An outlandish claim that “Arabs read six minutes a year on average” has uncritically made its way into think tank reports, mainstream media outlets, NGOs, and celebrated public speaking platforms like TED Talks. But an Al-Akhbar investigation found no statistical evidence to back it up.
In December 2011, a shocking statistic made news headlines: Arabs read an average of six minutes per year.
All the media outlets that reported it – from satellite channel Al Arabiya to the pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat – cited the Arab Thought Foundation's 4th Annual Cultural Development Report as their source. The catchy statistic was then circulated via Twitter, leaving many people both incredulous and outraged at the apparent lack of reading among Arabs. After all, if six minutes of reading equals roughly 1600 words (based on the Longreads scale for English readers), then this would mean that Arabs read on average about four words per day.
The statistic itself was unclear: Arabs read six minutes of what, exactly, per year? Was the study referring to novel reading, newspaper reading, or a person’s total amount of reading? Most importantly, where did this number come from?
After tracking down a copy of the Arab Thought Foundation’s phonebook-sized report – which is not yet available online – I found only one secondary reference to the “six minutes” statistic.
It reads: “If we adopt the minimum average time that youths are on the internet, that gives us 365 hours a year, and if we compare that with the average time an individual Arab spends reading, which is six minutes a year, then the difference between the two becomes clear, and the importance of the Internet in youths' lives becomes apparent...”
Beyond that, there is no explanation of how researchers arrived at the statistic or any citation of the original source. A spokesperson for the Arab Thought Foundation, Thanaa Atwi, said that six minutes is not to be taken as a “specific time,” but rather it is a “symbol.”
“It's not exactly six minutes, it's like a symbol. But this [number] is too little,” Atwi said.
It might seem plausible that the Arab Thought Foundation had just adopted this random number as a symbolic gesture to highlight a lack of reading among Arabs. Yet, the foundation is not the first organization to employ it. The six minute statistic has been circulating for years among the media, blogs, and NGOs, being used as a call-to-action to boost literacy efforts in the Arab world, or conversely, as a way to cast Arabs as dullards for not reading. Despite the statistic's wide acceptance and usage, its origins remain murky at best, and dubious at worst.
Choose your own statistic: six minutes, four pages, or half a page?
Nearly a year before the Arab Thought Foundation released their 4th annual report, Fadi Ghandour, Jordanian CEO of Aramex, spoke at TEDxRamallah on 16 April 2011. He said, “We are told by UNESCO that Arabs...Arab kids read only six minutes a year, as compared to 12,000 minutes a year per child in the West.”
Ghandour, who also chairs the Jordanian development organization Ruwwad, has even fostered the creation of a campaign called “Six Minutes” that encourages children to read six minutes a day to beat this statistic.
In one of the campaign’s brochures, two statements allegedly found in a 2007 UNESCO report are cited: “The average extracurricular reading time for a child in the Arab world amounts to no more than six minutes a year, compared with 12,000 minutes for a child in the Western world,” and “An Arab individual reads a quarter of a page a year on average, compared to the 11 books read by an American and seven books by a Brit.”
But in UNESCO's online documents, there is not one mention of either statistic in Arabic or English.
A UNESCO official also denied it came from the organization. “I've heard this [statistic] before, but it's not from a UNESCO report,” said Firas al-Khateeb, UNESCO media officer in Beirut.
Khateeb said there is a chance it could have been mentioned at a seminar, but that, “UNESCO is one of those organizations where people like to attribute reports to gain credibility and sometimes it happens, but we don't have anything official.”
Several social organizations and academics that I spoke with who had cited the six minute statistic – or a variation thereof – confessed that they had only read the information second-hand and could not produce the original.
In 2009, several media outlets pointed the finger at sources other than UNESCO. An October 2009 article from the UAE-based Gulf News wrote that a survey from the Next Page Foundation “reported that the average person in the Arab world reads just six minutes a year...” (It’s possibly noteworthy that interpretations of the statistic in the English-language press often refers to an “average Arab” reading six minutes a year, as opposed to Arabic coverage, which states that Arabs read six minutes “on average” each year.)
