Government unconcerned about children’s libraries [Archives:2008/1122/Culture]

January 21 2008

By: Hamed Thabet
While there are two public libraries for adults in the capital city of Sana'a, the government hasn't established a single public library for children. To remedy this, civil society organizations have established 11 children's libraries, but with very few readers. A report by Hamed Thabet.

Ten-year-old Abdulmalik and his little brother Ahmed, 9, who live in the Hadda area, often cut school and miss classes to go to the nearby internet cafe to play games.

Asked about their behavior, the two brothers unanimously explain that they are bored in class, where there's nothing interesting for them to do. When asked by an adult at the internet cafe where they play why they don't spend time at the school library reading stories or looking at picture books, both brothers became silent, looked at each other and then laughing, asked, “What's a library?”

Their elder attempted to explain the concept very simply so they would understand, to which Abdulmalik responded, “I've never heard of a library for children.”

Abdulfatah Al-Harazi, general director of the Rehabilitation Center & Educational Development an NGO., maintains that many Yemeni children know nothing about libraries or their advantages mainly because there's no encouragement by families or teachers to make them understand the importance of obtaining knowledge, which directly influences their character, their personality and their future.

According to Munthir Ishaq, director of the Sociology Department at Taiz University, most Yemeni families have no idea about the significance of libraries, simply concerning themselves with sending their children to school and then letting them play in the neighborhood the rest of the time.

He adds, “Unfortunately, it's normal for many Yemeni parents to protest, 'Just let our children play and enjoy their childhood. There's no need to tire them with books. When they become adults, then they'll take an interest in reading and expanding their knowledge.'”

Ishaq further explains that in the past, schools had libraries for specialized subjects, but unfortunately, they were removed because the librarians in charge weren't sufficiently qualified to encourage children to read and also to use the library's resources, coupled with there being no systematic way to encourage children to expand their knowledge, which is why Yemeni children gradually stopped going to the library, considering it a waste of time.

He affirms, “If children start to love reading, it surely will affect them positively by causing them to focus on their studies and think better about their future.”

Librarian Abdullah Al-Sharafi, who just marked 20 years of working at the Yemen Center for Study and Research, explains ruefully, “The reason we have no special section for children's books at either library (Beit Al-Thaqafa and Yemen Center for Study and Research) is that we once did have a section especially for children's books, but because no children ever visited the library and due to lack of space, we had to forfeit that section to make space for other books.”

As Ishaq points out, children who don't read suffer negative effects. “If children don't gain sufficient knowledge during childhood, it will affect them adversely. Also, they'll hate books and reading, which is why many leave school, start working or just hang out.”

An international report by ACCESS-MENA, “A recent report, 2005-2006 confirms that more than two million school-age children aren't enrolled in Yemen's education system.

Moreover, the report reveals that, according to the nation's 1994 census, 231,655 Yemeni children between the ages of 10 and 14 work – 51.7 percent of males and 48.3 percent of females. The report further indicates that these numbers have doubled – increasing at a rate of 3 percent – but noted that the figures don't include all children working in Yemen.

Librarian Mahmoud Al-Khameri, who has worked at the library at Beit Al-Thaqafah for nearly 16 years, also points out, “The nation's economic situation also plays a large role in not allowing citizens to get to libraries because Yemenis can think only about how to provide for their families and themselves in order to survive.”

Hamdan Dammag, vice president at the Yemen Research Center, believes the main problem rests with families themselves, who must teach their children to read from a tender age. He says the family must take the first step because it has the main responsibility for teaching children the importance of reading books, further noting that it would be good if there was at least a small library within the home itself.

Moreover, Dammag suggests the Yemeni government – particularly the Education Ministry – take up its role in teaching schoolchildren the importance of books and reading. “Each and every Yemeni school should have a library so teachers can guide students in learning how to use it to increase their knowledge, which will mold their future to become successful in life, both for their society and their country, but unfortunately, this step hasn't been taken as of yet.”

Abdullah Jameel, president of the Educational Organization in Yemen, observes, “The awful fact is that Yemeni children receive no encouragement to read books and to use libraries from family, schools or society itself.” Rather, he says, “The only knowledge approximately 90 percent of these children acquire is through television programs, but that's not enough. We're not even sure they're watching the right channels.”

