‘Arabic literature key to identity’: Power of the written word

Egyptian boys reading

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The weather is getting colder by the day and we are all waiting for the snow right now, as usual there is too much work to do, too many deadlines….but it’s all fun at least. A few weeks ago I came across this article and it struck me as important because it connected reading to identity 🙂 a two favourite topics of mine. Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, made the statement, which is the title of this post that, Arabic literature is the key to identity. I would add also the key to preserving the Arabic language amongst the readers. I have pasted the article below as it was written in the newspaper, and as usual without editing from myself.

What I found interesting about this book prize were the conditions. It got me thinking of the books I read as I was growing up, I realised that actually they did promote the formation of my identity, the ideas were never abstract or alien to me. They were all in line with what I knew the only new aspects of reading as I grew up were the increasing complexity of vocabulary and perhaps the lengths of the books, but nothing else. I like the condition that the books must be in line with Arab culture and not translations of English books. This I thought was important and a very thoughtful condition, because a child growing up in the UAE can never quite understand what autumn and winter really mean. For them they have the heat and some rain that’s it; so I am often puzzled when I see these type of non-related translated books in the book stores over there. The other thing about translated books is that the Arabic reader can never fathom the real context of the book as it was meant by tha author. I don’t mean that they will not understand the story, that they will, but they will not capture the underlying ironic, satirical and idiosyncratic nature of the story. An example of this is the Arabic version of Oliver Twist– yes you read correctly- Oliver Twist. How do they translate the cockney English? How do they differentiate between that and the other more formal English? How can the reader who does not understand Victorian England appreciate the suffering and manipulation of Oliver? How can they read the underlying criticisms Dickens makes about Victoria England, through his use of the English language? How can Arabic capture that?  I am not against translations but these are issues I have with people promoting readership through translated works. I myself have experience in interpreting and translating, but I always feel a piece of literature always carries the characteristics of its author and his/her society with the language it is written. I think Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi’s decision is an important and succesful one.

The award is significant in pushing forward the love of reading among Arabic children, in their language, about their values. This award and the book fair coming up next week in Sharjah, are projects that will ensure Arabic language will stay around for a long time. It will also hopefully promote advanced Arabic reading skills among young Arab children, so that they can read Arabic without struggling to understand the words they are reading. There is much excitement for the up coming book fare in Sharjah and schools will also participate by taking the kids in during the day- this will foster a love for reading among the students.

The comments made by Sheikha Bodour are deep, insightful and very true not only from a linguists’ point of view but from a writers point of view. Publishing has its responsibilities and it’s great to see that at least somewhere someone is ensuring Arabic language and values are reflected in print.


Reading listSHARJAH // Original Arabic literature is the key to maintaining cultural identity in the Middle East, says a royal advocate for children’s books.

Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah, is the founder of a Dh1 million literary prize.

“The Arabic language is a key element of the national Arab identity and is central to raising children who are proud of their Arab roots,” Sheikha Bodour said.

“Reading helps develop awareness among children not only of their own language, but also of their culture and their heritage. In addition, books highlight important issues that children face while growing up.”

In 2009, she established the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, one of the most valuable book awards in the world, to raise standards and improve quality in Middle East publishing.

Nominated books must be original Arabic-language works, rather than translated, and their content must conform to the values, traditions and customs of Arab communities.

Half of the Dh1m prize money goes to the publisher of the winning book and the rest is shared by the author and illustrator.

The scheme is run by the UAE section of the International Board on Books for Young People, of which Sheikha Bodour is president.

“Only home-grown books can address the issues faced by Arab children accurately and fairly, as they take place in a setting that they understand and can identify with,” she said

Isobel Abulhoul, the director of the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, said an absence of Arabic literature would leave Arab children searching for identity.

“One of the most important issues in today’s world for everyone is identity, and one of the key elements of identity has to be your mother tongue,” she said. “Without having home-grown books for children in their mother tongue they will feel alienated and lost.

“People can write books about this part of the world but unless they are themselves native speakers of Arabic, unless it is a region where they have grown up and imbibed the culture and history through the air they breathe, they don’t actually get it, they don’t understand it.

“That is why the Etisalat Prize is hugely important.”

Dr Abdulla Al Karam, the chairman of the board of directors and director general of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, said: “There is strong evidence that no matter what language is used, a love of reading improves a child’s performance in a whole range of subjects.

“Children need access to books they want to read.”

Ten books have been nominated for this year’s prize, and the winner will be announced at the 30th Sharjah International Book Fair next month.

“This year’s long list covers a range of diverse topics, some of which are friendship, love, being kind to everyone including family, being respectful towards parents and elders, and also raising our voice in support of social causes,” Sheikha Bodour said.

“I think these themes reflect the changing times as well as a growing confidence among Arab children’s authors.”

Last year’s prize was awarded to the author and illustrator Walid Taher, and the publisher Dar El Shorouk of Egypt for Al Noqta Al Sawda (The Black Dot).

The 2009 prize went to Nabiha Muhaidali and her publisher Dar Al Hadaeq of Lebanon for a series of books called Ana Aheb (I Love).

Ms Muhaidali said the award gave her a new sense of responsibility to provide quality books for her readers.

“I now consider every book as a project for an award,” she said, speaking on the sidelines of last year’s fair. “We have to be careful with every element as a publisher.

“Awards are passports; they take you forward but you need to be aware of the example you’re creating.”


Sharjah International Book fair opens on the 16th- 26th November 2011, in its 30th edition. There will be authors from both the English and Arabic publishing worlds- if you can go it’s an experience. There will be workshops and opportunities to meet the regions most influential authors and publishing houses. Literature will always be key to the identity of its readers, I’d love to hear what you think especially on the issue of translation.

Thanks for reading!

source: http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/sharjah-sheikha-says-arabic-literature-is-key-to-identity