How the Sheikh Zayed Book Award Elevates TArabic Culture

To some, the Arab world remains something of a mystery. But in the words of the organizers of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA), the modern Arab world is a “vibrant mosaic,” one in which “different countries and regions contribute to its make-up. It is reflected in Arabic literature, which is a catalyst for intercultural dialogue and the mutual exchange of worldviews.” Based in Abu Dhabi, the SZBA was established in 2008 and is named for the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, himself a great lover of poetry and literature. The awards are given in a broad range of categories: Arabic Culture in Other Languages, Translation (either to or from Arabic), Cultural Personality of the Year (contributing to the advancement of Arabic culture), Publishing and Technology, Contribution to the Development of Nations, Children’s Literature (including young adult titles), Young Authors, Literature (including poetry, short stories, novels, biographies, playscripts, and more), and Literary and Art Criticism.

Over its 16-year history, the SZBA has honored some of the most challenging and exciting work coming out of the Arab world
or engaging with its culture. More than 100 individuals and institutions have been honored for their achievements. Winners receive prize money of 750,000 UAE dirhams ($204,000), which is intended to foster the winner’s work and propel them toward even more achievements. It has been recognized as the Arab world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and the world is taking notice: this year, the award received 3,000 submissions, a 28% increase over 2021, when a total of 2,349 applications were received. This year submissions hailed from 55 countries: 20 Arab countries and 35 others, including the United States.

SZBA Feature at U.S. Book Show

With the growing interest in Arabic literature in the U.S., this year’s U.S. Book Show will feature a panel discussion with 2021 SZBA winners Tahera Qutbuddin and Michael Cooperson. The panel will address how, for centuries, Arabic literature and culture has influenced some of the West’s most revered authors and thinkers, and why is it important that we continue to share works of this diverse culture around the world.

Qutbuddin won her SZBA in the category of Arab Culture in Other Languages for her book Arabic Oration: Art and Function (Brill, 2019), which offers a comprehensive examination of oration in the Arabic language, with its unique cultural and artistic characteristics. This form of communication dates back to the pre-Islam oral tradition of Arabian Peninsula tribes and has undergone several transformations over time before adopting its modern, distinctive form and earning in the process the status of a genre of Arab heritage worthy of respect in its own right. Qutbuddin is currently a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Chicago and in 2023 will take up the Abdulaziz Saud AlBabtain Laudian Professorship in Arabic at Oxford University. “What led to the Arabic Oration book happened earlier, around 10 years ago,” Qutbuddin says. “I started working on a book about the sermons of Ali, and when I delved deep and tried to figure out the parameters of the genres of ‘Khatabha,’ I realized that no one has worked on this at all—the genre or the idea of oration.” Qutbuddin serves on the editorial boards of several publishing series and journals, including NYU Abu Dhabi’s Library of Arabic Literature, which gives her a unique perspective on the work that is making it into print in America.

One book published in the NYU series is Michael Cooperson’s translation of Impostures by al-Hariri (NYU Press, 2020), which won a 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the Translation category. Cooperson is currently a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on the cultural history of early Islamic Iraq. He credits time spent at NYU Abu Dhabi and a “pristine” office with enabling him to finish his work on the book. Winning the Sheikh Zayed Book Award also gave him room to work, in a manner of speaking. “Before the award, my only workspace at home was a couch in my living room, where an eight-year-old and a five-year-old equipped with toy bows and arrows used me for target practice,” he says. “All the award money went toward buying a proper house, where I now have an office with a door.” He’s currently working on a comprehensive history of Arabic literature supplemented with photo- graphs to highlight archaeological sites, performances, and rules of assonance.

A Catalyst for Translation

Another facet of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is facilitating and fostering the additional translation of books from Arabic into other languages. To that end, in 2018, the SZBA introduced a translation grant program to help support the translation and publication of SZBA-winning Arabic language books around the world. This year, five international publishers were awarded translation grants, resulting in six translations of SZBA-winning titles. Among these titles are 2017 winner Hatless by Kuwaiti author Lateefah Botii, which is being translated into English by Nancy Roberts in collaboration with Darf Publishers; 2020 winner The Lilac Girl by Palestinian American author Ibtisam Barakat, translated into German by Suleman Taufiq to be published by Germany’s Sujet Verlag; and 2014 winner Thirty Poems for Children by Lebanese poet Jawdat Fakhreddine, translated into French by Leila Tahir and into English by Huda Fakhreddine and forthcoming from Bookland Press.

From the Literature category, 2018 winner Remorse Test by Syrian author Khalil Sweileh has been translated into German by
Suleman Taufiq to be published by Sujet Verlag as well as into Ukrainian by Oksana Prokhorovych for Nora-Druk Publishers. Lastly, the 2015 winner The Madmen of Bethlehem by Palestinian author Osama Alaysa was translated into Georgian by Darejan Gardavadze to be published by Intelekti Publishing.

Cooperson summarizes the impact of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award best when he describes the impact they have had on his career and on the spread of Arabic culture. “Thanks to the SZBA, I’ve been invited to speak about Impostures at universities all over the world, including Cam- bridge (UK), Leiden, and Harvard, and have met translators and scholars who share my enthusiasm for tackling impossible projects,” he says. “Those who aren’t Arabists have now heard of al-Hariri of Basra, and the reviews in mainstream venues like the Times Literary Supplement and the Wall Street Journal suggest that he might finally achieve name recognition in English!”