He continues, pointing out that “Sana'a has 11 libraries for children, but not all are government-supported. The Social Fund for Development supports children's library in the Rehabilitation Center & Educational Development, spending $8,000 on purchasing children's books in the initial stages, but only YR 500,000 over the past two years.”

Jameel goes on to say, “We're planning to provide construct and designate more rooms for the libraries and expand it because it's not big enough. Most of the 60 children we average daily are school students, particularly those from government schools.”

While he believes the number of child visitors to the library surely is more than that, there's no real awareness in this field, noting that, “Families need to be made aware of the benefits their children can receive from the library.”

Jameel continues, maintaining that “Lack of government support for private libraries causes great problems for them, while the government is well aware that this is its most important and foremost duty to its citizens and indeed, the nation. Any help requested either for an allowance or acquiring books has always been answered negatively due to budgetary shortfalls, so we've lost hope and stopped asking.”

Al-Harazi notes, “It's been a long, slow process for us to bring to the public's attention – both through advertisements and talking to locals – the fact that such a library exists here for children. Even if we ourselves didn't have this during our childhood, we shouldn't let the same be the fate for our children, who are our nation's future.”

Wanting to share its activities to benefit local citizens and the country itself, the Social Fund for Development faces several difficulties in doing so. While its services are free, the only assistance it is seeking is a place to establish a library; however, its efforts have yet to bear any results.

Al-Harazi mentions that two children, Shaima Al-Ashwal and 6-year-old Abdullah Jobran, who often visit the library at the Rehabilitation Center & Educational Development, are exceedingly happy to have a place where they can look at books and watch cartoons.

As Jobran's mother remarks, “In my day, there was no library to go to, so we just went to school and then stayed home cooking and cleaning. I'm really happy that my son Abdullah has an opportunity that I didn't.”

Al-Harazi notes, “With small rooms, a shortage of books and other facilities, children's libraries aren't up to required standards. Every year, we buy new books at exhibitions so as to be updated, but it's certainly not enough because we lack funds. Still, it's better than nothing.

“The main problem is lack of awareness. I wish the culture and education ministries would show some interest in this matter by conducting an awareness campaign to make each and every Yemeni citizen and family understand the importance of reading and acquiring knowledge.

“The Information Ministry also should cooperate by taking on this responsibility and paying more attention to it because it rarely talks about such subjects. If and when it does, it's only in the headlines.” Said Jameel.

Ishaq concludes, “Let's hope that with cooperation by all, this very important goal will be realized: Children constantly should be encouraged and made eager to reach for all the summits of human accomplishment, so that from their early years, they'll learn to aim high, conduct themselves well, have a good and undefiled character and have a firm purpose in everything. They won't jest or waste their time, but rather earnestly advance toward their goals and able to shine their light on their country and the world.”

Children's libraries

Sana'a has 11 private libraries. They are small, simple, unqualified enough to be a real library for gaining knowledge and not up to required standards, but they are useful and provide an important service. While no information is available about them, as a result of research, the following are the details of the children's libraries around the capital city:

1. Next to Al-Balagh newspaper in the Tahrir Square, 4,000 titles, established 1998.

2. In the Al-Idha'a area, 3,800 titles, established 1999.

3. Bab Al-Yemen's Al-Yarmouk Club. 6,200 titles, established 2000.

4. Al-Jeraaf area behind Al-Kibsi School, 4,600 titles, established 2001.

5. Al-Safiah area next to September 26 Park, 9,300 titles, established 2002.

6. Mathbah's Al-Sha'ab Club, 7,200 titles, established 2005.

7. Nuqum Youth Council in Azal area, 6,120 titles, established 2005.

8. Al-Balily Center, 6,100 titles, established 2005.

9. Al-Safiah, 6,100 titles, established 2005.

10. In the Central Prison, 7,200 titles, established May 22, 2007.

11. Soon to open in Sa'wan's 22nd May Club.

Faces & Traces

Faces & Traces is a cultural series of concise biographies of local or international famous and obscure personalities in fields such as literature, arts, culture and religion in which these individuals contribute affirmatively. It is a short journey in contemporary history, attempting to tackle numerous effective characters in human civilization.

Claudie Fayein, a French-Yemeni philanthropic physician

Prepared by: Eyad N. Al-Samman

French physician, ethnologist and intellectual Claudie Fayein was born July 17, 1912 in Paris. Because her sculptor father was killed in World War I, Fayein was raised by her grandparents and a French tutor and thus, had a particularly isolated childhood.

