Sheikh Zayed Book Award Honors Authors in a Virtual Event

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award was not able to hold a traditional ceremony this year, but it honored the 2020 winners of its annual prizes last month during a virtual ceremony that was broadcast live on its YouTube channel and other social media platforms.

“Culture is the permanent meeting place that no crisis or pandemic can deprive humanity of,” said Ali bin Tamim, secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, referring to the coronavirus precautions that prevented the awards from being presented in person. 

“Perhaps one of the positive aspects of this crisis is that it raises serious questions to intellectuals,” said bin Tamin, who is also president of the Abu Dhabi Center for the Arabic Language. “This includes the importance of science, health and environmental culture, which we hope will occupy a greater area of interest to researchers and scientists.” (See a related article, “Nonprofit Groups Shift Tactics to Help the Arts Survive the Coronavirus”.)

The award began in 2006 with the patronage and support of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Since its first edition, nearly 16,000 applicants from 50 countries have applied for the award and prizes worth a total of seven million dirhams ($1.9 million) have been awarded.

The poet Moncef Ouhaibi, a professor of Arabic literature at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Sousse, in Tunisia, was awarded the literature prize this year for his book The Penultimate Cup, (Masciliana Editions, Tunisia, 2019). The award marks the first time the prize has been given to a work of poetry. Ouhaibi said he believes that “the prize restores literature as a source of knowledge and consolidates its importance, with its real cultural and cognitive symbolism.”

Ouhaibi was one of seven authors and publishers honored this year. The prizes go to cultural creators from around the globe for contributions to the advancement of Arabic literature and culture and are awarded in up to nine categories each year, including literature, children’s literature, young authors, translation, and Arabic culture in other languages. 

“Culture is the permanent meeting place that no crisis or pandemic can deprive humanity of.”

Ali bin Tamim
 Secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

This year, nearly 2,000 works by writers in 49 countries were nominated for the award’s 14th edition. 

A Triumph Despite Troubling Times

The winners were happy to be honored virtually under the current circumstances.

“It is an exciting and new experience,” said Mohamed Ait Mihoub, who won the prize for translation. “The insistence on holding the ceremony virtually allows life and joy to triumph and says that the pandemic cannot stand before celebrating the word and beauty,” said Mihoub, a Tunisian who is a professor of Arabic language and literature at Zayed University’s College of Education, in Abu Dhabi. 

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Ibtisam Barakat, a Palestinian-American writer, poet and artist, considered the insistence not to cancel this year’s award and the determination to celebrate the winners a “courageous step.”

Barakat’s The Lilac Girl (Tamer Institute for Community Education, Palestine, 2019) won the Children’s Literature prize. The story addresses the issue of the Palestinan “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” of 1948 through the eyes of a young girl who turns to art to cope with the loss of her home and childhood. “The award will help me reach more readers, and give me a sense of support in continuing to write in Arabic, which is my native language, in addition to writing in English,” Barakat said.

Richard van Leeuwen, a senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, won the prize for Arab Culture in Other Languages for his book The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth Century Fiction: Intertextual Readings (Brill Publishers, Leiden, 2018). “The award made me feel proud, especially because it is a symbol of appreciation for the book from my Arab colleagues,” he said. “I hope the award will enable the book to reach Arab readers, to be part of cultural exchange.” 

“The award made me feel proud, especially because it is a symbol of appreciation for the book from my Arab colleagues.”

Richard van Leeuwen
 A senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Amsterdam, who won the prize for Arab Culture in Other Languages

Mihoub, who won the translation prize, was honored for his translation from French into Arabic of The Romantic Man, or L’homme Romantique, by the French philosopher Georges Gusdorf (1912-2000). The book is the eleventh volume of Gusdorf’s sixteen-volume encyclopedia, Western Philosophy and Human Sciences. Mihoub’s translation was published in 2018 by Sinatra House and the Tunis Institute for Translation.

“I have read this huge book many times, experienced it and lived with it, and I wish I had been its author,” Mihoub said. “Therefore, when I started translating it, I made a great effort to be faithful to the text, its language, ideas and spirit, and to do all I can to make it in sound Arabic.”

Mihoub believes that the translation prize is one of the most prominent features of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and indicates a deep awareness of the importance of translation and the need of Arab culture for it. “It is a message for tolerance and communication among peoples,” he said. “It pushes the Arab elites to advance the Arabic translation movement and invest it in our battle against ignorance and terrorism.”

“The award will help me reach more readers, and give me a sense of support in continuing to write in Arabic, which is my native language, in addition to writing in English.”

Ibtisam Barakat,
 A Palestinian-American writer, who won the Children’s Literature prize

The translation prize and the prize for works in other languages illustrate the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s recognition of the importance of international cultural exchanges. The organization also encourages the translation of prize-winning works in Arabic into foreign languages through a funding initiative that offers grants to publishing houses in other countries.

Encouraging Young Authors

The award also focuses on encouraging young talents in writing and translation with a special prize. This year, the Young Author award was given to Hayder Qasim, an Iraqi historian and researcher in the Department of Historical Studies at the Bayt Al-Hikma Foundation in Baghdad. Qasim was honored for his book Islamic Theology in the Studies of German Orientalists: Joseph van Ess as a Case Study, published by Al Rawafed Culture Publishers (Beirut) and Ibn al-Nadim Publishing and Distribution (Algeria) in 2019. 

As he examines the impact of German Orientalism on the study of Islamic theology, Qasim believes that the award increases his responsibility. “To maintain the same level in all my research productions is what I aspire to now,” he said.

Qasim is currently working on a study exploring the relationship between orientalism and the science of verifying texts, and how orientalists contributed to achieving and disseminating the Arab heritage of theology. “The orientalists’ interest in studying our Arab heritage is recognition of Arabs and Muslims’ contribution to human civilization,” he said. 

The other prizes awarded this year and their winners are:

Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Cultural Personality of the Year. Jayyusi, of Jordan and Palestine, is a poet, author and editor and is the founder and director of East-West Nexus, which is dedicated to scholarly work on Arabic civilization and cultural achievements. 

Banipal Magazine, Publishing and Technology. Published in the United Kingdom, Banipal  showcases contemporary Arab authors in English translation.

Prizes in two categories, Contribution to the Development of Nations and Literary and Art Criticism, were not awarded this year.

Earlier this month, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award announced the opening of nominations for the 15th edition of the prizes, to be awarded in 2021. The nomination period continues through October 2020. For more details, click here.

By: Tarek Abd El-Galil

Tarek is an Egyptian journalist. He works as a deputy manager for the correspondents section at Tahrir newspaper and as a correspondent at and Al-Hayat TV. Tarek has a BA in journalism.

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