Yet despite this rich literary history, actual, sustained readership in Tunisia is low, according to Emrhod Consulting, a North African research institute that has done polling on readership. It’s not necessarily a question of literacy: More than 80% of the adult population is literate, and many Tunisians are fluent in both Arabic and French. But 75% of households have no literary material aside from the Qur’an or newspapers, and only 18% of Tunisians bought a book in the past year.

The ministry of education says it’s uncertain as to why Tunisians are reading so little, though spokeswoman Zoubeida Selah acknowledged that it’s a problem they are trying to address by building more libraries. Tunisia is already home to the biggest library in North Africa (link in French).

YallaRead’s 24-year-old cofounder, Ahmed Hadhri, thinks Tunisians are abandoning books in favor of time online, a cheaper option. “Books in Tunisia are expensive and unavailable,” he says. “There isn’t Amazon, and we don’t find a lot of books in bookshops—people are obliged to ask their friends abroad to make purchases.” A weakened Tunisian dinar has also made overseas book buying prohibitively expensive.

Hadhri launched YallaRead last spring; the platform lets readers post the contents of their personal libraries online and meet up with other bookworms. It follows in the footsteps of programs like Australia’s Books on Rails, which has left 300 books on trains, buses, and trams in Melbourne. Last year, book-wielding commuters in one Romanian city were given a free bus ride.

More than 16,000 cabs serve greater Tunis’ 2.5 million residents, according to the ministry of transport. YallaRead has placed books in Arabic, French, and English; ranging from poetry to self-help; in five taxis so far. The only rule is no religious books, Hadhri says. YallaRead is actively seeking funding and book donations so they can expand to all cabs in Tunis.

“Most Tunisians have abandoned reading,” Mzoughi says, but YallaRead’s program at least “encourages everyone to open up a book, to read a few words or sentences.” The initiative is still in its infancy, but it’s already reached more than 500,000 people on social media. Some clients have called E-Taxi specifically to request a YallaRead cab, Hadhri says.

A selfie in a taxi with a glossy book cover? Now that’s guaranteed to get likes in Tunis.

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