Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door

Bookshops are places where the rhizome of culture breaks ground, connected beneath the earth but apparently separate on the surface.  But in Morocco at least, something dreadful is happening to girls between the age of ten and 20, and leaching away their early literacy.

Life's the thing

As Logan Pearsall Smith lugubriously remarked, “People say that life’s the thing, but I prefer reading.”  Few would go quite that far, but I admit that my house is fuller of books than my wife would really like it to be, and in a mysterious way they keep arriving. I find it hard to keep out of bookshops.

I’m not of course talking about Waterstone’s or Borders, those two-dimensional warehouses that are less like rhizomes and more like nostoc,  (“excrement blown from the nostrils of some rheumatic planet”):  I mean those rare and mostly vanished shops, where there is a presiding intelligence, someone who makes whimsical and informed choices, and knows his shelves, who surprises you with odd juxtapositions and unknown authors, finds recondite titles and recommends forgotten poets.

There are cities in the Middle East where bookshops are definitely shoots from the rhizome of culture. In Cairo I used to spend many hours among the barrows on the Ezbikiyeh Gardens (and I still go sometimes to the sad little yard behind the Ezbekiyeh tube station to which they have been brutally banished). I have several treasures on my shelves found on those barrows 30 and more years ago, bound up in leather and buckram by the old mugallid behind the Abdin Palace who used to bind books for King Farouk’s library.

But the quintessential bookshop is somewhere in Baghdad, on al-Mutanabbi Street. I bought few books there, perhaps because we lived in Baghdad in one of the leaner times, in 1989-90, just before the first (or second, if you count the way we did then) Gulf War. Al-Mutanabbi Street, though an early twentieth century creation in its present form, was on much the same spot, in some previous life 1200 years ago, when London was a boggy village and Rome the sad wreck of an ancient city populated by grim clergymen and grubby sheep. Baghdad was a book-mad city, a factory of poetry and knowledge, omnivorously creating, digesting, translating, rethinking, creating anew. The city spouted verse, philosophy, science and theology, and its scribes churned out books on the newfangled paper that came from the east. That crazy bibliophily, that intoxicating excitement at the discovery of ideas and words, had its home on, or very near, the crooked street running down from Rasheed Street to the River Tigris.

Al-Mutanabbi Street has had its ups and downs since then, most recently this year a night-raid with bulldozers by Baghdad’s city authorities, to carry out ‘urban improvements’ under cover of darkness. But its worst moment in recent times was on March 5, 2007, when a car bomb exploded in the street, killing thirty people and injuring at least a hundred more, destroying bookshops and storerooms, cafés and street stalls. The whole bookish culture of the street was smashed to smithereens in an instant, and the idiocy of Logan Pearsall Smith’s comment brutally underlined:  life’s the thing, after all, and reading is contingent on living.

I’ve been thinking about it today, reading an anthology of poetry and prose written about the bombing and its significance, called Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here (Oakland, CA, 2012).  It’s a gesture of solidarity from a group of mainly Californian and Iraqi writers to the universality of the culture of literature and imagination; and the universality of the wound that is made by wilfully destroying both, in a godless explosion of blood and paper.

The preface, by Muhsin al-Musawi, tells of the bomb, and the destruction of the Shahbandar Café, but more remarkably, to me, describes the street itself like a print-historian of early modern London wandering in his mind through the bookshops of St Paul’s churchyard or London Bridge. I’ll quote it because it creates a poignant sense of the reality, of the sensuous tissue of people and books and imagination, the intricate intellectual ground-plan that was al-Mutanabbi Street:

