Harry Potter's Koran
As the boy wizard's potent spell spreads to the Arab world, many have begun looking inward at the reading habits of Arab youth.
"The story line is not important. We have to take into account that reading itself is what's lacking in Arab nations. Those nations do not even read the Koran. I say we must learn the love of reading from the West without saying that reading that book is a waste of time. Hundreds of thousands of [Westerners] stood in line to get a copy of the book and no one in the Arab nations even goes into a bookstore more than once a year. There's no crowding in bookstores. People crowd around the television, and they're highly skilled in wasting time on the Internet."
These words, written by a reader named Khaled, were posted on the Al Jazeera Web site the morning the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series was released. J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" has yet to be translated into Hebrew, but the book's official Arabic Web site, ar-hp.com, is already up, and it is possible to download all the Harry Potter books in Arabic there. The site also contains information about the author, the number of copies sold and news related to the book.
For example, one article reports that police in Pakistan defused a bomb set to explode next to the Karachi bookstore where the book was set to go on sale. Another article informed would-be viewers that Al Jazeera was about to air a television special about the Harry Potter phenomenon.
The site features links to forums for Arabic-speaking Harry Potter fans, advice on how to quickly obtain the book and an interactive trivia competition about the life and adventures of the boy wizard. Islamic religious decrees, or fatwas, on why it is forbidden to perform spells and the difference between regular magic and wizardry, are also included.
This is not the only Web site where it is possible to download the books in Arabic, and given the traffic on other sites with similar services, it appears that many thousands, though not millions, have taken the opportunity.
In Arab nations, most copies of the new book were snapped up by children in Beirut and the Gulf States, where the first Arabic copies were ordered online and received through air freight. Iranians also lined up to buy the book. This year was the first time Iranians were able to obtain the book at the same time as residents of other countries.
The fact that children (and adults) all over the world, including Arab nations, are reading the same book at the same time raised questions as to whether an Arabic writer could attract so many readers. In addition, it prompted residents of Arab countries to compare their own reading habits with those of other places.
A bookstore owner in Dubai quoted in the local newspaper Gulf News says he keeps about 10,000 titles in his shop but sells no more than two to five books each month.
Another Dubai bookstore owner says sales of Arabic books in his shop comprise only 8 percent of total sales. That means that most of his clientele read in English and French.
Salah, another visitor to the Al Jazeera site, also expressed concern regarding Arab reading habits. He says that proper promotion of reading among Arab youth cannot rely on just anything that falls into their hands, even if it bears the name Harry Potter.
"Literature," says Salah, "must strive to achieve lofty aims rather than feed the illusions that nurture Western culture." Salah calls on Arabic readers to return to Muslim texts, the Koran and its commentators.
An Internet surfer from California, identified as Marmour, suggests that Arabs unite to support the Palestinian cause and read sacred texts rather than the "drivel" that surrounds the boy wizard.
Razi, another readers' forum participant, chimes in: "If our parents had accustomed us to reading when we were young, we would already have read a major portion of modern literature from all parts of the world, as well as works by acclaimed writers like the author of 'Harry Potter,' who would enrich imaginations."
Razi continues: "I intend to encourage my children to read and hope that everyone does that. Together, we will change the world."
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