Sheikh Zayed Book Award: The World’s leading Arab literature and culture prize announces 2021 winners

Abu Dhabi,

  • Record-breaking year for submissions with over 2,349 entries from 57 countries
  • Iman Mersal wins literature category, with awards made to studies of Saudi women writers, Arab oration, and the history of arrogance 
  • Each winner receives a career-changing prize of AED 750,000 (USD 204,181)
  • Winners hail from five countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the US
  • Cultural Personality of the Year to be announced w/c 25 April
  • The awards will be presented in a Winners Ceremony streamed live from Youtube during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (23-29 May 2021)
Under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award at the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, has revealed the winners of its 15th edition.   One of the Arab world’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Award announces winners across eight key categories. 

Internationally-renowned Egyptian author Iman Mersal wins the literature category, with awards made to studies of Saudi women writers, Arab oration, and the history of arrogance – and to a new translation of the story of the popular Arab folk character Abu Zayd.

2020 saw a record-breaking year for submissions, in particular the Young Author, Literature and Children’s literature categories.  The awards will go to recipients from five different countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the US).  The Scientific Committee noted that, despite it being a challenging year due to the global pandemic, they were delighted by the increase in submissions, reflecting not only the importance of literary awards but the resilience and vitality of the publishing industry. 

The winners will each receive prize money of 750,000 UAE dirhams ($204,181 US), an award designed both to recognize their achievements and support their ongoing work. The winning titles in the children’s books and literature categories will also be entitled for translation funding through the Award’s Translation Grant. British prize alumni Dame Marina Warner (Arab Culture in Other Languages, 2013) has described the Award as one that nourishes the academic community: “less of a trophy than a lavish bursary that allows the recipient to continue their adventures in understanding”. 
The awards will be formally presented via a livestream ceremony streamed live from Youtube during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (23-29 May 2021).

One of the Arab world’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award aims to showcase the most powerful, 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 culture.   In the words of last year’s Children’s Literature winner Ibtisam Barakat, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is “the Arab world’s equivalent to the Nobel prize”

HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, said: “Since its first edition in 2006, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award has proved to be a beacon of culture and literature, recognised and respected internationally as a champion of creativity. Through this inspirational Award, we honour the memory of our nation’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whose far-reaching vision for the UAE was intrinsically linked to the cornerstones of culture, knowledge and human development.”

Dr Ali bin Tamim, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and Secretary General of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, commented, “Despite the challenges of 2020 we were delighted to see a record-breaking year with submissions of exceptional quality.  As one of the Arab world’s leading cultural awards we are proud to support a flourishing international publishing landscape and pleased to see winners are from 5 countries across the globe. The judges were especially impressed with the range of genres, the breadth of topics and the ambition of the scholars and writers represented here.  This year’s winners highlight the depth and prestige of the Award in the Arab world and beyond. We commend their achievement and look forward to seeing more superb work in the years to come.”

French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, winner of the 2016 Cultural Personality of the year, commented, ‘In such difficult times, it is more important than ever to focus on books and on cultural values. They alone can provide us with the moral compass we so desperately need to move on with our eyes wide open.’ 

The 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winners:

Literature was awarded to

Fee Athar Enayat Al Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat) by Egyptian writer Iman Mersal (Al Kotob Khan Library 2019). The book is based upon the life of the Egyptian writer of the 1960s who died in 1963 four years before her only novel was published. Already published in multiple editions in Arabic the book has been described as ‘a source of inspiration for women trying to know their identity, who want to understand the roots of the reality that surrounds them to that they can define their choices in it.’  A poet, translator and novelist, Mersal’s work has been translated into 22 languages.  How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts is available in English from Seagull books.

Young Author was awarded to Saudi author
Dr. Asma Muqbil Awad Alahmadi, for her critical study of Saudi women writers, Eshkalyat Al Thaat Al Saredah Fee Al Rwayah Al Nesaayah Al Saudiah (The Problems of the Narrated Self in the Saudi Feminist Novel (1999 – 2012) (Arab Scientific Publishers Inc, 2020).  The book charts the remarkable growth of women writers in Saudi Arabia, the portrayal of women in Saudi fiction, and key themes such as identity, belonging, and women’s struggle for self-realisation.   The author describes how these novels broke the passive stereotype of women, ‘emerging from silence into action and influence’.   The judges noted how these women’s novels have become ‘a platform where women are in charge of telling their story, exploring the inner self, and exercising their right to freedom of expression and independence.’   

