When the Arab British Centre, which was set up in London in 1977 to promote British-Arab friendship, struggled with severe financial difficulties at the turn of the century, it is doubtful its trustees envisaged it would even exist in 2013, let alone win a major global prize. But on Tuesday, the facility was named co-winner of the Unesco Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture.
The US$60,000 (Dh220,000) prize money, shared with Mustapha Cherif from Algeria, will be awarded next month in Paris and rewards "significant contributions to the development, knowledge and spread of Arab culture". The Arab British Centre is the first organisation to win the prize - the honour is usually bestowed on writers and academics. But it's a worthy winner; since 2007, the centre has focused directly on fostering a deeper engagement with the arts and culture of the Arab world.
"Our cultural programme includes regular exhibitions, a library of modern Arab fiction, regular Arabic language and calligraphy courses and a range of events including talks and concerts," says Noreen Abu Oun, the executive director. "And while our seemingly grand name might imply we're a big organisation with access to a great range of resources, the Arab British Centre is run on a tight budget by a very small team of dedicated individuals, so we're thrilled and humbled to win."
The recognition is for activities and events organised within and outside the centre, and Abu Oun highlights work with the National Portrait Gallery, the Safar Arab cinema festival and its role as founding partner of the successful Shubbak and Nour festivals. On a more nuts-and-bolts (but just as important) level, it also sends out a weekly newsletter highlighting Arab-related events across the UK and houses six like-minded organisations that promote the Arab world, including the literary magazine Banipal.
"This win can only spur us on to continue with the work of the charity," says Abu Oun. "We hope that we can grow to engage more people with what the Arab world has to offer."
* Ben East