The unprecedented challenges of 2020 didn’t prevent the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) from having a landmark year. The accolades are presented annually to honor the contributions of authors, translators, publishers, researchers, and intellectuals that represent the vibrant cultural and literary landscape of the Arab world.
“The prize is, this year, celebrating 15 years of awarding the best works of Arab culture,” says Mouza Al Shamsi, director of the SZBA, director of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, and executive director of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre. “In that time, we have received 19,095 submissions from 71 countries across nine categories, and 106 winners have been awarded from 26 countries around the world. The award has also promoted cooperation and cultural exchange between different cultures and civilizations by organizing more than 60 cultural events worldwide.” Winners in each of the eight prize categories receive a financial award of $200,000, while the winner in the Cultural Personality of the Year category is awarded $272,000.
This year’s award for Literature went to Egyptian writer Iman Mersal for Fee Athar Enayat Al Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat), and the Children’s Literature award was given to Tunisian author Mizouni Bannani for his book Rehlat Fannan (An Artist’s Journey). The award for Translation went to Michael Cooperson for his English translation of Impostures by Al-Hariri. Tunisian researcher Khelil Gouia won in the category of Literary and Art Criticism for his book Masar Al Tahdeeth fe Al Fonoon Al Tashkelyah, men Al Orsomah ella Al Lawha (The Path of Modernization in the Visual Arts, from Drawing to Painting).
Egyptian author Saeed El-Masry won the Contribution to the Development of Nations prize for Turath Al Iste’ela’a bayn Al Folklor wa Al Majal Al Deeny (Legacy of Supremacy between Folklore and Religion). U.S. author Tahera Qutbuddin won the Arabic Culture in Other Languages category for her book Arabic Oration: Art and Function. The Young Author award was presented to Dr. Asma bint Muqbel bin Awad Al-Ahmadi from Saudi Arabia for the critical study Eshkalyat Al Thaat Al Saredah Fee Al Rwayah Al Nesaayah Al Saudiah (The Problems of the Narrated Self in the Saudi Feminist Novel, 1999–2012), and Dar Al Jadeed from Lebanon won in the category of Publishing and Technology.
This year’s awards were record-breaking on many counts. Notably, 2021 saw the highest number of submissions to the prize in its 14-year history: there were more than 2,349 entries from 57 countries, which, Al Shamsi says, is a 23% increase from the previous year. In addition to the number of entrants, more women than ever before either won awards or were shortlisted for honors. For Al Shamsi, this positive development speaks to “the growing breath and diversity of content we are receiving.”
There was also significant participation from U.S. authors this year, with two of the winners hailing from America. “The U.S. has a long tradition of engaging with and advancing Arab culture, and we have some fantastic U.S. laureates,” Al Shamsi says. “We are delighted that two of this year’s winners represent the U.S.”
Cooperson received the Translation honor for his adaptation of a revered work of Arabic literature into English. Al-Hariri’s Impostures is a classic collection of stories that follow the picaresque adventures of a hero across the medieval Middle East. Cooperson recognized that a literal translation would not best serve the distinctive work of literature. Instead, he took an inventive approach. “Al-Hariri’s Impostures is written in rhymed prose, which works in English only if you’re James Thurber or Gertrude Stein,” Cooperson says. “To replicate the effect, I chose a different constraint. Each of the 50 episodes had to be in a different literary or historical style, or a distinct jargon or register of English.”
American winner Tahera Qutbuddin, who teaches at the University of Chicago, was praised by the judges for her “exceptional familiarity with classical Arabic literature and her firm grasp on oral tradition studies and theories.” Qutbuddin’s passion for Arabic storytelling began in childhood. “My journey with Arabic literature,” she says, “has taken me over several decades and three continents: Mumbai, where I grew up and first encountered Arabic literature through the lessons I took on the wisdom sayings of Imam Ali with my father, Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin, an eminent scholar of Islam; Cairo, where I dove into the Arabic and Islamic literary heritage at the local Ain Shams University; and Harvard University in the U.S., where I completed a PhD program and I honed my research skills.”
For Qutbuddin, the impact of receiving such a prestigious prize is far more than monetary. “I’m delighted to have received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for my book,” she says. “It raises the visibility of the important genre of classical Arabic oration, which forms the foundation of the Arabic literary tradition, and it raises the visibility of my work among readers in the West as well as readers in the Arabic-speaking world.”
In addition to awards for individual authors and academics, since 2018, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award has provided grants to international publishers translating books written by contemporary Arabic authors. This year, grants paved the way to publication for previous prizewinning books in four languages: The Madmen of Bethlehem by Palestinian author Osama Alaysa; The Autumn of Innocence by Lebanese novelist and poet Abbas Beydoun; the children’s book Hatless by the Kuwaiti author Lateefa Buti; and the picture book I Dream of Being a Concrete Mixer, illustrated by Walid Taher and translated into English by Sophia Vasalou and into French by Hana Jaber. The book has also been translated into German by Suleman Taufiq.
As of this year, the grant is expanding to fund the translation of all shortlisted books, in addition to the winning titles. Publishers can apply for grants of up to $19,000 for the translation, promotion, and illustration of a book.
Robert Morgan, who published the English translation of I Dream of Being a Concrete Mixer at BookLand Press, is especially grateful for the opportunities provided through the grants. “As a book publisher, I see a significant market opportunity for publishing modern Arab authors in North America, and I have been noticing an increasing interest in Arab literature from ordinary book readers, book distributors, and book retailers,” Morgan says. “I also see the publication of Arab literature through translation as a way for North American readers to discover, learn about, and connect with a new culture, which is made possible by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award translation grant program.”
Given the challenges of the pandemic, Al Shamsi is especially heartened by the variety and breadth of this year’s submissions. “Despite the circumstances,” she says, “we saw the award flourish, which proves that culture endures and adapts under the most difficult of conditions and reflects both the continued importance of awards and the resilience and vitality of the publishing industry.”
While last year’s award ceremonies were virtual, lifting Covid-19 restrictions allowed for a hybrid live and streamed ceremony at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on May 24, with several of the year’s winners in attendance. Dr. Ali Bin Tamim—Sheikh Zayed Book Award secretary-general and the chair of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre—congratulated the winners, saying, “Your work guides us forward and must be supported and celebrated. It is this that sustains Arab and international libraries with culture and intellect.”
Al Shamsi sees this year’s diversity as a sign of things to come. The award’s website has added five languages—French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish—to connect with more writers, publishers, and readers internationally. “We believe in the importance of cultural exchange between different cultures, and the award website provides a platform for exchanging ideas and promoting global dialogue,” Al Shamsi says. “The award firmly believes in the impact international and regional partnerships add to the award’s cultural outreach and engagement; we will continue to work with strategic partnerships to build and expand on the award’s mandate.”