The Sheikh Zayed Book Prize’s Ali Bin Tamim: ‘Timeless Globalized Values’

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Leading the recently announced Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Authority, Dr. Ali Bin Tamim wants to provide more incentives to translate Arabic literature.

Sheikh Zayed Book Award secretary general Ali Bin Tamim speaks at the International Publishers Association’s Middle East seminar in Amman. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Pushing the Outreach of Arabic Literary Works’
In the effort to see contemporary Arabic literature properly recognized and introduced to a larger world readership, Dr. Ali Bin Tamim is one of the most widely appreciated.

Since 2011, he has served as secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. And Bin Tamim also chairs the very new Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Authority, just approved by the emirate’s executive council in July.

According to state information released to the media, the new authority Bin Tamim leads puts into place something like a European language academy, responsible for “developing strategic plans to advance the use of Arabic and publish scientific studies. The aim of these plans is to ensure the language’s ability to respond to current and future needs, thus enriching content and enhancing its presence as a language of science and knowledge.

“The authority will also act as a research center to support Arabic speakers [and] support translation from and to Arabic, and will issue and publish books translated from multiple foreign languages into Arabic.”

And, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award annually awards some US$1.9 million in prize money, the program having been created in 2006 to commemorate the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, and role in promoting national unity and development. The program includes a translation fund for all literary and children’s titles that win the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

This month, the first phase has begun in book evaluations for the 2020 Zayed awards, and longlists are anticipated for November.

Having taken his doctorate in literary criticism in 2005 from Jordan’s Yarmouk University, Bin Tamim was back in Amman this week for the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) Middle East seminar, speaking on “Bringing the Voice of Arab Writers, Publishers, and Content Creators to the World.”

And Publishing Perspectives has had a chance to put several questions to him about issues in the rising international interest in Arabic literature and the Arab world’s publishing industry.

We began by asking Bin Tamim whether he finds publishers fully supportive of the Zayed Award and other such programs.

“There’s still a long way to go in supporting the Arab publishing industry in adopting new technological platforms and moving with bolder steps into the digital world, which will definitely help in pushing the outreach of Arabic literary works further.”Dr. Bin Ali Tamim, Sheikh Zayed Book Award

Ali Bin Tamim: We at the award differentiate between tiers of Arab publishers, and we identify the most prominent among them who have a long history operating in the industry, and who work on promoting the works of their authors and support them continuously.

And we find that there’s a considerable level of cooperation between the award and those Arab publishers as well as international publishing houses—as a result of our long term partnership with Frankfurt Book Fair—in the form of raising awareness about the award and encouraging authors to send their nominations, in addition to the publishing houses themselves applying to win the publishing prize.

Yet while we see this as a success, there’s still a long way to go in supporting the Arab publishing industry in adopting new technological platforms and moving with bolder steps into the digital world, which will definitely help in pushing the outreach of Arabic literary works further.

Publishing Perspectives: Help us define the challenges in getting Arabic content into the international publishing industry’s markets. Is it possible to say that the biggest problem is political? Or are there aspects of the Arab world’s publishing industries that complicate the issue?

“While political tension may impact the flow of works, its influence is focused on short-lived subjects and issues that touch on current events.”Dr. Bin Ali Tamim, Sheikh Zayed Book Award

ABT: Definitely there are multiple factors, apart from politics, that impact the Arab publishing industry’s reach to the international scene.

From our interaction with Arab authors and writers, we see that not many of them view their works within a globalized perspective, and not many of them aim in their works to reach the larger international audience.

While political tension may impact the flow of works, its influence is focused on short-lived subjects and issues that touch on current events. Hence we believe that a focus on timeless globalized values in creative works is a factor that can play a significant role in bringing the Arab literature to the international literary scene.

And there are quite a lot of bright examples in Arab literature that have reached a globalized status by building on cross-cultural values, such as the works of Gibran Khalil Gibran, Taha Hussein, Najuib Mahfouz, and even the historical creative works like 1,001 Nights, The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu L-Ala’ Al-Ma’Arri, and Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān by Ibn Tufail.

Another factor is academic books’ reach. While some efforts are made in translating Arabic academic works for foreign students—such as the American University in Cairo and New York University’s initiative in Abu Dhabi—this could be viewed as an under-utilized route that can raise the awareness and appeal of prime creative works in Arabic literature to the larger international base of audiences.

PP: Lastly, as old biases fall in the gradually widening cultural dialogue of international publishing and literature, where are the remaining hurdles?

“What remains as the real issue is a lack of enough support and investment in creative works that bring together Eastern and Western cultures, to support a common, globalized set of values.”Dr. Bin Ali Tamim, Sheikh Zayed Book Award

ABT: The orientalism movement has definitely helped immensely in breaking long-standing misconceptions and stereotypes about Arabic culture and literature, and many have sensed this among academic and cultural entities.

And yet what remains as the real issue is a lack of enough support and investment in creative works that bring together Eastern and Western cultures, to support a common, globalized set of values.

So this underlines a dire need to support more translation initiatives; adopt an intellectual strategy driven jointly by public and private sectors; found solid channels of communication with international cultural and literary bodies; establish creative clubs to bring together authors and writers from all backgrounds; reassess our choices of translated works; and adopt a wider perspective of nationalism in culture and literature that fits with a globalized perspective of creative works.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is here, more on Arabic literature is here, more on translation is here, and more on the IPA Middle East seminar in which Dr. Ali Bin Tamim spoke this week is here. Publishing Perspectives is the media partner of the IPA’s regional seminar program in Jordan.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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