Story time

The Friday Times

Imaduddin Ahmed | April 3, 2006

The Alif Laila Book Bus has inculcated the reading habit in thousands of children

“The classroom our primary school-goer enters is bereft of colour. Stark walls stare her/him in the face and dilapidated desks and chairs must do. . . In walks the teacher, who must shout if she is ever to be heard by what has now become a medley of high-pitched sound . . . Lessons commence with facts being repeated by fifty odd disinterested voices, each trying to outdo the other in loudness . . . and so the dull, irrelevant chant goes on till the students and teacher are equally disgusted by the futile exercise and make their way home.

“Such a school will necessarily have a negative impact on a young child. It can teach only those things we do not want him/her to know.” This is the situation of learning in most government primary schools, according to Syeda Basarat Kazim of Alif Laila Book Bus Society, Pakistan’s most unusual library for children, situated by the Main Market in Lahore’s Gulberg area, open six days a week for women and children until 6pm.

The undesirable lessons learnt from such an ‘education,’ the society’s president for over 21 years, Ms Kazim, goes on to describe include the notion that knowledge is something that must be learnt by rote, that survival demands being as noisy as possible, with violence thrown in for good measure, and that dreaming is wrong.

So what refreshing vision does Alif Laila have for nurturing young minds? “Put yourself in the shoes of a child who feels like opportunities for him or her do not exist, that you are dismissed a lot,” says the educationist-cum-children’s story-writer. “Even ‘friends’ of children see children as empty vessels to be filled. Adults should only interact with children when they are able to enter the child’s world. It’s not a case of ‘coming down’ to a child’s level.” She continues, “You’re lucky to show them the way. Alif Laila is about reaching for the stars and reaching for fantasy with the emphasis that ‘We can do it.’ Children can get their self-respect and dignity here.”

Alif Laila started out as a voluntarily run library in a double-decker bus in 1978 – the bus a gift of the Punjab Road Transport Corporation, the brainwave of an American psychologist Nita Baker – in her final year in Pakistan – having inherited a sum of money which she spent on purchasing books for the library. Today, currently funded by Save the Children UK and Global Fund for Women, the library has an annual budget of Rs 3.4 million, stocks over 15,000 books and by 2004, 300,000 documented individuals had visited the library since its inception in 1978. Counted within this latter figure are class 6 and 7 pupils from six government schools, who are driven in a bus once a week to Alif Laila’s library and learning complex. Library visits during school time accommodates cultural constraints that prohibit girls from leaving the house after school hours.

“In the beginning, when we were trying to convince head teachers that our facilities were good and that we would provide their pupils transportation to the library, five boys’ schools agreed to use our service, and one brave girls’ school! Now the beneficiaries are almost entirely girls.” Among that number of girls who visit Alif Laila’s learning complex and library are 150 pupils, mostly girls, being taught by Alif Laila staff at Basti Saidan Shah at the grade 1 and 2 levels on the premises given to them by the government at the government girls’ high school on the Upper Mall in Lahore.

Also counted among those visits to the library are those who cannot make the journey to Gulberg, Lahore, all the way from Sheikhupura. “StoryTeller” is a mobile lending library that brings books to 4000 children in 40 schools. Recounts coordinator Sabah Rehman, “Only a few had read outside of their school books.” But within the first three months of StoryTeller’s launch, that story had changed – 1636 books had been lent out to students. One boy pupil, Asif, at the Government Girls’ Primary School in village Aalo ke Thakerke, told Ms Rehman that his prayers had literally been answered: “I always wanted to read storybooks but never got a chance to buy any, nor did I find them anywhere. But it seems my prayers have been answered and this bus is a blessing. It has given me books to read and I no longer get bored.”