Among individual booksellers from al-Mutanabbi Street’s more recent history were Abd al-Rahman Effendi (1890), Mulla Khidayyir (1900) and his son Abd al-Karim, who later owned Mishriq Bookshop. He was followed by Numan al-Adami (1905) with his Arabiyya Bookshop, then Mahmud Hilmi (1914) with his famous Asriyyah Bookshop. Shams al-Din al-Haidari had his Ahliyya Bookshop, which was the first to get Franklin’s books published. The famous Husayn al-Fulfili, with his many anecdotes, had his Zawra Bookshop, named after the original epithet of Baghdad (1932). Around the same time, Muhammad Qasim al-Rijab bought the historical house of Saib Shawkat on the right side of the same street. It became the Muthanna Bookshop … Mahmud Jawad Haidar had his bookshop, al-Marif, on the right side of the street, the same side where Ali al-Kalqani had his Najah Bookshop (that changed into al-Bayan Bookshop, which produced a famous journal published in Nejef). Abd al-Hamid Zahid inaugurated the auction for books and had his bookshop on the right side, as the Bookshop of Abd al-Hamid Zahid . He was among the leaders of the popular revolution of 1920. Abd al-Rahman Hayyawi established his Nahdhah Bookshop … His son Najah took over after his father’s death, and was followed by his brother Muhammad. The latter lost his life in 2007.

This was what was blown up, a delicate membrane of trade and publishing, politics and tobacco smoke, readers, gossips and couplets. Verse, literature and conversation were ripped apart, deep seriousness and thistledown frivolity. The anthology contains some poignant descriptions not just of the books themselves and the garrulously bookish culture of the stalls and shops; but of the Shahbandar Café whose owner lost four sons and grandsons in the bombing, “where antique water-pipes were stacked in rows three deep. On the walls inside were pictures of Iraq’s history: portraits of the bare-chested 1936 wrestling team, King Faisal’s court after World War One and the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939;” … “where you order a nargila and smoke it and leaf through the books you’ve bought, its bubbling laughter mixing with your stifled giggles.”

Anthony Shadid writes of the bizarre “intellectual free-for-all” that the street became after the US invasion, where “Shiite iconography – of living ayatollahs and 7th century saints marching to their deaths – was everywhere. Nearby were new issues of FHM and Maxim, their covers adorned with scantily clad women. On rickety stands were compact discs of Osama bin Laden’s messages … Down the street were pamphlets of the venerable Communist Party.”

But that wasn’t all. Ayub Nuri writes of his delight at finding a job lot of 27 novels by Agatha Christie; another writer tells of coming across a volume of Persian verse once given her by a lover; yet another celebrates the discovery of an old book, still carrying his own signature, looping back through time to its first owner. Muhammad al-Hamrani tells how he was spared death by a gunman who recognized him, far from Baghdad, as a bookseller from the Street.

On her way to al-Mutanabbi Street, Irada al-Jabbouri follows an itinerary that speaks from the page to me: On the way to the British Council in the Waziriya Area, we stop at the print shop … we pretend to drink tea on the pavement of the next door, while we wait for our photocopies of forbidden books … in the British Council garden we swap books and talk – Iraqis from Baghdad and the provinces, Arabs, foreigners. We borrow books, films, music tapes from the Council’s library.

These visits were perhaps a year or two before I arrived in Baghdad on my first British Council posting, but that garden I remember very clearly, with its tattered wicker chairs and its chipped green tin tables, its babel of accents and its occasional furtive and solitary tea-drinking listener who the young avoided. It was one of the very few places in Baghdad where it was respectable for a boy and girl to go together, and where conversation was safe enough. Some of the forbidden books came from the Council’s library. I remember the long-suffering librarian, Naomi Kazwini, sadly putting an end to the ploy of a group of different library members ordering Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, one chapter at a time, from the British Library at Boston Spa. I remember the appetite for books, the amazing rate of theft, which we thought of as ullage, and didn’t worry too much about. I remember two army officers found getting a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships out of the library through the gap under an air-conditioner, one pulling from outside, one pushing from in. (I’ve often wondered how Jane’s got into the library in the first place: all books were censored, and I still have a children’s book about Noah’s Ark with mamnu3 – forbidden – scrawled across the flyleaf.)

