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The celebrated Palestinian poet, writer and academic Salma Khadra Jayyusi, often called the doyenne of Arabic literature, has been named Cultural Personality of the Year at the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards announced this morning (8 April).  Jayyusi, who is 94 and lives in Amman, Jordan, will receive the award in a live-streamed ceremony on Thursday, 16 April at 5pm UAE, 2pm BST via the Awards’ website  The awards had been due to take place in Abu Dhabi during the Abu Dhabi Book Fair (15-21 April), but both were cancelled because of the coronavirus.

Jayyusi’s honour is effectively a lifetime achievement award.  The organisers hailed her ‘profound contribution to Arabic literature and culture’, which has seen her publish numerous works of Arabic literary criticism and establish two important bodies to highlight the importance of Arabic literature and thought.  In 1980 she launched PROTA (Project of Translation from Arabic), which was aimed at presenting Arab culture to the English-speaking world; and in 1990 she launched East-West Nexus, which aimed to present classical and modern Arab and Islamic culture in English, through comprehensive and specialized academic conferences and studies by Arab and western scholars.

She is a truly international figure whose career spans study or academic positions in the UK, Spain, Italy, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan and the USA.  She has delivered a great many lectures and keynote speeches at conferences in many European, North American, and Arab capitals and cities, and has received many awards and prizes in recognition of her achievements from bodies including the Kuwait Ministry of Culture (2002); The Higher Council for Culture in Egypt (2006); the Algerian Ministry of Culture (2007); the King Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Prize (2008), and the Ahliyya University in Amman (2009).

The German Arabist Stefan Sperl, professor of Arabic literature at London University, wrote: “I was greatly impressed by her ability to see beyond causes, divisions and claims and to distinguish the true internal voice in a literary text … This exceptional ability to have a multi-faceted sensitivity is at the heart of all her original contributions, rendering her one of the humanists of our times.”

The Literature prize has been given to the Tunisian poet Moncef Ouhaibi for his book Belkas ma Qabl Al Akheera (The Penultimate Cup) published by Meskeliani Publishing and Distribution (Tunisia) in 2019.  The prize for Young Author went to the Iraqi writer and academic 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).

The Children’s Literature prize has been won by Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat for her book Al-Fatah Al-Laylakeyyah (The Lilac Girl), published by Tamer Institute for Community Education (Palestine).  The prize for Publishing & Technology was given to Banipal magazine in London, the independent magazine showcases contemporary Arab authors in English translation.

The prize recognizing the promotion of Arab Culture in Other Languages was awarded to the Dutch author, translator, and scholar Richard van Leeuwen for his book The Thousand and One Nights and Twentieth-Century Fiction: Intertextual Readings published by Brill Publishers (Leiden) in 2018.

Lastly, the Translation prize was given to the Tunisian translator and academic, Mohamed Ait Mihoub for Al-Insan Al-Romantiq (L’homme Romantique) by the French philosopher Georges Gusdorf, translated from French to Arabic and published by Dracher Sinatra/Tunis Institute for Translation.

The Sheikh Zayed awards carry a purse of 750,000 UAE Dirhams ($204,000) for each winner.  The annual awards aim to recognise some of ‘the most challenging and exciting work coming out of the Arab world or engaging with its culture, including both literary and scholarly works’.  The Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, said, “The mission of our organisation is to nurture and promote culture in all its forms, and it is with great satisfaction that we have 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.”

Dr Ali-bin Tamim, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Authority and Secretary General of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, said: “We are proud to highlight the cultural endeavours 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.”