Children’s Literature was awarded to Rehlat Fannan (An Artist's Journey) by Tunisian author Mizouni Bannani (Dar Al Mua'nasa Publishing, 2020). In the book, for children of 9+, birds can speak as they fly across and through the world, taking readers on a journey with wings of imagination. The judges described how the book ‘is rich in imagery and proceeds slowly but excitingly, and is infused with imagination.’

Publishing & Technology was awarded to Dar Al Jadeed, Lebanon. This publishing house was founded in Beirut in 2000 by late Lebanese writer and translator Lokman Slim and Rasha al Ameer with a unique focus on long-forgotten topics in Arab publishing.  The judges noted the company’s poetry collections and anthologies of leading Arab poets, and praised its innovative new editions of classic works, its literary and intellectual ambition, and commitments to nurturing young and emerging writers. 

Arab Culture in Other Languages was awarded to Arabic Oration: Art and Function by US researcher Tahera Qutbuddin (Brill Publishers, 2019). The book explores how Oratory, together with the Qur’an and poetry, was foundational in the earliest Arabic literary tradition. The judges praised the writer's ‘exceptional familiarity with classical Arabic literature and her firm grasp on oral tradition studies and theories [which] have enabled her to clearly articulate the various aspects of oration: structure, style, types, and function (religious, political, intellectual, social or military).’

Translation was awarded to Impostures by Al-Hariri, translated from Arabic to English by US translator Michael Cooperson (Library of Arabic Literature in 2020). Cooperson describes how Impostures was ‘arguably one of the most popular works of fiction in pre-modern Arabic’, relating the adventures of the eloquent vagabond Abu Zayd.  The judges praised ‘a bold, mature and innovative approach to translation that enabled Michael Cooperson to understand Maqamat Al-Hariri more intimately than anyone else, and to appreciate it as a treasure of Arab heritage. Cooperson has remarkably transferred the sentiments, ideas and expressions wholesale into English, even with a difficult work that is heavily reliant on a rhyme scheme.’

Literary and art criticism was awarded to: Massar al Tahdeeth fil Funoon al Tashkeeliyya men al Ursooma ela al Lawhah (The Evolution of Art from Doodle to Painting) by Tunisian researcher Khelil Gouia, (Mohammad Ali Publishing House, 2020). This book is an exploration of Tunisian art history since the emergence of the ‘Ursooma’, which is a form of Islamic art based on painting on glass, all the way to the painting in the contemporary sense of the world, which emerged in the early 20th century. 

Development of Nations was awarded to Turath al Este'la Bayn al Folklore wal Majal al Dini (The History of Arrogance: Between Faith & Folklore) by Egyptian researcher Saeed El-Masry (Batana Publishing & Distribution in 2019.  The book explores roots of this phenomenon in folklore as well as in political Islam groups that have stoked the spirit of arrogance in political participation in a manner that contributed to the spread of extremism, hate and sectarianism.


Iman Mersal: Egyptian poet, writer, academic and translator. She works as an assistant professor of Arabic literature and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Alberta, Canada and currently resides in Marseille, France, where she holds the Albert Camus chair at the University of Marseille until July 2021, while working on a book entitled Al Laknah: Al Sawt fee Ghair Makaneh (Accent: Voice Out of Place). An anthology of her works was translated into more than twenty languages and she has five poetry collections published. Her most recent published works include Hatta Atakhlla Aan Fekrat Al Boyot (Until I abandon the idea of homes) in 2013, Kayfa Taltaem: Aan Al Omoma wa Askhbahuha (How to Heal: On motherhood and its Phantoms) in 2017, and Fee Athar Enayat Al Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat) in 2019. Her book, Mamar Moetem Yasloh fee Talom Al Raks (A Dark Path Suitable for Learning to Dance), is one of the most important poetry books issued by the generation of the nineties in Arabic poetry.