Books are no substitute for living, but they are a necessity; and through them and the complicated life and bloody injury of this short street we catch a glimpse of Iraq and its heart. Anthony Shadid writes of one bookseller, Mohammed Hayawi that “his quiet life deserves more than a footnote, if for no other reason than to remember a man who embraced what Baghdad was and tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense any more. Gone with him are small moments of life, gentle simply by virtue of being ordinary, now lost in the rubble strewn along a street that will never be the same.”

One last and, for me, very poignant footnote: March 5th 2007, the day of the bomb, was my daughter’s seventeenth birthday. Born while we were living in Baghdad, her second name – given her by her Baghdadi godfather – is Sheherezad.

 This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in December, 2012. 

Pirls and boys

In early December L’Economiste ran a front page editorial by Mohamed Benabid, which was bitter in its condemnation of Moroccan public schools. Everyone knows, he writes, that the public school system in Morocco is a disaster. This is so despite the hugely increased spending on public education in the country; and today the crisis of education has broken bounds and invited itself to the table of another crisis, that of exports and competitivity. Benabid concludes that the crisis in education is one of sector governance and strategy: we’ve been reflecting on the future of the school system for a quarter of a century, without any real idea of how to handle it.

Ouch. What prompted this tirade was the publication of the 2011 PIRLS and TIMMS results. These are two international tests, the first in literacy and the second in mathematics, which calibrate achievement by children in countries that take part, and give some kind of objective assessment of whether education policies are having the impact intended. The results are not kind to Morocco. Out of 45 countries testing its Fourth graders in literacy, Morocco comes forty-fifth; of the 4 levels of literacy assigned, only 21% of Fourth graders reach or pass the lowest (as against 95% for the international median), a figure that rises to 61% when the same test is applied two years later, in the Sixth grade. It isn’t possible to compare meaningfully with previous years (Morocco has done the PIRLS, in 2001, 2006 and 2011) as “average achievement is not reliably measured because the percentage of students with achievement too low for estimation exceeds 25%.” The maths results are similar: forty-ninth out of 50 countries (beating Yemen) at Fourth grade; and forty-eighth (Yemen and Ghana) at Sixth grade. Ouch again.

So what’s going on? This is an education system that has had 2.7 billion euros poured into it since 2009 under the Plan d’Urgence: somehow the problems seem to defy the very real and substantial efforts of the educational planners and funders. I find PIRLS particularly interesting and particularly depressing, in two dimensions. The first is the interplay with overall literacy statistics; the second is the interplay with gender.

World Bank figures on literacy in Morocco show 56.1% literacy – a steadily but slowly rising line of achievement which still leaves the kingdom one hundred and eighty sixth out of 205 countries measured, the lowest scoring of all MENA countries, and two points below Mauretania. The youth literacy rate in the same sources is 79.5%, suggesting on the face of it that illiteracy is an age-related problem that is being squeezed, albeit slowly, out of the system by increased primary enrollment and steady attrition.

But this doesn’t square with the PIRLS results. If only 61% of Sixth graders reach the lowest measurable literacy level (designed for grade 4), and more than 25% are at too low a level to measure at all (leaving perhaps 14% somewhere between the barely measurable and the lowest achievement level), then a 79.5% youth literacy rate cannot be right. Unless of course significantly less demanding standards than PIRLS’s are being applied in the World Bank statistics: and this of course is what is happening.

PIRLS is an attempt to measure the ability to interpret simple written texts in terms both of content and context. As the PIRLS literature describes the test: “PIRLS devotes half of the assessment to reading for literary experience and half to reading to acquire and use information. It also assesses reading comprehension processes across the two purposes for reading.” The World Bank criterion is simpler: “the percentage of the population age 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”

In what sense is the single-statement test actually a measure of literacy? Or perhaps more fairly we might ask: what does literacy mean, and what should it mean? The single-statement tells us that someone can manage a simple, pre-determined task, its terms of reference defined by the familiar. To be able to manage it is – of course – a very real achievement in a non-literate environment and should not be belittled; but is it adaptable to other circumstances (an application form, a public notice or a newspaper)? And is it a contributor to individual and collective prosperity? Above all, is it accumulative – does it provide an active tool for the progressive acquisition and retention of knowledge? I am not clear that the literacy rate stated by the World Bank is an indicator of any such thing.

