‘The Madmen of Bethlehem’ Wins 2015 Sheikh Zayed Book Award

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) announced four of its 2015 winners today, including a literature award to The Madmen of Bethlehem (2013) by Palestinian writer Osama Alaysa:

Osama Alaysa. Photo from Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
Osama Alaysa. Photo from Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

The SZBA’s literature longlist was announced last October, and included books — novels, poetry, and memoir — by celebrated authors such as Abbas Beydoun, Bensalem Himmich, Alaa Khaled, Ibrahim Abdelmeguid, and Ghassan Zaqtan, all published over the last several years.

The two others that made the literature shortlist were by Ibrahim Abdelmeguid (Here is Cairo) and Ghassan Zaqtan (No Moles to Lead My Mother to Me).

The winning novel was Alaysa’s fifth. His writing was recently featured in translation in Banipal’s “Prison Writing” issue with “Do not tell them I cried!,” trans. Sarah H Abdel Halim.

According to a prepared release from the SZBA, “The announcement of winners came after extensive discussions between the Award’s Board of Trustees and the Scientific Committee of the results submitted by the judging panels across the Award’s Categories.”

Because of the shift in judges from the initial submissions, to the shortlist, to the winner, there have been two previous years when no literature winner was declared. This year, the judges found common ground with a literary winner, although not in four other categories: “Fine Arts,” “Best Contribution to the Development of the Country,” “Young Author,” and “Children’s Literature.”

The National quoted awards Secretary-General Ali bin Tamim as saying that three of these categories were disqualified “by a panel of elite scholars after meticulous examination.”

According to bin Tamim, “The poor quality of the submitted works for these three categories of the award reflect the huge challenges facing authorship in the Arab region,” who goes on to talk about education systems around the region and other issues. Without knowing what books were submitted for the prizes, it’s difficult to fully discuss, but it seems far more likely there is a disconnect between the layers of prize judges. Although I’m not sure what’s been published in fine arts in the last few years, it’s quite easy to find excellent works by young authors, whatever the state of education.

There is also an issue of the prize’s broad range: Of the three that made the “young author” shortlist, two were crticial works and only one was a novel, Khaled Ahmed’s East Ring Road. It would certainly be difficult to judge two apples against an orange.

Children’s literature surely had a strong enough three-book shortlist, which included Taghreed al-Najjar’s YA novel Sitt el Koll, or Against the Tide. The Sharjah-based Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, which shortlisted Sitt el Koll, seemed to have had no trouble choosing several excellent winners for its most recent prize, awarded last November.

The three other SZBA prizes that did come out: the Translation Award (to the translators of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy in Japanese), the Arab Culture in Other Languages Award (to The Arabian Nights and the Japanese) and the Publishing and Technology Award (Arab Scientific Publishers).

The “Cultural Personality of the Year” award will be announced during a press conference in the following weeks, according to the release.

The award carries cash prizes of Dh750, 000 per winner in all eight categories (or four, in this case), in addition to a million dirhams for the winner of “Cultural Personality of the Year.”