On a long gone day in the summer of 1976 I flipped the pages of my first National Geographic magazine. Although my English proficiency was rudimentary the superb photography transcended the language barrier. It took me over a month to read and partially understand every article in that issue and by the time I finished my determination to improve my English intensified. Reading, which later became my favorite pastime and pursuit, started then and never ended.
Besides my formal academic training, I owe my early education to National Geographic magazine in great part. Along with the National Geographic Channel (NGC) it became my prime source of non-fiction erudition. As a graduate teaching assistant in the States I was fortunate that my designated office contained the department’s archives of the magazine. I spent hours on end reading avariciously about geography, anthropology, history and the physical sciences and staring dreamily at the photographs from distant lands and galaxies. On lonely nights and as a bedtime diversion I turned to reading fiction and my intellectual fate was sealed by my mid-twenties.
In October of 2010, 122 years after the first issue was published in 1888 the 33rd Arabic Edition of the magazine finally saw the light of day. It followed the inauguration of National Geographic Abu Dhabi TV channel earlier this year. This free-to-air satellite channel is, in my opinion, the UAE’s greatest contribution to the Arab speaking World. For the first time I refrain from cursing their petrodollars and am obliged to give them a thumbs-up. After flooding the market with cheapish rubbish in the form of “entertainment” magazines the decision to publish something of substance and value is greatly appreciated albeit being late. While the 3rd issue (December 2010) was released today there remains a significant problem in distribution. Hopefully the publishers, given enough time, can overcome this very serious matter. As far as I understand the Arabic Edition is being printed in small quantities awaiting further market evaluation. The online subscription page is unusable since instead of providing an e-payment option I was “promised” that a representative shall contact me. I was not able to acquire the first October issue and managed with difficulty to find the second one in Beirut. If these logistic hurdles are adequately overcome National Geographic Magazine in Arabic could become a compelling source of education for a new generation of Arab speakers.
My two younger kids and I are already fighting over reading priority of the single issue we have at home. It is a dream of mine that National Geographic TV and magazine impregnate their minds with the light of knowledge, fill their hearts with the desire to discover the unknown, goad them into asking questions without fear of retribution and propel them to challenge their egocentric sense of decency. It is as important to learn that we are not alone on this planet as it is to speculate that we are not the only sentient beings in the universe. Young Arab men and women deserve at least that chance.