The Bulgaria-based Next Page Foundation had released a 2007 report titled “What Arabs Read,” but there is no reference to Arabs reading six minutes a year in the report. In fact, the report contradicts the six minute statistic at times.
For example, in Egypt, 800 of the 1000 literate people surveyed by the foundation said that they read about 54 minutes a day. The report explains its methodology clearly, stating that they surveyed a total of 5,000 individuals, with 1,000 participants for each of the five countries examined. In the report’s numerous charts, there is a daily breakdown of how much time is spent on reading and other activities, but the results are too complex to conclude that Arabs, as a whole, read six minutes per year.
When asked about the six minute statistic, Yana Genova, director of Next Page, said, “I don't recollect reading this.” She said that the 2007 report was the group's last on Arab reading habits and that their work is not the source of the six minute statistic.
In September 2009, the Khaleej Times pointed the finger at yet another source: “The Arab Human Development Report 2003 was damning in its assertion that the average Arab reads only six minutes a year,” wrote the newspaper.
Yet the 2003 Arab Human Development report, which was sponsored by the UN Development Programme, contains no such statistic nor does any other UNDP report related to the Arab world. In a response to my email query, the UNDP’s media relations department wrote, “We checked the main regional reports that were issued on the Arab World by UNDP and they did not publish a statistic on the amount of time people in Arab countries spend reading per day. It would seem therefore to be a misattribution.”
The first two Arab Human Development reports, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, were notorious for their dim portrayal of Arab culture and reading habits. In 2002, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “If you want to understand the milieu that produced bin Ladenism, and will reproduce it if nothing changes, read this report.”
The reports helped to set the patronizing view of Arab civilization before and after the Iraq war, showing that official documents and statistics, no matter how “well-documented,” can have a dark side. The same is true of the six minute statistic. While the statistic has thus far been framed as a call-to-action for increased Arab literacy, its earlier incarnation has even more obscure and convoluted roots.
In November 2008, RIA Novosti, a Russian state-run news outlet, reported that the Syrian state-owned newspaper Tishreen referred to a “UN report” that detailed how the “Average Arab reads 4 pages a year.”
The online archives of Tishreen are most likely not comprehensive, but the statistic couldn't be traced to the paper, nor could a generic “UN report” be found that stated that Arabs read only four pages a year. Regardless, this claim – with the same untraceable lineage – would be repeated a month later in Arutz Sheva, a right-wing, Zionist Israeli news outlet, and then again in several racist blogs, being used as an opportunity to bash Arab “ignorance.”
Oddly enough, an Arabic-language blog post from 2009 quoted Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud as repeating the “four pages” claim in an interview. Alongside the claim, Turki also allegedly stated an equally unbelievable statistic: Israelis read an average of 40 books a year.
Despite the plethora of seemingly baseless references to the statistic, I was still able to trace one of the earliest – if not the earliest – online references: a short film from about seven years ago.
In 2005, Jordanian filmmaker Yahya al-Abdallah produced a 15-minute documentary titled Six Minutes. The film shows Jordanians responding to questions that seem geared to highlight their “stupidity,” like: Who is Silvio Berlusconi? The interviewees are unable to answer any of the questions correctly, except for the one about pop singer Nancy Ajram. In the last few seconds of the film, a single line appears on the screen in Arabic: “The Arab child reads about six minutes every year outside of school curriculum.” There is no source.
When contacted by Al-Akhbar, Abdallah listed several sources for the statistic, but they included the same circular round of attributions outlined above. One blurb of unattributed Arabic text that he included in an email cites the usual suspect as a source: a study by the UN, in this case dating back to 2000.
For a statistic that has been repeated widely, it is peculiar that its origin is so obscured, but it is even more peculiar that people are so keen to latch on to it and repeat it as fact.
This pithy catchphrase has endured for years and the motives for propagating it are varied, but they mostly adhere to the same logic that portrays Arabs as “underdeveloped” or “backwards,” hence the constant pairing of the statistic with a glowing statement on Euro-Israeli-American literacy. It is possible that there’s a report out there in some dusty drawer that has methodically proven that Arabs, on average, read six minutes, four pages, or a quarter page a year. But until it surfaces, this flimsy statistic should be relegated to a dusty drawer itself.