Do You Want to Win the Sheikh Zayed Prize for Literature?

Nominations for the 2012 Sheikh Zayed award are now open. This year, organizers want to “reach out to an international market,” according to The National and Middle East Online.

It’s not entirely clear what they mean by this, as contestants—except of the translation award—still need to submit their works in Arabic.

Perhaps what organizers are seeking is more international recognition. Thus far, among Arabic literary and cultural awards, only the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arabic Booker”) has captured global attention. After all, international on-lookers have hard a hard time knowing what to make of the Sheikh Zayed’s “literary” category, which, like the Ghaddafi Award, can be awarded for any number of things: “poetry, stories, novels and plays, creative writings or works of criticism.”

It’s the “works of criticism” in particular that confuses international readers: How can academic works be assessed in the same bucket as plays, poems, and novels? And, even if they are, how can they possibly win?

Last year, the Sheikh Zayed literary award went to Moroccan critic Dr. Mohammad Miftah for his Expanded Concepts on Poetic Theory: Language, Music and Movement. (Judges preferred that to the latest novels by Ibrahim Aslan or Amir Tag al-Sir?) Talented Egyptian children’s book author Afaf Tabbalah won in the children’s category with her book The Date and the Palm, but the “young author” prize was withheld. The young author prize also can go to a range of works: any “scientific, literary or cultural works produced by authors younger than 40 years.”

And let’s also admit that the award—despite being quite lucrative—is held back from international applause by its name. Many Arabic-language literary awards have been named for regional leaders: Saddam Hussein had one (Yusuf Idris made the mistake of accepting it), as did Ghaddafi. Saudi Arabia has the King Faisal Award. Hosni did not, I don’t think, name any awards for himself, although there was a long-running “Suzanne Mubarak Award for Children’s Literature” which people may be scrubbing off their resumes right now.

The Sheikh Zayed award also ran into controversy in 2010 when it stripped the literature award (given to a critic) over charges of plagiarism. It is perhaps just for show, but awards always feel more transparent when they have a longlist, and a shortlist, and there’s time to pour over them before the award is given out.

As Tamer Said, manager of the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, noted to The National at the time: “There is still the opinion in the international community that as Arabs we always have an excuse or a hidden agenda and this will take time to change.”

It may also take the erasure of ties to rulers and regimes.

If you do want to win the Sheikh Zayed, you can apply online.