For many people, stories read or told to them in childhood are often the fondest memories of their youth. They remain a reference point for building character and dreams.
For Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza, her fondest childhood memories are of visits to her grandfather – who was also the father of the entire nation.
“One of my very vivid memories of my grandfather Sheikh Zayed, bless his soul, is when I was about five years old and I would sit on his lap for hours,” Sheikha Fatima says.
“He would tell me stories about the past days of the UAE, how they fought the hard circumstances and befriended the desert.
“I remember growing up to his wise words emphasising continuous learning and the thirst for knowledge. I shall forever hold on to his words.”
Quoting the words of the founding President, she says: “Future generations will be living in a world that is very different from that to which we are accustomed. It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children for that new world but never forget where we come from, and make sure the future generations know how much hardships we had to endure to get our beloved country here, to where we are today.”
Inspired by her grandfather, and by her own drive to preserve the Emirati culture and identity, Sheikha Fatima has launched the Fatima bint Hazza Cultural Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting intellectual, creative and cultural endeavours.
“The foundation translates my very vision and ambition to invest in intellectuality and empower our determined people, while deeply connecting to the culture and heritage,” she says.
The foundation’s mission is to become part of Abu Dhabi’s aspiration to become an innovation-based, knowledge-producing society, and to build a cultural centre with an emphasis on education and knowledge.
“We aim to enrich the cultural scene in Abu Dhabi in particular and the region in general,” says Sheikha Fatima, an ambassador of Cultural Development in the UAE.
The foundation is planning an engaging cultural agenda, including seminars, art and music, awards for writing, illustration and art, and collaborations with local and international similar entities.”
The backbone of the foundation will be children’s literature, embracing the Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza Arab Child Prize.
Launched in 1997, the prize is awarded to a work that is deemed to have offered a distinctive project in Arabic for younger readers, one rich in language, values and in promoting a deep sense of belonging.
“It started as an organisation that runs a competition every year to award the best-written stories submitted from all the Arab world countries after being evaluated by a jury of writers and professionals from the Arab world,” Sheikha Fatima explains.
“The winning stories carried sound and smooth language, plot and social and psychological ties, enriched with values of love, benevolence and tolerance.”
Sheikha Fatima, who is the daughter of Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, National Security Adviser and Vice Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, says her project received infinite support from her grandfather, Sheikh Zayed, and her grandmother, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak.
“Umm Al Emarat has been my mentor all through my childhood and adolescence until today,” Sheikha Fatima says.
“I believe that children are the pillar in tomorrow’s world and for that, it is important to invest in their education, knowledge and enlightenment.
“I remember growing up surrounded by books and paintings and it is the extensive reading that gave me a thorough outlook on the world around me.”
Sheikha Fatima graduated from the American University in Dubai with a bachelor’s degree in visual communication and a focus on photography.
Over the years she has been involved in various projects related to arts and literature, and has become a keen art collector.
With her love for reading, however, children’s literature remains a passion and was the drive for establishing the award.
The prize helps to encourage children to read good Arabic books. Over the past 17 years, 148 books have been picked as winners, on subjects as varied as their authors.
They range across science fiction, heritage, social affairs, history, poetry, theatre and fantasy. So far, 22 winning titles have been integrated into Abu Dhabi Education Council school curriculum.
One book follows 10-year-old Leila, who is determined to find out “where the sun sleeps” (the title of the book) after a question from her science teacher.
Another tells the story of Seven Divers who search for a magical pearl that, according to legend, “shone so brightly that it could turn night into day, and wherever its light fell, the flowers bloomed and the birds sang”.
“Our stories take into consideration the psychological needs of the child and the necessity of tingling their imagination in a smooth but rich way,” Sheikha Fatima says. “The choice of wording, the characters building, the metaphors used, all shape the child’s learning experience.”
The books are also being converted into iPad applications to give young minds creative, interactive and educational tools that are also fun.
Despite the numerous e-books and game apps currently on the market, the foundation promises to offer a reading experience rather than an application; the stories are accompanied by music, sound effects, interactive animations, dictionaries and games helping to entertain young readers while also educating them.
“I find it important to mention that our apps are the fruit of focus groups and market studies using different drawing schemes to attract the responding age group of each book,” Sheikha Fatima says.
The list of books will soon be available on the foundation's website and can be downloaded from iTunes.
The different releases are also being converted into Braille for the sight-impaired through the support and collaboration with the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care.
The iPad apps are also being offered to the autistic centre.
“I personally believe that it is the heart that reads beyond the eyes or mind,” Sheikha Fatima says.
“I want my message to reach children in its full spectrum of different needs and aspiring challenges.”
At the end of August, the foundation will announce an illustration award, inviting Arab illustrators to submit mood boards to redraw a collection of the award-winning stories.
“Hand in hand with the power of words, art is second nature to me. I always stress that art is a universal language and it is a very powerful mean to convey any message,” Sheikha Fatima says.
Ultimately, through her foundation and various projects, she hopes to inspire the new generation.
“I would say the hopes are to launch a highly educated, intellectually ambitious generation armed with knowledge, understanding of each other, tolerance and determination to contribute to the country’s continuous development.”