OPINION | Lucky to be literate


I grew up spending the bulk of my summer days reading my way through the shelves of the small local library in my northern Minnesota hometown.

The library itself wasn’t huge, or new, or extravagant-in memory, it was a comfortable-enough space that had basic fiction and nonfiction sections, resource books and a children’s room. Looking back, it served its purposes perfectly: It was accessible, and it allowed me the resources to learn and imagine my way through worlds and information that were beyond my own immediate experience.

I think it was there that I became acquainted with the idea that endless amounts of knowledge were available-to me!-through written words on the page.

It solidified my love of reading.

In its most recent data, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s Institute for Statistics shows that there are an estimated 774 million illiterate adults in the world, about 64 percent of whom are women.

My mother-in-law makes up a portion of that statistic, an Egyptian woman who cannot read or write. Raised to raise a family, she easily navigates her immediate world: the market, the public transportation system, places routine and necessary to everyday life.

But the ability to read and write is undoubtedly the basis for all other education, containing with it the power to effect all kinds of change, containing the power of possibility.

My sister-in-law, Hala, is a young woman who is intense, cynical and full of expectations for herself and her life in Egypt. She has made the jump to not only reading, but to completing high school and becoming a first-generation college attendee, pursuing her own interest in computer and information technology, attending the University in a neighboring town, an opportunity that carries with it a whole new set of places and systems to understand and negotiate.

A not-so-long-ago conversation with her, however, made me think beyond literacy and further about resources and access.

The conversation began this way:

“How’s school?”

“We’re on a break.”

“What are you doing?”

“Sitting,” she replied flatly.

“Sitting-?” my husband Ahmed burst in, taking over the phone. “Don’t sit! Go to the library, go read a book, a newspaper! Get out there and do something!” His voice rang out over the line with its delay, and there was a pause and a breath from the other side of the globe.

“What books? There isn’t a library here-you know that,” she said. “We’re not in America.”

“I forgot,” said my husband. And while I hadn’t forgotten, I realized that I really hadn’t fully considered it before. Without a doubt, I was lucky to be literate, but also very fortunate to be part of a culture and a community that provided ample resources and opportunities for me to get my hands on books of all kinds.

I feel grateful, too, to not only have the ability and access, but simply to have the choice to make the time to read, as I’ve sneaked in reading on the bus, late at night with a flashlight under the covers so as not to disturb my husband, propping books on the kitchen counter while making dinner.

Which brings me back to the beginning: I’ve spent the bulk of this summer back-and-forthing books from the public library. I’ve reread favorites, devoured some new favorite authors, and paged through some bad novels I don’t remember the names of. I started the Sisters Grimm series at my daughter’s persistent recommendation so that we could simply “talk about the books together”-a request she made that thrilled me, a shared interest, invaluable.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.