On the shelves of the double-decker that would make adults long to be children again, just to be able to spend hours reading in such an enchanting environment, one will smell the dusty scent of nostalgia immersed by childhood favourites Wizard of Oz , The Railway Children , The Chronicles of Narnia, Sabrina the Teenage Witch , The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Great Expectations and The Famous Five . One doesn’t have to look too closely to find Urdu books either, published by none other than the organisation itself. “At best, books available to children in the national language are adult attempts to either admonish or moralise: children’s worlds are rarely entered – their dreams and fears seldom understood. The reading does not provoke many laughs, and so doesn’t develop a sense of humour in our children,” explains Ms Kazim, author of eight Urdu books, which seek to address these issues.

Other materials that Alif Laila has produced include advocacy posters and pamphlets on the behalf of children’s rights, especially the girl child, for which a full length feature film, Razia, has also been produced. This was run in a serial on PTV three times in the 1990s. To complement its regular teacher trainings, mostly of government school and NGO school teachers in Lahore, Faisalabad, Kohat and most recently in Muzaffarabad and Bagh in the wake of the earthquake, the Alif Laila Bus Society has also produced the ‘Elementary School Teacher’s Mathematics Kit and Lecture Notes,’ the ‘Elementary School Teacher’s Kit and Lecture Notes’ and the ‘Elementary School Teacher’s Urdu Primer and Kit’ with an audio cassette of rhymes.

Children, people, books and the world at large have been Ms Basarat Kazim’s teachers. Her ambition as a child to become a writer, nurtured from reading, inspired her to become a self-learner. Indeed, she rejects the formal education that professional librarians receive, regarding it as unfriendly towards the child.
Encouraging reading, coupled with skills training in Alif Laila’s ‘Children’s Educational Complex’ programme, Ms Kazim believes that students will improve their problem-solving abilities at the very least, if not enrol in college or become skilled workers. “Unfortunately, in our society, when we are faced with a problem, we suffer from the mentality, ‘What difference can I make?’ We don’t learn to problem solve.” Currently, the Children’s Educational Complex, across the street from the Alif Laila Bus, has a membership of 1000 government school-girls. Most of these girls are in classes 6 and 7 and are transported by one of Alif Laila’s buses to attend two periods per week over a course of two years at the complex. They learn “computers,” taught by a Masters’ degree holder – a course that teaches pupils how to use paintbrush, MS Word, email, search the internet and MS Powerpoint; electronics, taught by a diploma holder – a course that teaches how to mend irons and assemble lamps; art, taught by a National College of Arts’ graduate; and crafts, taught by a Masters’ degree holder from the Home Economics College, Lahore. Some of the crafts made at school go on sale and raise funds for the centre.

A blend of informally educated and formally educated staff, the common thread that links them all, according to Ms Kazim and Vice President Rabia Khan is their ability to work with children and their patience. The IT teacher is one such example: she has to teach non-English speaking pupils how to use English-medium software. And beyond their common shared talent is their camaraderie. Says Ms Khan, “Other NGOs have high turnovers, but the staff at Alif Laila has been working here for years. The credit goes to the president because she has so much trust in everybody that she brings the best out. She’s selected a staff of self-motivators and never de-motivates them.” So, seemingly, the approach to children seems to be a similar one practiced with staff.

And perhaps it is building camaraderie that is the objective when Alif Laila brings children of different socioeconomic backgrounds together: children from the Lahore American School, Lahore Grammar School and Beaconhouse schools teach children from government schools. In the evening after school too, children who are allowed out are able to interact in the library. In a society where ‘haves’ grow up with rigid dehumanising biases and are able to distance themselves from the realities of the ‘have-nots,’ such interaction needs to be encouraged. “This is a give-and-take process. The children from the American School aren’t just the benefactors – they gain an insight into how to deal with difficult situations with courage and gain an appreciation for what they have,” says Ms Kazim.