Fayein learned to compensate for her physical isolation through the mental enjoyment of reading, in addition to painting and playing piano. Being considerably affected by the poor health of her younger sister, who suffered from diphtheria, she had a powerful wish to devote herself to helping humanity.

Fayein attended Paris's Victor Duruy High School before joining the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris, where she was introduced to Melle Menant, who subsequently became her husband. During this time, Fayein made her first journey to the former USSR in 1934.

After graduating in July 1940, Fayein moved to the city of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in central France's Burgundy region, where she began her career as a rural physician. Due to a severe accident involving her husband, Fayein had to prolong her career in the country, returning to Paris later, where she worked in a hospital.

As the years passed with full knowledge that the number of Third World countries was increasing and remembering her noble life objectives, in 1950, Fayein decided to pursue a degree in ethnology (tropical diseases). At first, she'd never heard of many of the Third World countries, especially Yemen, but after reading about it, she was fascinated by its ancient civilization. She also was aware that other French physicians had worked in Yemen.

Consequently, she applied to France's Foreign Affairs Ministry in January 1950 to work as a physician in Yemen. After six months, she received her acceptance from the Yemeni ruler Imam Ahmed. While waiting to sign the contract, Fayein spent the remainder of 1950 learning Arabic, horseback riding and obtaining her second degree in tropical diseases.

Finally, without waiting to sign her contract, Fayein decided to come to Yemen in January 1951, first arriving at Kamaran Island coming from Cairo, then Jeddah, Asmara and Aden. She then traveled to Lahj and Taiz, where she made a short visit to the lone hospital there.

Fayein left Taiz for Hodeidah, passing through Zabid and Hammam Ali villages before arriving to Sana'a. During her stay in Sana'a, she visited numerous homes, mosques, streets and public markets. As she was a contemporary witness to the various social and daily life events happening to Sana'a residents from diverse social classes, she elaborately and ethnologically documented all of these events.

For an entire year, Fayein worked at Sana'a Hospital (now Al-Jumhury Hospital) with the assistance of a female French nurse. Additionally, she treated patients in her own home and sometimes visited them in theirs, concluding each day by riding her horse.

Other Yemeni cities she visited included Dhamar in September 1951, where she visited the ruins of an ancient Christian village. The next year, in January 1952, she visited Manakhah, followed by a March trip to Marib, where she photographed the remains of the prehistoric Sabaean civilization.

She returned to France following the end of her contract in mid-1952, but returned to Sana'a in 1969 after the outbreak of the 1962 Revolution against the imamate, working in a governmental hospital until 1973.

At the same time, both the Musee de l'Homme and the International Council of Museums entrusted her with the responsibility to establish the Yemeni National Museum in Sana'a, which formally opened Feb. 6, 1971.

Having made 26 different visits to Yemen, Fayein was given Yemeni nationality in 1990 and one of the National Museum's halls was named after her. Additionally, she was granted a memento of Sana'a City as the 2004 Arab Cultural Capital, while a large medical center in Sana'a was named after her in November of that same year.

Her frequent question to any French visitor returning from Yemen was, “Are there still many girls going to school in Yemen?” and she became extremely happy when she received an affirmative answer.

Fayein authored numerous books about Yemen, the most prominent of which is 1955's, “Une Francaise Medecin au Yemen” (A French Doctor in Yemen), which was translated into 10 languages, including Arabic in 1958. Employing a subtle literary style, the book portrays various aspects of social, political and daily life in the Yemeni cities she visited during her work from 1951 to 1952.

Her book, “Yemen,” (1975) includes a brief guide about Yemen documented with numerous tourist photographs. “Recits de Nagiba” (Tales of Naguiba, 2001) contains the memories of Fayein and her French Muslim nurse during their work at Sana'a Hospital.

Written in 1988 and published only in Polish, “The Arabian Without Oil” tells the story of those Arabs who suffer from poverty, ignorance and disease despite the fact that their homelands contain many treasures.

Fayein's last book, “My Journey to Dhofar,” which has yet to be published, describes her secret 1970 mission to Oman's Dhofar region to medically treat Omani fighters resisting British colonization.

Fayein maintained a private residence in Sana'a up until her Jan. 4, 2002 death in Paris at the age of 90. She has the distinction of being the lone French citizen granted the honor of holding Yemeni nationality during the 20th century.