PIRLS measures the ability to use written text, and is a serious attempt to answer the last question. It measures not a static and familiar skill, but a versatile skill that can be redeployed in other circumstances than that in which it was learned. Literacy of this sort does provide an active tool for the progressive acquisition and retention of knowledge, and so it is a genuine, live instrument which will, in the hands of some children at least, equip them to build cultural and knowledge capital in Morocco.

My second point concerns gender, and again there is a contradiction between PIRLS and national statistics, this time dramatic and diametrical: PIRLS finds girls more than 10% ahead of boys at grade 4, and 8.5% ahead at grade 6. But in the national statistics we find that 68.9% of men and 43.9% of women are literate.

Once again, this could be age-skewed, so the better comparison is with the figures for young people aged 15-24 (still potentially age-skewed, but much less so). Here the difference between girls and boys is 81.5% – which means that for every 100 literate boys, there are only 81.5 literate girls. But at grade 4 there were 110 literate girls for every 100 literate boys; and at grade 6, there were 108.5 literate girls for every 100 literate boys. Something dreadful is happening to girls between the age of ten and 20, and leaching away their early literacy. A girls’ out-performance over boys of +10% at grade 4 has changed to an under-performance of -18.5% by (let’s say) the age of 20. And this isn’t just to do with school attendance: official figures for primary school completion, to the end of grade 6, are 85.8% for boys and 81.8% for girls. If all children by grade 6 had learned to read, this would mean 105 literate boys for every 100 literate girls, which PIRLS suggests strongly isn’t the case.

There’s something fishy here. There’s a wonderful moment in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers, when the learned old abbot tries to discourage the heroine from learning to read on the basis that reading “makes girls’ brains overheat.” Perhaps that’s it, and girls reach their intellectual ceiling between the beginning of grade 6 and the end, and their brains fry. But I rather doubt it. The collapse of female achievement after elementary education is cataclysmic.

And this takes us back to Mohamed Benabid’s remark that the crisis of education has broken bounds and invited itself to the table of another crisis, that of exports and competitivity. If the literacy aim of primary education is simply to increase the proportion of children who can read and write a single sentence, it can have little bearing to speak of on the economy. Even 56% literacy puts Morocco far down the world chart in terms of a skilled workforce, and for a country that must build its prosperity on its proximity to Europe and its situation at the gateway to Africa, this is not enough. Those 56% may have adequate reading skills to be effective manual and semi-skilled workers (though the language deficit is also crucial, as the import of anglophone Indian labourers into the Tangier Free Zone illustrated recently); but if Morocco is to become, as it must, the offshoring centre of southern Europe, the outer end of Europe’s key manufacturing supply-lines, and the gateway to Africa, then a different and higher kind of literacy is needed. And the half of the potential workforce that is made up of women needs to be brought fully into the circle of literacy, productivity and potential employment. The situation echoes poignantly the AHDR of 2005, which summarizes, on women and education, thus:

Despite the tremendous spread of girls’ education in Arab countries, women continue to suffer more than men do from a lack of opportunities to acquire knowledge. This occurs despite the fact that girls excel in knowledge pursuits, outstripping boys in competitive academic performance.


In terms of basic indicators, the Arab region has one of the highest rates of female illiteracy. It also displays one of the lowest rates of enrolment at the various levels of education …


International data indicate that girls in the Arab region perform better in school than boys. Drop out rates for girls are lower than those for boys in all the countries for which data are available. …

Girls, go out and overheat your brains. 

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in January, 2013.

About the author

Martin Rose is the Director of the British Council in Rabat, where he has worked for two years. In his column, under the title Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door, he contributes on culture, education and language, and on events in Morocco and the wider region. His blog is Mercurius Maghrebensis