Dr. Asma Muqbil Awad Alahmadi: A Saudi academic and critic, winner of the Sharjah Prize for Gulf Women's Creativity 2019. Dr. Alahmadi holds a PhD in Philosophy - Specialising in Arabic Language and Literature, and she is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Islamic Culture and Language Skills in the College of Science and Arts - King Abdulaziz University. She published her book Eshkalyat Al Thaat Al Saredah Fee Al Rwayah Al Nesaayah Al Saudiah (The Problems of the Narrated Self in the Saudi Feminist Novel (1999 - 2012) (Critical Study) in 2020, and Thaherat Al Raheel fee Al Qessah Al Qaserah fee Al Mamlakah Al Arabiah Al Saudiah (The Phenomenon of Departure in the Short Story in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - Artistic Study) in 2013, in addition to a collection of stories entitled Baynahma Barzakh (Between them is an Isthmus..) in 2017, and worked on a number of refereed scientific research and literary posts, and other texts and studies published in local and Arab newspapers and magazines.

Mizouni Bannani: Professor of Education Sciences at the Higher Institute for Applied Studies in Humanities in Sbeitla, Tunisia. Bannani won the Regional Creativity Prize for Child Literature in Kasserine in 1999. He published two collections of short stories entitled Humma Al Ardh (The Fever of the Earth) in 1989, and Mawawil Aaed men Dhefat Al Nar (Mawawil of the One who Returned from the Shore of Fire) in 1996, in addition to a novel entitled Doroob Al Hawan (Paths of Humiliation). He also published a group of literary works for children and teens, including Sorah Laysat Kalswar (A Picture Like No Other), and Turab Al Watab (The soil of the homeland), Rehlat Fannan (An Artist's Journey) and others. Bennani works as a literary and artistic consultant at Al Moanasah Publishing House, and has participated in establishing the branch of the Union of Tunisian Writers in Kasserine in 1997 and chaired it until 2017.

Dar Al Jadeed was founded in Beirut in 2000 with a unique focus on long-forgotten topics in Arab publishing, as well as science books and linguistic and intellectual studies, and has thus republished the work of Abdullah al Alayli, such as 'Muujam', 'An Introduction to the Language of Arabs', 'Scenes from a Prophecy', 'Where's the Error?' and other works. Taha Hussein's 'On Jahili Poetry' was similarly published under the 'Carbon Copy' initiative that ensures books will be reprinted in the original format and layout of 'Dar al Kutub al Misriyya in Cairo in 1929. Al Jadeed has also published a number of poetry collections and anthologies for prominent contemporary Arab poets, including Mahmoud Darweesh, Adonis, Sameeh Qaasim and others, it has also paid attention to young and emerging talents, extending its support to young writers, including Alexandria Solgenstein, Nomal Miller, Hassan Dawoud, Kamal Dawoud, Rasha el Ameer, and others.

Tahera Qutbuddin: A Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago, and serves on the editorial board of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Library of Arabic Literature. She obtained her PhD and MA from Harvard University, USA, Tamhidi Magister and BA from Ain Shams University, Cairo, and high school diploma from Sophia College, Mumbai. Her research focuses on intersections of the literary, the religious, and the political in classical Arabic poetry and prose. Her recent publications include ‘Arabic Oration: Art and Function’ released in 2019, ‘Light in the Heavens: Sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad’ released in 2016, and ‘A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of ʿAlī’ released in 2013). She has received fellowship support from the Franke Institute of Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Michael Cooperson: An American author and translator, Cooperson studied at Harvard University and the American University of Cairo, and currently a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has published two monographs on early Abbasid cultural history: ‘Classical Arabic Biography’ and ‘Al-Ma'mun’. In addition to Impostures, he has translated Abdelfattah Kilito's ‘L'Auteur et ses doubles (The Author and his Doubles)’ and Ibn al-Jawzi's ‘Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal)’. His other interests include Maltese language and culture.

