Judges take back Dh750,000 Zayed literary prize

Judges of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award withdraw the prize from this year's winning author because of plagiarism.

SHARJAH // The judges of the annual Sheikh Zayed Book Award have withdrawn the prize from this year's winning author because of plagiarism.

Dr Hafnaoui Baali won the literature category at the fourth annual Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) in February for his book Comparative Cultural Criticism: an Introduction. He received a Dh750,000 cash prize, a certificate of merit and a gold medal worth about Dh75,000.

The committee in charge withdrew the award yesterday, saying the book contained "wrongful appropriation of other authors' thoughts, ideas, and expressions, and the representation of them as one's own original work".

It is attempting to recoup the cash prize.

It is believed to be the first time a literary award in the Arab world has been retracted. The SZBA presents more than Dh7 million every year to outstanding Arab writers, intellectuals and publishers.

The judging committee said they had made the decision to "safeguard the standards and regulations the award works by in evaluating, assessing and nominating winners from outstanding Arab writers". The group will be implementing tighter checks in the judgment procedures from now on, it said.

Doubts were raised over Dr Baali’s work about six weeks ago by literary critics who noticed discrepancies in the book’s attributions. They alerted the SZBA, which appointed a panel of researchers to review and re-assess its references and resources.

When the panel raised sufficient concern, the nine members of the SZBA Advisory Council conducted their own review of the book. They discovered that its text contained excerpts and quotations that were poorly referenced or unreferenced to the extent that the author was passing them as off his own work.

“The award committee spent a considerable amount of time in evaluating the allegations made against the book and took several steps to reach its final decision,” said Rashid al Oraimi, secretary general of the SZBA. “We were guided by what action would best uphold the aims and integrity of the award.”

The copied passages came from a book called Cultural Criticism: A Look at Arab Cultural Patterns by the Saudi Arabian author Dr Abdullah al Ghathami, himself one of the 2010 judging panel. He recused himself from discussions about the matter.

Dr al Ghathami, a professor in theory and criticism at the King Saud University in Riyadh, said he did not hold a grudge against Dr Baali but was shocked at his lack of respect of the ethics of literature.

“Personally it doesn’t affect me at all because I prefer to forgive people whatever they do,” he said. “It is not the material inside, I don’t care about this part, it is the principle. If someone gets an award and at the same time they don’t respect the conditions and the morals and ethics of that award, then it is wrong.”

Dr Eugene Rogan, a lecturer in modern Middle East history at Oxford University in the UK and a member of the SZBA advisory council, said it was both a brave and difficult decision for the award committee, but a necessary one.

“I fully support the decision but it was a painful one,” he said. “It was hard for the award so early in its history to admit to making a mistake but by acting responsibly and acknowledging the mistake, they are setting the highest standards in intellectual integrity.”

Although Dr Rogan joined the advisory council for the SZBA only this year, he said the system seemed to be transparent and the original award was undoubtedly given in good faith. He also noted that he did not believe Dr Baali was fully aware of the consequences of his oversight.

“I don’t think he was aware he was breaking convention,” said Dr Rogan. “I think it reflects an educational gap in the Arab world, and making the decision to retract his award sends a message out to the intellectual world in the region that it is essential to accurately quote all your sources. This message is bigger than the prize itself and was a courageous decision to make.”

Dr Baali, who lives in Algeria, could not be reached for comment.

Tamer Said, who manages the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, which was awarded yesterday at the Sharjah International Book Fair, said it was essential for all awards in the Arab world to maintain credibility. Although his award was only in its second year, he said it already had a reputation for being stringently fair. It was vital for other awards in the region to uphold these values, he said.

"There is still the opinion in the international community that as Arabs we always have an excuse or a hidden agenda and this will take time to change," he said. "We want to educate publishers and build up a good reputation, so we take transparency very seriously."