Urdu home libraries aim to preserve language in Manitoba

At first, the collection seems modest: a few bookcases tucked away in a small-town Manitoba basement.

But the shelves in Absar Ahmad’s home library are packed full of poetry and fiction, criticism and religion, psychology and philosophy. And there’s one thing in particular that sets it apart: the books are almost all in Urdu.

The language is Pakistan’s national tongue, and one whose future Ahmad worries is faltering among Urdu speakers and their families in Manitoba.

“I feel proud when I speak Urdu. What happened that with all this progress, we started thinking that Urdu is not a language which is worthy of being spoken in this society?” Ahmad said.

That’s why, ever since the first half of his 1,000-book collection was shipped over from the South Asian country in 2018 — a few years after he moved to Canada himself — Ahmad has been sharing his home library with people in the community.

Before the pandemic, that meant opening his home in La Salle, about 25 kilometres south of Winnipeg, to the public for a few hours every Friday evening. Some would come for help with speeches they were writing in Urdu, while others just wanted to kick back with a book on Ahmad’s couch.

Absar Ahmad pulls a book from his Urdu-language library. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Lately, the events he’d normally host — like a mushaira, or poetry reading, held last spring — have moved online instead.

If it sounds a bit like what you might find at a public library, it’s because Ahmad was in part motivated by his disappointment in the Urdu resources at the ones in Winnipeg. 

And he’s not the only one. Farhan Liaquat said Ahmad’s home library is one of several he knows of among Pakistani expats in the Winnipeg area, driven by a desire to offer better Urdu books than the collections at public libraries, which he said are outdated.

“The whole idea is having at least some kind of representation, some kind of variety so people have some kind of motivation [to read in Urdu],” said Liaquat, who moved to Winnipeg from the northern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in 2013.

Farhan Liaquat stands in Absar Ahmad’s home library in La Salle, Man. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Liaquat said without more access to Urdu books, he worries about whether future generations of Urdu-speaking families in Manitoba will hold onto the language.

Otherwise, “it would be something that might end up in a natural history museum,” he said.

Power of language

For Ahmad, helping people learn Urdu is a way to help them connect with their culture and understand their history.

It’s a subject that makes him think of his father. Growing up in his hometown of Karachi, Ahmad said his family didn’t have extra money to spend on books — but that didn’t stop his dad from memorizing and often reciting verses of Urdu poetry, and instilling in him a love of reading.

“We need to teach our children our language. We need to tell them that this language is very important to understand your meaning — meaning of your community, your society, meaning of your elders, your culture, your religion,” he said.

That lifelong passion has been strengthened now that he has a daughter of his own, who he’s teaching to read Urdu with help from the children’s section of his home library.

Inshaal Ahmad, 10, sits on the floor and flips through an Urdu-language book in her family’s home library. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Ten-year-old Inshaal, a Grade 5 student at La Salle School, said she feels lucky to speak the language.

“Nobody at my school speaks Urdu, and I’m the only person that has my Islamic religion at my school,” she said.

“I feel really happy that I’m able to spread it around.”

Library updating collection

Barbara Bourrier-LaCroix, administrative coordinator of collections and borrower services for the Winnipeg Public Library, said the library has about 1,000 books in Urdu, about half of which are for children.

Five of the library’s 21 branches carry titles in the language.

That collection was last updated in 2019, when the library spent about $2,500 on new titles, she said.

And while the library makes sure to change up its stock every few years, not having employees who speak each of the languages it offers means it has to put a lot of faith in the vendors it buys from.

But it’s also in the process of revamping what it calls its world languages collection, following a recent review of the library’s multilingual selection that found several areas for improvement.

Those recommendations include fully cataloging the library’s foreign-language books online and cutting down the languages it offers to focus on creating better selections for fewer languages. The report included a list based on 2016 census data of which languages to preserve, including Urdu.

As of that census — the latest data available — 1,725 people in Manitoba said that was the language they used most often at home. Similar data shows that number was 985 in 2011 and 745 in 2006.

Bourrier-LaCroix said the library will look at data from the 2021 census once it’s available, as well as how often books in each language are taken out, before it makes any decisions about which areas to focus on.

Barbara Bourrier-LaCroix, seen here in a file photo, says the Winnipeg Public Library is working on improving what it calls its world languages collection. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

And the library is open to working with community members through that process over the next few years — in fact, that was another one of the recommendations the review made, Bourrier-LaCroix said.

“We need to work with the community. So we need to identify community groups, people who would be interested in helping us look at the collections. How can we better promote them? What can we do to make them better?” she said.

“That isn’t something, obviously, that can happen overnight. But it’s something we’ll be working towards for 2025.”

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