Fighting illiteracy and ‘aliteracy’

The Daily Star, Lebanon
March 31 2004

Fighting illiteracy and ‘aliteracy’
Author aims to make standard Arabic fun for children

By Linda Dahdah

In the late 1980s, Margo Malatjalian, a Jordanian-Armenian author,
came across a report issued by UNESCO showing surprisingly high rates
of illiteracy.

When she read the information, Malatjalian, who lived in Jordan, had
already established cultural centers for children in cooperation with
the Amman municipality and had her own publishing company, Child
World Promotions.

As she had always been active in this field through education
programs, teaching theater and drama, as well as working on Jordanian
childrens’ TV programs, she decided to take some immediate action.

With the help of David Doake, a professor in reading and literacy
development, she embarked on a study that found reading was not part
of tradition in the Arab world.

“There is lots of story telling but reading is not part of our
growth,” said Malatjalian.

Strong willed, Malatjalian decided to go to the root of the problem
by making literacy development her main concern. She started
traveling around the region, praising the importance of early reading
and defending literacy through workshops which targeted children,
teachers and parents.

She comes to Lebanon regularly to lead a series of workshops in
private schools across the country. The main topics? Creating and
using supplementary material from the standard Arabic language
curriculum from kindergarten to the third or fourth grade.

The whole point is “to support the Arabic language by making it more
interesting through the use of new poetry, new and more attractive
stories and literature … by using arts and integrating drama in
education, songs and music,” Malatjalian said.

Rita Nakhle, a third grade Arabic teacher at International College in
Ain Aar, said that Malatjalian’s books were interesting because they
used standard Arabic that was easy to understand. “Plus it is real
poetry, accompanied by nice pictures,” she said.

According to Malatjalian, Arabic becomes difficult when people don’t
read Arabic books regularly.

“There are prerequisites for reading that are hardly met when
cultures are not only faced with illiteracy but also a huge scourge
that lies in the aliteracy of educated people. (aliteracy applies to
people who are able to read but are not interested in reading.)

Nowadays one of the most popular books might be Chef Ramzi’s, and I
don’t think this has anything to do with literature,” Malatjalian

If books are ever bought, what usually sells are detective stories,
cooking, fiction and sex, the author said.

Besides, naturally, children imitate their parents, so when there is
no reading environment inside the house, children will not read.
Moreover, according to Malatjalian, it has been shown that children
who come from a reading household do much better at school.

A whole reading environment should therefore be created – a prime
responsibility of the parents, she said. When the state is not
helping at all, the public should react.

“During my discussions with parents, they said that there’s no help
as there is no public library in Lebanon or perhaps there’s one, but
they don’t even know where it is and how to get there. What prevents
them from organizing reading sessions? We cannot count on the state’s
help so it’s up to each mother and father or others to play his or
her part and act,” said Malatjalian.

Despite a public perception that there is an absence of public
libraries, several were opened in Lebanon over the past few years.

Malatjalian started writing books only in the late 1980s. She took
the initiative after teachers asked her what kinds of books to buy
and read. Encouraged by her own experience with children, Malatjalian
took up her pen to remedy what she believes to be a complete lack of
good Arabic childrens’ literature.

In fact, the author believes that Arabic books are rarely good and
not well adapted. Indeed, most of the time books are translated and
thus promote a foreign culture. When children need to identify with
the hero of the story, this can easily generate cultural conflicts.

Without a doubt Malatjalian’s stories are set up in an environment
that is much closer to the local culture than in any “Martine at the
Beach” or “The Story of Ferdinand.”

Malatjalian’s aim is clear.

It is to create literature, not just books.

“A literature that reflects social, mental and cultural needs.
Besides I want standard Arabic to become a functional language that
people use and that would help them communicate fully in their daily
needs,” she said.

Another obstacle to Arabic reading lies in the differences between
written and colloquial Arabic.

“Colloquial hinders written, standard Arabic, and everybody thinks it
is difficult. It wouldn’t be so if heard right from birth (when
parents read babies stories in standard Arabic),” Malatjalian said.

Focusing on writing what she calls “meaningful” stories, the author
deals with mainstream social issues, such as commitment to the
nation, cooperation, conflict resolution, responsibility and, last
but not least, tolerance. Several books that have not been released
yet also tackle critical issues such as child abuse.

“Several years ago, we tried to talk with parents and religious
figures, but no one admitted to even hearing about it. It is changing
a little. Now at least we are managing to get listened to,”
Malatjalian said.

In this case, her books would serve parents as well as teachers.

“Literature is safe,” she said. “Without it, well-trained teachers
might introduce sensitive issues badly. With such books, they will be
able to take poems as a base to their programs and their discussions.
The subject will even be tackled in a funny way and bit-by-bit they
will be able to tackle even bigger issues,” she added.

In her approach, Malatjalian also points her finger at a major social
issue in our culture: The place of the child in society.

According to her, children are over-protected and this affects their
growth in a very negative way. At the same time, they are not given
enough freedom and opportunity to express themselves.

“They are not even given time to think, as if adults did not have
confidence in them. They are simply not given the chance for venture
and adventure,” said Malatjalian.

Believing in the capabilities of children, Malatjalian attempts to
correct this situation by giving children their own roles in her
books. As such, her stories always aim at empowering them.

Using childrens’ literature and developing their “socio-emotional”
skills will help them learn how to express their feelings of fear,
anger, sadness, happiness and jealousy. “Their natural feelings will
come out,” said Malatjalian. This is also aimed at helping teachers
and parents let children express themselves through art.

Above all else, Malatjalian hopes to change rigid educational trends
by helping to create a healthier environment in which children can

Nonetheless, one can easily see that even in Europe things started
changing only a few years ago. As Malatjalian said, there is a new
trend in children’s literature: “When writers used to write for the
child inside of them, now the child himself is the one who is
telling the story.”

Returning to the problem of illiteracy and aliteracy, Malatjalian
reminds us that, “we cannot endlessly play the ostrich. When Beirut
is supposed to be the cultural capital of the Arab world with only
one public library, there is definitely something to do. As no Arab
organization will ever take notice of the subject, it is the duty of
the public to act,” she said.

As children are the adults of tomorrow, let’s hope that Malatjalian’s
work will be fruitful and widely received.