The ceremony for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) may have had a different look this year—winners are traditionally lauded at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which was canceled owing to the Covid-19 pandemic—but unprecedented challenges have not dampened the spirit of the annual literary and cultural honors. According to SZBA secretary general Dr. Ali bin Tamim, the awards “promote and nurture Arabic culture around the world by supporting authors as well as literary and cultural individuals and organizations in their efforts.” They are judged by an anonymous jury of cultural experts tasked with rewarding literature that reflects the depth of Arabic cultural achievement.

The 2020 awards realized a number of prize milestones. There were a record number of submissions, led by the Young Author and Literature categories. “This does not so much reflect a growing pool of talent,” Tamim says, “[because] we know the talent already exists. We hope this speaks to a growing confidence in authors and publishers to put themselves forward, and certainly to a growing awareness of the prize across the Arab world and beyond.”

This year’s SZBA also displays striking diversity in terms of genre, the nature of the works, and the winners’ cultural backgrounds. The seven winners hail from six different countries—Iraq, the Netherlands, Palestine, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and the honorees include poets, translators, academics, a children’s book author, and a magazine. “Each recipient is linked by his or her great ability to celebrate and champion Arabic literature and culture,” Tamim says. In a year of disruption—when people worldwide are social distancing—Tamim says that the winners are particularly representative of “global connectedness.”

The 2020 awards were presented across seven categories:

The Literature award was given to Tunisian poet Moncef Ouhaibi for his book Belkas ma Qabl Al Akheera (The Penultimate Cup), published by Meskeliani Publishing and Distribution (Tunisia) in 2019. Ouhaibi is the first poet to win the literature prize.

The recipient for the Young Author award was Iraqi academic and author Hayder Qasim for his book ilm Al Kalam Al Islami fi Derasat al Mustashrikeen Al Alman (Islamic Theology in the Studies of German Orientalists), published by Al Rawafed Culture Publishers (Beirut) and Ibn al-Nadim Publishing and Distribution (Algeria) in 2019. His book concerns the work of German theologist Josef van Ess.

Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat won the Children’s Literature award for Al-Fatah Al-Laylakeyyah (The Lilac Girl), published by Tamer Institute for Community Education (Palestine) in 2019. The picture book features a Palestinian child and budding painter who is homeless as a result of war.

The Cultural Personality of the Year award was presented to Palestinian writer, anthologist, and translator Salma Khadra Jayyusi for her contribution to Arabic culture and literature. Jayyusi has edited numerous anthologies of Arabic literature and is the founder and director of the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA). Jayyusi received the honor at age 94, which, Tamim says, is another landmark for SZBA.

The winner of the Publishing & Technology honor was Banipal magazine in London, which focuses on contemporary Arab authors in English translation. The magazine was founded in 1988 by Margaret Obank and Iraqi author Samuel Shimon.

Dutch author, scholar, and translator Richard van Leeuwen won the award for Arabic Culture in Other Languages for his book The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth-Century Fiction: Intertextual Readings, published by Brill Publishers (Leiden) in 2018.

The Translation award was given to the Tunisian translator and academic Mohamed Ait Mihoub. He received the award for Al-Insan Al-Romantiq (L’homme Romantique) by French philosopher Georges Gusdorf, translated from French to Arabic and published by Dracher Sinatra/Tunis Institute for Translation in 2018. The book explores the enduring influence of Romanticism and its impact on Western traditions.

A SZBA win is career-changing for recipients. In the words of Ibtisam Barakat, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is “the Arab world’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.” The award is unique in that it offers one of the most substantial monetary prizes of any literary award—winners receive 750,000 AED ($204,000 USD). According to Tamim, the prize affords recipients the freedom to pursue their work, and they can thereby also nurture future generations of writers, cultural leaders, and scholars. “One of our prize alumni,” Tamim says, “British author Dame Marina Warner, deemed the prize ‘a lavish bursary that allows the recipient to continue their adventures in understanding.’ As usual, she is perfectly correct.”

Unique circumstances—which the literary world is certainly facing—require novel solutions. In the absence of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, SZBA organizers hosted a livestream video ceremony with the winners on April 16, which allowed the community to celebrate the unity, diversity, and intellectualism that the awards represent.

“In times of great tribulation, individuals experience humanity at its best,” Tamim says. “We see hope through this unprecedented human solidarity. We aspire to renew our relationship with the book and put more weight on the importance of culture, not only as the ideal companion for our temporary collective isolation, but because it is our way to understand the changes happening to our world. We hope to be able to meet in person and to congratulate the winners in due course.”