The UAE’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award Names 2020 Winners

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Writers from Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States are among those honored today by the world’s most lucrative awards program for Arabic literature.

At the 2019 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winners’ ceremony at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Image: SZBA

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

Tamim: ‘The Shared Mission of Furthering Arabic Culture’
While the winners of the 14th edition of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award were to have been announced on April 16 in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, those plans, of course, have been derailed by the pandemic of the coronavirus COVID-19.

As we reported last month, the Abu Dhabi fair’s original dates of April 15 to 21 were scuttled by the onslaught of the contagion, and while the new dates were announced as a postponement, they are an effective cancellation of this year’s fair entirely, with the show’s next iteration set for May 23 to 29, 2021.

A ceremony is to be streamed live by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award program on April 16.

At this writing, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in its 6 a.m. ET update (1000 GMT), cites 1,259 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 12 deaths related to the pandemic in the United Arab Emirates.

The Zayed program—closely followed by readers of Publishing Perspectives—has instead issued its winners this morning (April 8), bringing together the slate of 2020 award recipients approved in Abu Dhabi on March 18 in a meeting led by Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan for this program of awards that’s overseen by its secretary-general, Dr. Ali Bin Tamim.

With a purse of 750,000 UAE dirhams (US$204,181) in each of the eight book categories, the Sheikh Zayed program additionally offers 1 million dirhams (US$272,242) to the winner of its Cultural Personality of the Year honor. Thus, it’s the richest prize program in Arabic literature awards, and in several categories, publishers of its winners are granted translation and marketing funding to help expand the presence of Arabic work in world markets.

In every case, a winner is also given a gold medal with the award program’s logo and a certificate of merit.

In a prepared statement on today’s winners’ news, Tamim—who also chairs the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Authority—is quoted, saying:

Dr. Ali Bin Tamim

We are proud to highlight the cultural endeavors that are happening all over the world with the shared mission of furthering Arabic culture.

“From works exploring the significant influence of the Arabian Nights on Western literature and Western representations of Islamist theology, to the incredible efforts of our Cultural Personality of the Year and Banipal magazine in promoting Arabic literature in translation, this year’s winners represent the connectedness of Arab culture to a global network of understanding and scholarship.

“Through this prize, we hope they can further their achievements and go forth to inspire the next generation of makers, intellectuals, creators, publishers, and youth in the Middle East and the world at large.”

Aside from the Cultural Personality of the Year—which we’ll mention first in a moment—the categories on which the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is conferred and announced today are:

  • Literature (including poetry, short stories, novels, biographies, playscripts, and more)
  • Young Authors
  • Children’s Literature (including young adult, or YA, titles)
  • Publishing and Technology
  • Arabic Culture in Other Languages
  • Translation (either to or from Arabic)

Not mentioned in today’s media messaging are two other award categories:

  • Contribution to the Development of Nations
  • Literary and Art Criticism
2020 Cultural Personality of the Year

While many of the awards are predicted in longlists and shortlists, one of the categories of the program that’s announced as a surprise each year is the Cultural Personality of the Year honor.

Salma Khadra Al Jayyusi

This year’s accolade goes to the Palestinian poet, writer, translator, and anthologist Salma Khadra Al Jayyusi for what’s described by the prize program as her profound contribution to Arabic literature and culture.

Jayyusi’s scholarly career has including stints living and working in the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, England, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan and the United States. She’s the founding director of the East-West Nexus and of the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA), having published her own first collection of poetry, Return from the Dreamy Fountain, in 1960.

Jayyusi’s contributions as an editor have included:

  • Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry (two volumes, 1977)
  • The Legacy of Muslim Spain (1992)
  • Short Arabic Plays (2003)
  • Beyond the Dunes: An Anthology of Modern Saudi Literature (2005)
  • Human Rights in Arabic Thought: A Reader (2009)
  • Classical Arabic Stories: An Anthology (2010)

Jayyusi’s mother was Lebanese and her father was Palestinian. She was in secondary school in Jerusalem, and studied English literature at the American University in Beirut. After taking a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of London, she has spent her career in many educational settings, teaching at campuses including the University of Khartoum, the University of Algiers, and the University of Utah. She was the recipient in 1973 of a Ford Foundation fellowship for lecture appearances in Canada and the United States.

