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SANA’A, YEMEN – I’m not sure how it happened, but sometime while growing up (if one ever really grows up), I discovered reading. And recently, while finishing a particularly enjoyable book, a tattered paperback I bought at some used-book store or garage sale in Canada, I’ve been reminded again that a book is never just a book.

Left alone, any book, sitting there, minding its own business, asks very little of anyone.

But open it, and it lives. It breathes ideas.

Like currency passed around, books are ideas that are not really owned by any one person. They’re travellers, like on a train, where the journey is as meaningful as the destination. Unselfishly give yourself to the written word, and learn that others, with thoughts of their own, are alongside.

How tragic then, to be unable to read even a single word. If not a prison sentence, it must feel like going through life like a blind man.

I wonder if that’s how 70 million Arabs feel.

According to a recent report by the Arab League Education, Science and Culture Organization, which represents the league’s 21 countries, that’s how many Arabs over the age of 15 now can’t read or write. That’s 35 per cent of the Arab world’s adults. To give perspective, 1 per cent of Canadian adults are illiterate, according to UN definitions.

The percentage of illiterate Arabs has actually fallen in recent decades. But surging population means number-wise there are 20 million more than in 1970.

The societal impact, especially since about half of all Arab women are illiterate, is predictable.

For example, studies show a clear link between reading and birthrate.

Here in Yemen, with families averaging seven kids, they can’t build schools fast enough. In fact, Yemen’s population is projected to explode from 21 million to 50 million by 2050.

One expert calls it “the bomb nobody wants to talk about.” It will affect virtually every other development barometer. Forty-five per cent of Yemenis already live on under $2 a day, and two-thirds of rural residents have no clean water.

Few officials, even here, would argue against educating women about birth control as the key to improve it all. But only 60 per cent of Yemeni children — boys and girls — are now enrolled in school. Also, there are powerful religious and cultural values telling families to have more kids. So while it’s fine to preach to the converted, the bigger need is to work on the men: the fathers and husbands and brothers who set the family tone and house rules.

Sometimes necessity breeds ignorance. If children are one’s only social safety net, let’s have lots. And if there’s nobody else to feed the goats and plow the land, why choose Mary over Johnny to go to school? They’re tough arguments. Especially when decisions about family how families run, get pawned off as God’s preferences.

More often than not, the real issue is fear. Teaching a woman to read will empower her at the expense of men. She might determine if, and when, and how large (or small) her family will be, even if she’s happy with just one girl. Many men in Yemen, and elsewhere in the developing world, just can’t accept this. In fact, many young men here are quite open about not wanting to marry a woman who’s been to university. After all, if these uppity girls aren’t lippy and argumentative, they’re at least interested in a career of their own. How threatening.

Slow as it is, cultural change is always possible. Some richer Arab oil states have made literacy strides for both genders. And certainly outside help is always needed. But as crucial as foreign aid is, I’m afraid the West can talk about global visions like the UN’s Millennium Goals, and renew its commitments to the poor, until the Third World cows come home.

The deeper need is basic heart change. Men over here simply need to appreciate that both genders are equally and inherently valuable. And donor groups that want to help bring lasting improvements need to understand these cultural and human issues, and then face them head on.

Otherwise it’s just like the blind leading the blind. And those jail doors won’t budge.