Sheikh Zayed Book Awards lauds winners virtually

BEIRUT: The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards have had to rethink their 14th edition ceremony this year, due to global pandemic lockdown.

Held during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair for the past several years, the 2020 awards ceremony will now be live-streamed Thursday on the award’s website.

Prizes in seven categories -- Literature, Translation, Young Author, Children’s Literature, Arab Culture in Other Languages, Publishing and Technology and Cultural Personality of the Year -- will be distributed to winners from six countries.

Founded in 2006, the award aims to recognize some of the most effective and interesting creative and scholarly works from, or engaging with, the Arab world and further their authors’ careers. Each winner will receive some 750,000 UAE dirhams ($204,000).

For the first time, the Literature prize was awarded to a poetry collection -- “Belkas ma Qabl Al Akheera” (“The Penultimate Cup”) by Tunisia’s Moncef Ouhaibi, published by Tunisia’s Meskeliani Publishing and Distribution, in 2019.

Ouhaibi’s 420-page anthology explores Tunisia’s place in the Mediterranean, between the Occident and Orient, examines love and death and includes poems dedicated to the poet’s parents, the Syrian tragedy and several other MENA countries.

“The poems are inspired by my travels to these countries but I tried to use symbols and figures of the past to talk about migration, in a way that doesn’t feature politics, but does highlight the struggles of the people,” Ouhaibi told The Daily Star. “They evoke the poets of the past who talked about migration, like Mahmoud Darwish, Al-Mutanabbi, Elias Abu Shabaki and Muhammad al-Maghout.”

Ouhaibi said that, as a Maghrebi, he was proud to have won this prize.

“Poetry is a quiet art,” he said “and is becoming popular again as a way to tell our stories. It’s a freedom-giving art that involves the emotions and I hope in the near future that people study and appreciate poetry like they used to, and return to their humanity.”

Ouhaibi intends to use his purse to found a magazine publishing poetry from the Arab world, a longtime dream of his.

The Young Author prize went to Iraqi academic Hayder Qasim for his book “Ilm Al Kalam Al Islami fi Derasat al Mustashrikeen Al Alman” (“Islamic Theology in the Studies of German Orientalists”). It reviews the work of Islamic scholar Joseph van Ess, investigating how German Orientalists have interpreted and depicted Islamic theology.

The Cultural Personality of the Year is Palestinian poet, writer and translator Salma Khadra Jayyusi, the founder and director of East-West Nexus and the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA). Jayyusi has also edited important Arabic literature collections, including “Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology,” “Modern Arabic Poetry” and “The Legacy of Muslim Spain.”

Independent U.K.-based magazine Baipal took home the Publishing and Technology award for their work translating contemporary Arab authors into English. Founded in 1988 by Margaret Obank and Iraqi author Samuel Shimon, the magazine publishes three issues per year, alongside an active online platform.

“Being awarded the prize is recognition of the importance of independent literary publishing, [and] of our commitment to the power of literature to make connections between people and cultures [and] to reduce otherness,” Obank said. “It’s recognition of our passion and love of poetry and fiction, to let literature speak for itself across borders and countries and languages.”

Banipal’s significance in making English translations of contemporary Arabic literature available in English, she continued, is such that “some [academics] talk about ‘Before Banipal’ and ‘After Banipal’ ... In today’s world, Banipal's work is ever-more relevant, and ever more needed – as an unrestricted and independent voice and an ever-more open window on the literature of Arab authors.”

The magazine’s next issue will center on tales from five Arab short story writers who have never been translated into English before.

“The prize will enable us to continue paying our wonderful network of writers, translators, editors and printers,” Obank said, “and we’d also like to focus on promoting the magazine to help us grow and reach new audiences.”

Dutch translator, and scholar Richard van Leeuwen won the Arabic Culture in Other Languages prize for his book “The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth-Century Fiction: Intertextual Readings.” The book looks at how Arabic stories were a point of reference for important 20th-century authors.

The Translation prize went to Mohamed Ait Mihoub’s “Al-Insan Al-Romantiq,” his translation of French philosopher Georges Gusdorf’s volume “L’homme romantique.”

Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat’s “Al-Fatah Al-Laylakeyyah” (“The Lilac Girl”) won the Children’s Literature award. The illustrated story relates how a girl from Jaffa, unable to return home since the Nakba, visits the house and paints it in her dreams.

Barakat told The Daily Star her book is based on the life of Jordan-based Palestinian artist Tamam Al-Akhal, who tried four times to return home.

“As a girl who loves art, the house was where she discovered it, so she wished to go to the place where she started,” Barakat said. “Her tears become colors that she uses to paint [and] the house decides to give up its colors and follow her.”

Barakat feels that such topics should be more prevalent in children’s literature and has seen a shift in how authors and publishers are thinking about content over the past few years.

“There has been a big gap between what a child reads and what a child witnesses in the world,” she said. “We don’t have any children’s books about pandemics ... no one thought to write about them and what happens, or topics of sexual abuse ... the fact that children die of hunger or lose their family members to tragedy.

“These are realities of the world that children hear about and want to understand,” she added. “The challenge is [to strike] a balance, between telling the child about the world they live in, but to tell it in a hopeful way.”

Barakat believes “The Lilac Girl” will appeal to non-Arabic readers and intends to have her book translated into other languages.

“It’s a simple story and comes out of the world of childhood – to have safety, a home and to love what they love,” she said. “A friend of mine in Japan said she wanted to translate it into Japanese because the children who lost their homes in the [2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami] can totally relate to it ... The tsunami was a Nakba for the Japanese children.”

The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards will stream live on April 16 at 1p.m. GMT on





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