Monday, February 5, 2018

Reading Matters, Even If It's Only One Book

A lovely photo of a boy reading a hefty tome in a bookstore in Afghanistan grabbed my attention recently on social media, and without thinking I typed my comment: "He is reading the Koran." Someone promptly responded saying that my remark was hateful, and that it did not matter what the book was as long as the boy was reading. I can see why someone could consider the comment mean, but it was not meant to be. The picture of the Aghan boy reminded me of a visit to the Darul Quran Madrasa Azmatia in Kolkata, India, more than 15 years ago.

About 150 boys were attending classes at the madrasa attached to Kolkata's largest mosque. When I saw the students during the break they seemed reticent and looked at me as I imagine they would look at a Martian. But within minutes their natural curiosity and friendliness won over, and some of them were even ready to make silly poses for the camera.  

The imam told me through an interpreter that poor families from all over India sent their boys to the madrasa. Their tuition, board and lodging was paid by the charity. The school was more than 100 years old and the number of students was growing.

"Two reasons," Imam Qari Fazlur said, "one is the population growth and the other: people are bending toward religion. People like to see that their children learn the Koran and the Koranic teachings and the practices followed by the Prophet Mohammed."

But there were other reasons, I learned. India's constitution guarantees children's education in their mother tongue, but speakers of minority languages, such as Urdu and Bengali, often complain that the official language Hindi, spoken by the Hindu majority, is enforced in schools throughout the country. So when possible, speakers of other languages send their children to private schools.  But the vast majority of Muslims in India are poor and instead of sending their children to any school, they are sending them to work. Some families who cannot feed their offspring feel lucky if at least one child is accepted at a madrasa where it will get a clean bed, food, clothes and education free of charge. 

The education at a madrasa consists largely of learning to read and recite the Koran.  By the time they finish school, most boys know the holy book by heart.  There is nothing wrong with that.  The problem is that they learn little else and once out of the madrasa, these young men are not prepared for gainful employment, and the cycle of poverty continues.  

More than 120 million people aged 15 to 24 in the world cannot read or write. Close to a half of them live in only nine countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Egypt and Burkina Faso. Poor education is linked to poverty in these countries, regardless of religion.

So, as my angry commenter remarked, it is important to read, or to be precise: to be able to read. With a literacy rate of 28 percent, Afghanistan is the second most illiterate country in the world after South Sudan. Therefore, the picture of the barefoot Afghan boy in a library, engrossed in a book, is heartening. What is disheartening is learning - as I have at a Library of Congress event - that bookstores are disappearing from the neighboring Pakistan. The only "reading" available to ordinary citizens are tape-recorded sermons by local imams, sold outside the mosques. One can only hope that Afghanistan has many bookstores like the one in the charming photo with a young reader.

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