2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award Category Winners

Sheikh Zayed Book Award 2020 winning works, from left, in categories of Literature, Young Authors, Children’s Literature, Publishing and Technology, Arabic Culture in Other Languages, and Translation


  • Belkas ma Qabl Al Akheera (The Penultimate Cup) by Moncef Ouhaibi of Tunisia (Meskeliani Publishing and Distribution, 2019)

Young Authors

  • ilm Al Kalam Al Islami fi Derasat al Mustashrikeen Al Alman (Islamic Theology in the Studies of German Orientalists) by the Iraqi writer Hayder Qasim (Al Rawafed Culture and Nadim Edition, 2018)

Children’s Literature

  • Al Fatat Al Lialakia (The Lilac Girl) by the Palestinian writer Ibtisam Barakat (Tamer Institute for Community Education, 2019)

Publishing and Technology

Arabic Culture in Other Languages

  • The Thousand and One Nights and 20th Century Fiction: Intertextual Readings by Richard van Leeuwen (Brill Publishers, 2018)


  • Al-Insan Al-Romantiqi (L’Homme Romantique) by Georges Gusdorf, translated by Mohamed Ait Mihoub from Tunisia (Dracher Sinatra/ Tunis Institute for Translation, 2018)
Al Mubarak: ‘Talented and Distinguished Winners’

Winners of the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award included, clockwise from upper left, Moncef Ouhaibi; Hayer Qasim; Ibtisam Barakat; Mohamed Ait Mihoub; Richard van Leeuwen; and Banipal’s Samuel Shimon and Margaret Obank

Needless to say, these awards each year bring together a unique group of creative talents from the worlds of literature and scholarly work in the Arab world.

In his comment on the announcement today of the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winners, the chair of the Abu Dhabi department of culture and tourism—and member of the emirate’s executive council—Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, is quoted, saying:

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak

“The mission of our organization is to nurture and promote culture in all its forms, and it’s with great satisfaction that we’ve seen the Sheikh Zayed Book Award grow and flourish year on year.

“This incredibly successful 14th edition boasts a roster of talented and distinguished winners who have made significant contributions to the cause of furthering and disseminating Arabic culture.

“It is our hope that this recognition will open further opportunities to them, and we look forward to seeing what they do next.”

A quick overview of winning writers in today’s announcement reveals the broad range of experience reflected in the group.

  • The Literature prize winner, Moncef Ouhaibi, is the first recipient of this category award for a work of poetry. Termed “poetry of experience,” Ouhaibi’s work examines Tunisia’s place between Mediterranean cultures based in both the Arab and Western traditions. He has been nominated for several prizes including the Comar d’Or; the Okaz Poet; and the Nikos Gatso.
  • The Iraqi writer who has won the category prize among Young Authors, Hayer Qasim, is a scholar whose book looks at German theologist Joseph van Ess and how German scholars “have interpreted and represented Islamic theology through the lens of Orientalism.” He’s editor in chief of the Jorunal of Historical Studies, teaching at the University of Baghdad with a PhD in Islamic history.
  • Children’s Literature winner Ibtisam Barakat is a Palestinian-American writer and illustrator whose book is about a Palestinian girl whose home is destroyed in warfare, leading her to “recreate her house in a rainbow of watercolors.” Her memoir, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (2007), has been translated into several languages, and she’s based in the United States.
  • Margaret Obank and the Iraqi author Samuel Shimon publish three issues annually of Banipal, which they founded in London in 1988, a showcase for Arab authors and English translation. Their prize is in the Publishing and Technology category.
  • The Dutch author, translator, and scholar Richard van Leeuwen, winner of the Arabic Culture in Other Languages award this year, is at the University of Amsterdam in religious studies as a senior lecturer in Islamic studies. His published works include Notables and Clergy in Mount Lebanon (Brill, 1994).
  • And Mohamed Ait Mihoub, winner of this year’s prize in translation, is an assistant professor in the Arabic language at Zayed University and holds a PhD in Arabic language and literature from Manouba in Tunisia. He’s a member of the “Narratology” research group at Manouba’s college of arts and humanities, and has been a member of the Tunisian Writers Union since 1992.

Works nominated for the award must be published in Arabic, except for those nominated in the Translation and Arabic Culture in Other Languages categories, in which the prize is respectively awarded to works translated from Arabic into other languages or works written in any foreign language.

Over the course of the prize’s 14 years in operation, nominations have increased two-fold to a total 1,904 for this  year’s cycle. Submissions were made for the 2020 awards from 49 countries.

A touchstone of the program’s mission lies in lines from the late Sheikh Zayed, who wrote, “The book is a container of science, civilization, culture, knowledge, literature and arts. Nations aren’t only measured by material wealth, but also by their civil authenticity. The book is the basis of this authenticity and a key factor in the confirmation of its civilization.”

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 children’s books is here. Publishing Perspectives is the media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

More from us on the coronavirus pandemic is here.

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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 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.