Sheikh Zayed Book Award Hosts Two Virtual Sessions during the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair

Abu Dhabi,

The Award’s virtual discussions explore key topics related to the Arab World’s literary sector 

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award has concluded its participation in the virtual programme of the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, which was held from 14 to 18 October, 2020. Under the theme ‘All Together Now’, the Award organised two virtual sessions, which explored a number of key themes of significance to the Arab world’s literary sector.

“We are pleased with Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s participation in the Frankfurt Book Fair, despite it being virtual this year, as the Coronavirus pandemic continues to impose challenges and restrictions on the literary sector and other industries,” said HE Dr Ali bin Tamim, Secretary-General of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre. “We must work together to overcome these restrictions and turn challenges into opportunities in the interest of everyone who works in this sector.

“The Frankfurt Book Fair is one of the most prominent literary events in the world, and the Award has consistently participated in it year after year, due to its prominent position in the literary world. It provides a global platform that brings together publishers, authors and readers under one roof to exchange experiences, and see the latest works and trends in the publishing and authoring sphere.”

On 13 October, the Award organised a panel titled ‘The Arab World: There’s a Lot to Discover’, featuring Margaret Obank, publisher and editor-at-large of the UK’s modern Arab literature magazine ‘Banipal’, and winner of the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Publishing and Technology. In conversation with Hannah Johnson, publisher of American trade magazine ‘Publishing Perspectives’, they discussed the diverse initiatives that support Arab writers, as well as the literature they produce.

Obank said that Arabic literature is extremely diverse but that the lack of translation in the past prevented many Arab authors from publishing their works in other languages. This was one of the reasons, she said, for establishing ‘Banipal’ magazine, which has translated works of a number of Arab writers who had never before been translated, particularly authors who predate the internet age and had fewer opportunities to reach international audiences. 

She also said that there was a growing demand to publish the works of Arab writers, especially among independent publishers, and this is linked to initiatives such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. These awards and their associated prizes, she said, proved the importance of literary translation, with ‘Banipal’ receiving much greater media attention after winning in 2020, despite the magazine being founded 22 years ago. This positive effect has been harnessed by the annual Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which honours the Award winners. The Fair offers the ideal platform to celebrate these writers and their works during special curated sessions and seminars that help boost their careers and the profile of Arab literature in general. 

The Award held a second virtual discussion on 16 October, in collaboration with Germany’s Litprom Cultural Foundation, titled ‘The Arab World and Europe: Flight and Migration in Children’s Books’. This featured the Palestinian-American writer Ibtisam Barakat, winner of the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award 2020 for Children’s Literature, and German writer Kirsten Boie, winner of numerous awards in children’s and young people’s literature. The session, which was moderated by Dr Stephan Milich, a German Arabist and member of Litprom Cultural Foundation, focussed on the challenges and limitations facing writers specialising in children's literature, and how to present topics related to the current global scene in a way that is appropriate for children and helps them see the world in a positive light.

Barakat said that she believes that childhood unites us all, as each one of us was once a child, and what characterises childhood most is the freedom of thinking, imagination and love of exploration, away from the restrictions of adulthood. This, she said, is what prompted her to write for children as she wanted to protect and nurture the freedom and imagination that children enjoy. 

Boie agreed with Barakat about the importance of childhood in shaping the character and outlook of writers. Speaking about the challenges related to writing for children, she said there were no topics that should not be discussed with children but that the most important thing is how to discuss them in ways that are consistent with a child’s abilities. We must engage with youngsters without giving them a negative impression of the world if their imaginations are to be unleashed, she said, adding a writer of children’s literature should give their young readers hope and reasons for joy.

The two writers agreed that being positive in life is an important tool for children and adults alike and, when it is instilled early in children, it gives them the opportunity to develop it throughout the various stages of their lives. This is positively reflected in how they view the world and how they deal with challenges as they mature.

Barakat praised the attention paid to children’s literature by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, adding that it is one of the most important genres because it greatly affects a reader’s personal development. She said that there is no successful author who has not been affected by the books they read during childhood but, unfortunately, children’s literature does not enjoy the high profile of other genres. The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, she said, counteracts this by guaranteeing equality between types of literature, with prizes awarded to various categories, including children's literature.