Springtime for the Arab reading revolution

Even as Britain runs down its reading culture, closing or selling off its public libraries, the Arab

While libraries are being closed down across the UK, they are opening elsewhere in countries where people want to make their society a better place. The map of the situation at voicesforthelibrary.org.uk shows thick clusters of pink and violet dots; these represent the hundreds of councils that, as they cast around for savings to meet the government's orders, are closing down - or selling off - library services.

At a rough assessment of the scatter, it looks as if the most deprived and the more remote towns and regions are being hardest hit. Here and there, some effective campaigning has saved libraries; threats now on hold after passionate protest are marked on the map with sprinklings of green. Many of these reprieves are in places such as Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, which has its own literary festival.

Good news, but the fear is that if rescuing libraries depends on local direct action, it will be only the most vocal, networked and savvy who will succeed. The worst aftermath of all the scandals and profiteering of the past two years has been a general lassitude and loss of nerve, a pervasive sense of defeatism about the civil sphere and the public good as its ideals are denatured by talk of the "big society". I, too, often feel such loss of resolve and have to shake myself out of it.

In the Middle East, the picture is different. A number of libraries are coming into existence; they are a less visible expression of the revolutions taking place since the Arab spring but a crucial part of the same movement, spurred on by the same desires to have freedoms, including the freedom to read every kind of book and explore every kind of idea, past and present. Censorship has affected not only political writing and journalism, but all kinds of literature, even production of the classics of the Arabic canon. But now, the motives and energy that carried the revolutions to success are fuelling quieter ventures dedicated to ending the dearth of works in print.

In Morocco, in the countryside near Marra­kesh, the Dar al-Ma'mûn cultural centre is under construction; but when it opens, it will be a large, open-access library (dam-arts.org). When women began to be recruited to the project from the surrounding villages, they were asked to help to wrap the books in prot­ective film, paste in chips with bar codes and shelve them. Very soon, the women were saying that they would like to learn to read them, too. This had not been anticipated. But the organisers of the centre have responded and set up classes, which are being well attended (though men so far are staying away; perhaps male pride prevents them admitting they need anything like lessons).

Then, the children did not want to be left out, nor their teachers, who had only primers and exercise books for their classes. So a “children's chapter" at the centre has also taken off, in collaboration with local schools, and now has 5,000 titles. In this way, the original scope of the centre has expanded, though its principal ambition remains: to be a workshop for translators.

The centre is named after the Caliph al-Ma'­mûn, who in the 9th century founded the Beït al-Hikma in Baghdad as a fountainhead of scholarship. Arabic translators, working on Plato, Archimedes and Euclid, preserved much Greek learning. The new library takes its cue from those precursors in Baghdad and wants to contribute, through a form of "soft power", to the politics of the future in the Middle East, which writers as well as practitioners in other media are revisioning in their works.

The poet and translator Omar Berrada, who is helping to collect books for the Moroccan library, explains: "Translation is central to our whole project . . . Our globalised world puts forth transparency and free communication as supreme values. But what is communicated is often merely surfaces. It produces an illusion of understanding, beneath which lies a superficial projection of simplistic images (clichés) on to other people/s. This was never more obvious than in post-9/11 media portrayals of Arabs, and Islam in general."

On another front, a huge project of translation from Arabic into English has begun in Abu Dhabi in collaboration with New York University Press; its ambition is to produce bilingual editions of the Arabic classics in a Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) that can take its place beside the standard Loeb Classical Library series of works in Greek and Latin. The LAL is involving Arabists who are able to render writers whom most people in Europe and the US have never even heard of: poets, chroniclers, epigrammatists, satirists, storytellers - so much literature of which we remain ignorant and which, on account of repressive regimes, has not been accessible to native Arabic speakers, either.

I've spent a lot of my life in libraries, and in bookshops; I have enjoyed years roaming through stacks and catalogues, looking for books, calling them up. I have also lived in different countries, and I often read in transla­tion. I have taken for granted all this freedom of access and conversation and cross-currents of knowledge across borders, across time. I have also travelled enough to know what it is to astonish a chance companion or new acquaintance by producing a book that contains history or information or pictures that have been suppressed or forgotten in their country.
As Omar Berrada says, "Translation is a political act. It involves a drive to understand the other (person, language, culture) by digging deep into the meaning and structures of a text in order to be able to re-create them in your own tongue. It is anti-imperialistic in essence, since it aims at allowing your language to be inhabited by a foreign text."

When I began writing books myself, library catalogues were on card indexes in imposing wooden cabinets. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, where in the 1970s I was given a carrel tucked beneath a sort of squinch under the dome, where I did a great deal of my research and reading, then had the most capacious and marvellous catalogue I had ever seen. Cutting-edge wasn't the term for it. It was futuristic, a card index that was organised thematically, so you could pull open a drawer and find it contained the complete reading list you needed. It was in the Library of Congress that I called up a book on the virginity of Mary and found, when it arrived, that the pages had never been cut, so I went to the nearest desk and asked the librarian for a paper knife. In this way, I nearly brought about the death of the kindly and learned soul; the book in question was an incunabulum that had never been read. And one does not attempt to slit open such a volume - let alone one on the virginity of Our Lady.

Since then, many libraries have given me such an intense pleasure of discovery, it's almost erotic, I confess. The British Library lets readers call up treasures of such rare beauty that it is hard to believe that this wonder - this illuminated manuscript of The Divine Comedy, these sumptuous, elephant folios filled with plates from Napoleon's expedition to Egypt - has been set there before you, with only the occasional invigilator gliding by to make sure you are using pencil, not ink. Yet even the British Library is surpassed by the Warburg Institute, its library and its photographic collection: the learned and generous curator-librarians there have led me to many unexpected and revealing images for my work on fairy tales and myth. Most recently, for my study of the Arabian Nights, I found a medieval illumination of the last pharaoh busily sinking enemy ships by casting spells on model boats in a basin of water, as well as a Persian Suleiman aloft on a choir of angels against a saturated ultramarine sky.

Eloquent voices have been raised to defend the public provision of books in local libraries, as well as these specialist, national institutions, and I can't add anything to the powerful words of advocates such as Philip Pullman - except to stress that my high-street branch library in Kentish Town provides that increasingly rare thing: a communal, free, shared place where we can be quiet, alone, safely wrapped in our thoughts, as we meet others' minds through their words. l

Marina Warner's "Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights" will be published by Chatto & Windus in November

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, New Issue