In apt form, Ms Kazim tells a final story to summarise Alif Laila’s impact on children: “I recall reading a boy’s assessment sheet of the library. He calculated that there were 168 hours in the week and he calculated that he spent 30 hours a week at school – I am sure that he is now a mathematician. ‘School is not a place I am fond of,’ he wrote, ‘because there are too many children in class, there is too much noise and the teacher is never in a good mood. Half of the time she suffers from migraine and leaves our class to the monitor.’ He then said something insightful about how small people act when given authority, ‘who will wield the stick and hit us. I do not learn.’ He continued, ‘I spend 137 hours at home and because I don’t do well at school, these hours at home are not spent gloriously. But the one hour I spend at Alif Laila is the one hour I wait for throughout the week.'” Ms Kazim’s eyes shine and she smiles. “This touches on what Alif Laila does,” she concludes, “it’s a never ending story.”

In 1978, the federal ministry told the Alif Laila Bus Society that it wanted a library as a community centre in every park, and that it would build Alif Laila the first prefabricated building. The government failed to deliver its promise and it was left to Punjab Governor Ghulam Jilani Khan’s personal endorsement of Alif Laila’s vision that brought provincial resources to Alif Laila’s support and the establishment of the larger library and park. Governmental agencies continue to cooperate with the furtherance of Alif Laila’s aims, and the Government of Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Development acclaimed Alif Laila’s contribution to society in 2003.

“One Alif Laila is not enough. We should have Alif Lailas dotted about Pakistan,” states Ms Kazim. Indeed. It is time for the federal and provincial governments to take note that they can do more than acclaim and support citizen and NGO initiatives. It is time for them to take on their responsibility for the welfare and development of citizens seriously, and establish libraries built on the Alif Laila model all around the country.

Fond memories

“I read all my Secret Seven and Famous Five books at Alif Laila. I also donated all my childhood books to it. The experience of a library in the bus was like an adventure in itself. Alif Laila made me fall in love with books.”

– Taimur Rahman, Lecturer of Political
Science at LUMS

“The Alif Laila bus was the first time I saw a double-decker bus and it was a thrilling experience going from school as a class to select our books. It was partly responsible for my reading habit, because it made reading an adventure.”

– Zain Ahmed, Television director


“I remember it being very magical. It was not just a library, it was more like a playground for kids. It was out of the ordinary because it made us want to read books.”

– Munizae Jahangir, Correspondent,
New Delhi TV


“I used the Alif Laila Bus for the children in the schools run under the patronage of Escorts Foundation. It was a wonderful experience for all of us because the children were living in villages and wouldn’t otherwise have had access to a library – to a large extent, libraries are unfortunately not an amenity that our nation enjoys. There was a person in the bus who read the stories to the children. It was immensely satisfying to see the expressions on the children’s faces. They enjoyed something that otherwise would not have existed for them.”

– Maisoon Zamir, former ED of Escorts Foundation


“I wait a whole month for The StoryTeller library bus and my family asks, ‘What magic has this bus woven on you that you talk about it all the time!'”

– Razia, pupil at Government Girls’
Primary School, Rossay in Sheikhupura


“My family goes to Jhelum to spend the summer vacations there, but this time I did not go because The Storyteller promised us it would come even during the holidays and I insisted that I would stay at home. My family did not go to Jhelum then, but my staying home was worth it.”

– Mafia, pupil at Government Girls’
Primary School, Mitharpur in Sheikhupura

“I thought Alif Laila was an excellent idea to spread literacy. We should have Alif Laila libraries all over the country even if we don’t yet have formal schools everywhere. The odd person would be able to read books to her community, and when people get used to having libraries around them, they’ll have an incentive to start reading. Unless people read, we can never develop.”

– Sarwat Nawaz, High Court Advocate

Why read?

“Why do we want to promote the reading habit in children? What is it that makes us want our children to read? Reading is the path to education – the acquiring of knowledge, the deepening of understanding, the civilising of animal instincts present in us all, the nurturing of flights of fancy, a concentration on the nobler values of humanism, peace, amity, sympathy and friendship . . .

“Imagination and the ability to dream, separate the mundane from the sublime. A child whose imagination has been strengthened by rainbows and unicorns is a child who, travelling on fairy wings, crosses the borders of confined spaces and steps into the realms of creative exploits and idealism. This child is free to explore, innovate, invent because this is a child who can imagine.”

– Syeda Basarat M Kazim

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