Khelil Gouia: Professor of aesthetics, art theories and semiology of the image at the Higher Institute of Arts of the University of Sfax, Tunisia. He holds a PhD in arts sciences and techniques, specialising in art theories and history, as well as a professorial degree in philosophy from the University of Tunis, and an in-depth studies certificate in the history of modern art (ISBAT). His published books include Tashkeel Al Roya (The Formation of the Vision), Omarat Al Roya (The Architecture of the Vision), Bonyat Al Thaeykah wa Soltat Al Namothaj (The Structure of Taste and the Authority of the Model), Al Aamal Al Fanny wa Tahwolatoh bayn Al Nathar wa Al Natharyah (Artwork and Its Transformations between Theory and Theory, An Attempt in the Constructivism of Looking) and Masar Al Tahdeeth fe Al Fonoon Al Tashkelyah, men Al Orsomah ella Al Lawha (The Path of Modernisation in the Visual Arts, From Drawing to Painting). He also supervised the issuance of some scientific artistic books at Bayt Al Hekmah in Carthage, and contributed to editing the ‘Tunisian Encyclopedia’ on cultural history and the arts. He also contributed to launch a number of annual events, festivals and seminars related to fine arts.

Saeed El-Masry: Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, and an advisor to the Minister of Culture on the development of the cultural system in Egypt. Dr. El-Masry is a cultural anthropologist and holds a PhD in sociology. He won the United Nations Award for Excellence in Human Development in 2013 for the Egypt Human Development Report, which he participated in preparing in 2010. He also won the Arab Grand Prize for Heritage for the book Eaadat Entaj Al Turath Al Shaaby; Kayfa Yatshabath Al Fokaraa Belhayat fee thel Al Nodra (Reproduction of Folklore; How the {oor cling to life in light of Scarcity) in 2014. He has published many scientific books, the most recent of which were Al Tafrah Al Shabaya wa Al Tahwlat Al Dempghrafyah fee Al Alam Al Araby (The Youth Boom and Demographic Transformations in the Arab world), Azmat Al Majal Al Deeny fee Masr (The Crisis of the Religious Sphere in Egypt), Malhamat Al Mwatanah bayn Sokook Al Watanayah was Awlamat Al Hokok Al Insanyah (The Saga of Citizenship between Nationalism and the Globalization of Human Rights), Maazak Al Adalah Al Thagafyah fee Masr (The Dilemma of Cultural Justice in Egypt), and Turath Al Iste’ela’a bayn Al Folklor wa Al Majal Al Deeny (Legacy of Supremacy between Folklore and Religion).


The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is one of the world’s leading prizes dedicated to Arabic literature and culture. Since 2006 the Award has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding work by authors, translators, publishers, and organisations around the world.

The Award does not only recognise major literary and cultural achievements, but also aims to boost the publishing industry. 2018 saw the launch of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s Translation Grant, to help produce more quality Arabic books that are translated, published and distributed outside the Arab World.

The main prize winners receive 750,000 UAE Dirhams (£160,000 / $200,000), with the Cultural Personality of the Year receiving 1,000,000 UAE Dirhams (£196,000 / $272,000).

The awards cover nine categories: Translation, Contribution to the Development of Nations, Literary and Art Criticism, Young Authors, Children’s Literature, Arab Culture in Other Languages, Publishing and Technology, Contribution to the Development of Nations and Cultural Personality of the Year. 

To ensure a rigorous selection process, the Award scientific committee appoints a group of distinguished regional and international cultural experts in their respective fields, who serve on an independent, highly selective judging panel.

In each category, the decisions of the jury are meant to answer the programme’s overarching goal, to encourage greater scholarship and creativity by recognising and rewarding significant cultural achievements in Arabic culture. 

The prize can transform the winner’s career, creating opportunities for greater scholarship and creativity. Winning titles in children’s books and literature are eligible for translation funding to encourage the appreciation of Arabic writing in other languages. 

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award reflects some of the most exciting and, in some cases, challenging cultural work coming out of the Arab world today — all parts of the world can benefit from the significant achievements of these winners. 


To support the organisers’ commitment to its alumni, and to diversity in global literature, the titles nominated for the Literature and Children’s Literature categories are eligible for translation funding.  Nine books have been translated since the launch of the grant into multiple languages, including English, German, French, Italian and Ukrainian. In 2021, the Award has seen a growing interest in translation requests from Arabic into global languages, reiterating the importance of translation as an essential tool to build bridges between different nations, and to represent cultures, literature and heritage in different languages.  To find out more visit the link here: