iRead: A Beacon of Hope

There is a sense of wonder at the iRead camp enrichment forum, a place crowded with dedicated and enthusiastic readers. The iRead program, a flagship program of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, strives to promote reading through a competition where young people give presentations related to how particular books have changed their lives. The top 10 of the 36 participants at the iRead forum will go on to next month’s final. Back for its third year with a distinctive leap on both the organizational and cultural levels, iRead has developed from being exclusively for Saudi participants to a wider remit to reach all those who love reading: citizens and residents alike. It is now recognized as a transformative initiative across the Saudi and Gulf region. At the forum, it is not strange to stand with Abdullah Al-Muhssin and Ail Sulais to hear discussions on the merits of introducing intellectualism into poetry and vice versa. Which of the two is better? Might bringing poetry into intellectualism cause more harm than good? It is not unusual to find a young man such as Mishari Al-Hamoud staying up until dawn with Faiz Al-Shammari studying linguistics intricacies. Experience and Transformation Buthainah Al-Issa, founder of the Takween creative writing project, said: “The iRead competition is a pioneering competition on the international level, and I hope to see this copied in all the Arabian capitals.” What makes iRead really special is the quality of the participants. Possessing a depth of experience that belies their young age, one finds participants from the intermediate school level with a stronger passion for reading and knowledge rather than games or entertainment. Abulrahman Al-A’arook, 14, from Dammam, said his love of reading stirred in the third grade when his school announced a book lending competition by the library. When he came across a Harry Potter book that lit a passion in his heart, he ended up reading the whole series — seven volumes. He read more than 50 books in the summer vacation going into the fifth grade. When his father heard about the iRead competition and asked him to participate, he did so thinking he was the most important reader or the only one. When he arrived, he realized that he wasn’t alone. And then there is Nada Al-Ghamdi, 18, in high school. While she was in kindergarten, before being able to read, she saw her older sister learning to read and delighting in her ability to spell words. Her father began buying her illustrated books to train her in reading, and as she grew, her family’s expectations grew with her. And she felt a responsibility. She was a living example of the Arabic saying: “You will become what your loved ones see you as.” “I used to see life from a materialistic perspective before this forum, but with its programs that combined science, art, and literature, it made me find my balance between the tangible and the unseen,” she said. Dr. Abdullah Al-Khatib, a professor of linguistics at King Abdulaziz University in Jiddah and former cultural attaché for Saudi Arabia in Paris who delivered a lecture, may have summed it up best. ”Meeting these young men and women was a source of hope. It was a beacon in the dark,” he said. “Their motivation is impressive, and they have an endless thirst for knowledge.”