so antithetical to the way I was raised that I simply cannot comprehend a world without books. Our parents read to my brother and I before bedtime; we were encouraged to read for ourselves when we became a certain age; our bookshelves were routinely replenished with fresh Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys volumes; weekend trips to the public library were considered a natural way to spend a Saturday; used book stores acquired an importance early in our lives that has never diminished. Like my father, I never go anywhere without a book – you just never know when you’ll have a spare moment to read a few pages. And what else do you do on a bus?

But is this a world without books? Are there bookstores in Rabat? Some; for the most part, they carry French and Arabic titles. Who’s reading them? Obviously some people – I’m not suggesting that no one reads in Morocco, only that I haven’t seen any of them yet. Possibly the ex-pat community keeps the librairies alive, who knows? I routinely ask students “What do you like to read?” and the answer I invariably receive is “I don’t like to read” or, for those with a greater command of English, “I hate reading”. I should really just stop posing the question but I keep hoping that one day, a student will raise her hand and say “I just love the luxuriance of Michael Ondaatje's writing”. Or more likely, "Harry Potter is okay".

Are literacy programmes enough? Surely they're a start (some 640,000 Moroccans attended literacy classes last year - 30% lower than their projection) but how will this alone instill a love of reading when television is still considered a preferable alternative to passing one's time? Surely a parent's greatest legacy to their child is a love of books just as it's a government's moral duty to the advancement of its people. But I cannot help but wonder if one of the problems beleaguering both the push to literacy and to reading-for-pleasure is Morocco’s linguistic heritage. Is it possible that this seemingly alternate world of literary appreciation is guarded by a tongue-tied Cerberus, whose 3 heads speak French, standard Arabic and Derija? Most Moroccans I talk to will admit that they aren’t fluent in any one of Morocco’s languages; instead they muddle (with varying degrees of proficiency) in one or two of the three. Amazingly, Morocco’s indigenous dialect is not rendered as a written script. Perhaps it should. Perhaps I too would take exception to not having a literary tradition transposed in my mother tongue.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine forced (and I don’t choose the word lightly) a class of 20-somethings to read a very abridged version of “Treasure Island” as part of a university prep course we were teaching. Not her first choice in fiction, it was the only title she could lay her hands on in large quantities for next to nothing. Not surprisingly, this decision was met with a formidable amount of resistance. Most balked, some refused, and after sensing that it just might feel better to stop hitting her head against this self-made brick wall, she conceded defeat. Unbeknownst to us, one young woman persevered and amazingly completed this tale, a tale made more difficult by its archaic language and nautical terms. When Basma went on to take her TOEFL exam – the English language exam that all non-English speaking university applicants must take – she was thrilled to find that her oral examination question was “What is your favourite book, and why?” She told us afterwards that she spoke about “Treasure Island”, that it was her favourite book because it was the first book she had ever read, and that it made her want to continue reading.

Needless to say, we both bawled like babies upon hearing this, but I bet Basma's story would have squeezed a few tears out of Robert Louis Stevenson himself.

*with apologies to Tennessee Williams who did not write "A Streetcar Named Bica" and to Bica who is not really a streetcar.

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