How the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards hope to shine a global spotlight on Arabic literary voices

The award's organisers say they ultimately seek to find 'great stories that transcend the Arabic language to become universal'

Hessa Al Muhairi became the first Emirati woman to win a Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2018. Courtesy Sheikh Zayed Book Award
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The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is going global. This was the message sent to the publishing industry when the award's organisers took part in the Frankfurt International Book Fair, which concludes Sunday, October 20.

Located within the Abu Dhabi Pavilion of the mammoth event, the award's team came to Frankfurt with a programme that included panel sessions and book launches, in addition to a networking dinner featuring a range of publishers.

The Frankfurt mission comes on top of the award’s other international appearances this year, which included sessions at the London International Book Fair, and the French counterpart Livre Paris in March.

Each event aims to highlight the evolution of the award. Launched in 2017 and organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi, the annual Sheikh Zayed Book Award honours the achievement of Arab writers, international and regional intellectuals, translators and publishers whose work is viewed as having "enriched Arab, cultural, literary and social life".

With a Dh7 million-prize purse, it is also one of the richest literary awards in the world.

Sheikh Zayed Book Award general secretary Dr Ali bin Tamim involved in a panel discussion at the Frankfurt International Book Fair on October 19, 2020. Courtesy Kalima Group.

A portal for the best research into Arabic culture

In an interview with The National from Frankfurt, the award’s general secretary Dr. Ali bin Tamim, who also chairs the recently established Abu Dhabi Arabic Book language Authority, said the award’s growing prestige over its 13 years meant it is time to give it a greater international platform.

He states that part of the award’s participation in Frankfurt is to highlight one of the key categories, Arab Culture in Other Languages, which recognises works written by Arabists in various languages, including English, Russian, German, French and Spanish.

Abu Dhabi, April 25, 2019.  Sheikh Zayed Book Award's 13th Edition (2018-2019).
His Highness Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Vice Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council gives an award to Dr. Philip Kennedy, Arab Culture in other Languages Award, a British academic researher.
Victor Besa/The National 
Section: NA

This year’s winner was Philip Kennedy, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and Comparative Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. He was chosen for the book Recognition in the Arabic Narrative Tradition. First published in 2016, he explores the concept of the “recognition scene” — the point in a narrative when hidden facts come to light — in five Arabic texts, including the Quran.

Dr. Bin Tamim says that Kennedy’s book and that of other past winners, such as a work by German Professor Dag Nikolaous in 2018 and the 2015 winner Sugita Hideaki being from Japan, are examples of the category’s wide breadth.

“This category is of huge importance not only for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award itself but to the greater Arab world. Because it is really a great contribution to the culture,” says Dr. Bin Tamim.

“Many people don’t know that there have been some great and important research done into Arabic culture and some of them could be even more important than those written in Arabic, so we want to shed light on that.

"So yes, there is a plan to let this award be well known internationally and this is all to achieve its global objectives”

The award’s next foreign mission will be in Russia. Dr. Bin Tamim says that a high-level culture summit is in the works in Moscow featuring leading cultural figures and Arabists from Russia. More details will be revealed soon.

Giving children’s authors their due

While the Sheikh Zayed Book Award has fast become the portal for seeking out the best international research on Arabic culture and the language, the award is also finding growing success when it comes to its Children’s Literature Category.

On October 18 at the Frankfurt book fair, Hessa Al Muhairi launched the translations of her 2018 winning work The Dinoraf in English, French and Italian.

As the first Emirati woman to win the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, she tells The National of how the book launch in Frankfurt is the dream of any aspiring writer. “You always want your work to be read by not only a relatively small group of people but also internationally,” she said. “This is especially true of children’s literature because the stories are often universal. It is also a great way to share with people our different cultures and show what we have in common.”

Hessa Al Muhairi launched the translations of her 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winning The Dinoraf in English, French and Italian at the Frankfurt International Book Fair. Courtesy: Sheikh Zayed Book Award,

That said, it wasn’t an easy writing journey for Al Muhairi. Many UAE publishers balked at the prospect of publishing a book that dealt with the topic of adoption – even if it involved a lovable green dinosaur.

Eventually published by Dubai's Al Hudud Publishing and Distribution, Al Muhairi praised the courage of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award committee for giving her the prize, as it is a testament to its focus on quality rather than just commercial prospects. 

The fact that the book has now found an international audience proves, Al Muhairi says, that the award is a key barometer to the quality of literary works emerging from the region.

It is a sentiment that this year's Children Literature category winner Hussain Al Mutawaa agrees with whole-heartedly. Invited by the award to appear in an October 17 panel session discussing his prize-worthy book, I Dream of Being a Concrete Mixer, the Kuwaiti author says the Sheikh Zayed Book Award has become a source of encouragement for Arabic children's authors, whose work has often being dismissed by the regional literary industry.

 Kuwaiti author Hussain Al Mutawaa taking in a panel session at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 17, 2019. He discussed the characteristics of Arabic children’s literature. Courtesy: Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

“It is viewed as something light, or something that doesn't have the same value as, let’s say, the Arabic novel or poetry. But with the award it gives this field a great platform,” he says. “Children’s books are perhaps one of the most important, as it plays an influential role in a child’s development, whether through growing their imagination, raising interesting issues or teaching them empathy. It is also extremely challenging to write.”

This is ultimately what Dr. Bin Tamim is looking for. While he is proud of both Al Muhairi and Al Mutawaa’s achievements, what excites him most is that they are an example of a modern Arabic literature scene making strides.

“The award is interested in the concept first and foremost,” he says. “By winning the award, these two authors help increase the love of reading among the young and help stimulate the Arabic publishing industry. But most importantly they created a great story that was able to transcend the Arabic language to become universal.” 

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award will announce its longlist for the 2020 prizes in November, followed by the shortlist and the announcement of winners in March and April respectively. The award ceremony is normally held during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which runs from April 21 to 25. More information on the 2019 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winners can be found on