Sweden’s got the Nobel, New York proffers the Pulitzer, France bestows the Goncourt, and the UAE has the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Perhaps the latter is unfamiliar to some readers out there–it was to me–but it is a prestigious literary prize which, since 2006, has recognized works dedicated to and written in Arabic.

Professor Tahera Qutbuddin of the University of Chicago was recently awarded the 2020 Sheikh Zyed recognizing Arab Culture in Other Languages for her work, Arabic Oration–Art and Function, published by Brill Academic Publishers of Leiden. In it, Quibuddin presents a thorough examination of orations–speeches and sermons of Arabs and early Muslims from the 7th and 8th centuries. Qutbuddin has previously received fellowship support from the Franke Institute of Humanities, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Her research focuses on how politics and religion influenced and shaped classical Arabic prose and literature, which has transformed tremendously over the past 15 centuries while influencing cultures such as ancient Greece and later, Spain. Born in Mumbai, Qutbuddin is the first Indian to receive this award.

This work, which, in her words, is “long and complicated,” presents a fascinating exploration of the oratorical genre, which adapted easily to the nomadic lifestyle of those living in the Arabian desert centuries ago.

Founded in the UAE fifteen years ago under the patronage of Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi–a man the New York Times called one of the most powerful men on the planet– the Sheikh Zayed award aims to highlight “the most stimulating and challenging works representing the Arab world, and to encourage greater scholarship and creativity by recognizing and rewarding these significant cultural achievements in Arabic literature.” 

Each of the eight winners, whose work ranges from children’s literature to literary criticism, receive a stunning AED 750,000 (USD $204,181), a purse that 2013 award recipient Dame Marina Warner described as “less of a trophy than a lavish bursary that allows the recipient to continue their adventures in understanding.” The awards were livestreamed during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair May 23-29.

Though it almost goes without saying that 2020 was challenging, the award committee received over 2,300 submissions from 57 countries–a record for the institution and a trend it hopes will continue. 

Such prizes serve an important role in providing the world fresh insight into the long history of cultural exchanges between the European and Arabic worlds. To understand another culture is to read its literature, and this prize aims to foster such engagement. 

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