Anthems were sung, flags waved and crowds cheered as Dubai welcomed a new champion of the Arab Reading Challenge on Tuesday.
Moroccan Maryam Amjoun, 9, was announced the winner of the competition, which is largest Arab knowledge initiative in the world and is in its third year.
Over 10.5 million pupils from more than 52,000 schools in 44 countries took part. Maryam was presented her award – which includes a cash prize of Dh500,000 – by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, at Dubai Opera.
Overwhelmed by the celebrations, Maryam burst into tears and Sheikh Mohammed used his ghutra to wipe them away.
"I say to the winners that they are the leaders of the future. With education and knowledge, a person can reach any goal. And we will see you next year [for next year's challenge]," Sheikh Mohammed told attendees at the ceremony.
The competition challenges participants, between the ages of 8 and 18, to read a minimum of 50 Arabic books over the course of one academic year. They are then tested on their understanding of the texts during the contest.
The literature may be a lot to retain but Maryam says she was unfazed.
"I was expecting to be the winner of the Arab reading challenge. The questions were easy and I was fully prepared. I was told that in every challenge there are hardships but I never gave up despite all the difficulties," said Maryam.
"I like to read books that treat problems, such as social books, in addition to reading history and scientific books, and books about morals and ethics.
“When I grow up, I would like to become an architect just like the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid,” she said.
Maryam’s father, Amjoun Lahsan, said that, for the past year, the family has sat together to read every day. Together, they would summarise, analyse and critique the literature they read.
“Maryam has big dreams and is very ambitious. Every time I told her you have a 99.9 per cent chance of winning, she would get angry and say no it is a 100 per cent chance,” said Mr Lahsan.
“It is a great feeling when a figure like Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid bends down to wipe her tears and kiss her forehead. That’s a message to Maryam — it is a motive to continue reading and do what she is doing,” he said.
“She already knows her career path: she wants to be an architect. In the past year, she read many books and was introduced to Zaha Hadid, the famous architect."
This year, the competition opened for the first time to Arab pupils who live outside of the Arab world and there was a 25 per cent increase in participation.
Aisha Al Tuwairqi, from Saudi Arabia, won Dh300,000 as she was chosen as this year's most outstanding teacher.
Al Ekhlas School in Kuwait won the title of outstanding school, scooping Dh1 million.
Tasneem Eidi, a 12-year-old from France and originally Syria, won the category for pupils who live outside of Arab countries.
“I am planning to create a book club in France. I want to build up this club and encourage Arabs in France to read more in Arabic,” she said.
Sheikh Mohammed launched the Arab Reading Challenge in 2015 to encourage a million students to read 50 books in one year.
The challenge works to raise awareness about the importance of reading among Arab pupils in the region and worldwide. It also works to enhance their education, and help them develop self-learning and self-expression skills as well as critical and creative thinking.