Ding- Dong, The Dic(tator) is dead
Upcoming events: Mugabe anyone?
Everyone's entitled to my opinion
The poet Ali Ahmad Sa'id (b. 1930), known by his pseudonym "Adonis," a 2005 candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, left his native Syria for Lebanon in the 1950s following six months' imprisonment for political activity. In 1973, he received his Ph.D. from St. Joseph University in Beirut; in 1985, he settled in Paris, where he now works as a writer and literary critic. Among other occupations, he has edited the modernist magazine Mawaqif (Viewpoints), and translated some of the great French poets into Arabic.
Nouri Bookstore, one of the main book dealers in Damascus, bulges and buckles with Arabic translations of Western texts - mostly books on computers, medicine, and cooking. On prominent display: a book by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke with the very loosely translated title "My Awakening, the Jewish Control over USA"; a copy of Hillary Clinton's autobiography, and other works on Sept. 11 and the Iraq war. But writers like Rousseau and Descartes are relegated to a small corner in the back - symbolic of the Arab world's lack of access to the West's great thinkers and philosophers. According to a United Nations report last fall, Spain translates in a single year as much as the Arab world has translated in the past millennium.
According to many observers, to the extent that Arabs have time and money for purely intellectual pursuits, most are focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until America's foreign policy changes, many Syrians say, few will be curious about American philosophers.
"I don't really foresee a possible new renaissance unless real peace is established [in the Arab countries]," says Nafez Shammas, head of the English department at Damascus University.
Achievements by the Arab region on the Human Development Index (HDI) in the past decade were lower than the world average. Relative to other regions, the Arab world does better on income indicators. Thus it can be said that the Arab region is richer than it is developed. Although income poverty is low compared to other parts of the world, the Arab region is hobbled by a different kind of poverty – poverty of capabilities and poverty of opportunities. These have their roots in three deficits: freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge. Growth alone will neither bridge these gaps nor set the region on the road to sustainable development.
Arab countries have made tangible progress in improving literacy: adult illiteracy dropped from 60% in 1980 to around 43% in the mid-1990s; female literacy rates tripled since 1970. Yet 65 million adults are illiterate, almost two-thirds of them women – this is not expected to disappear for at least a quarter century.
As a group, Arab countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on education than any other developing region. By 1995, over 90% of males and 75% of females were enrolled in primary schools, and nearly 60% of males and nearly 50% of females were enrolled in secondary education. However, about 10 million children between 6 and 15 years of age are out of school. Enrollment rates in higher education remain limited to 13%. Though higher than the average for developing countries (9%), this rate is lower by far than those prevailing in industrialized countries (60%). Moreover, the share of girls is noticeably limited, at the third (higher) level. Despite the rise in the number of children enrolled in pre-primary education in Arab countries, enrollment ratios are below their counterparts for developing countries, especially for females.
The Arab region also has the lowest level of ICT access of any world region: only 0.6% of the population uses the Internet, and personal computer penetration is 1.2%.
In addition, there are factors widening the digital gap within each Arab country, with language being the decisive factor. Current Arab policies to address the divide focus on infrastructure, especially in the field of communications. Although helpful, such attempts will not yield the desired benefits unless equal attention is paid to the element of content. Most of the material on the Web is in English, a language spoken by few in the region. The dearth of Arabic material on the Net will continue to deprive Arabs of the benefits of the information age even if access itself improves.
The Report argues that the most important component of the information industry, the element of content, has so far not been taken seriously by policymakers in the Arab world. Hence, it calls for concerted efforts to develop content in Arabic. It suggests that digitizing aspects of cultural heritage such as text, film, music, radio and television recordings should become a priority. It argues that the way forward lies in giving Arab artists, professionals, scholars, students, entrepreneurs and other social groups incentives to publish and popularize their work on the Internet, rather than in trying to decree certain types of content. Freedom to choose what to publish and to associate with other users will drive the Arabization of information content faster and more surely than any type of compulsion. The media has already taken the lead in this respect by placing Arabic newspapers on the Web.