Egyptian publisher collects Dh1m Sharjah book prize
SHARJAH //It is the world's largest literary cash award and this week Amira Kamal Aboulmagd became only the second person to receive it.
Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, presented her with the Dh1 million Etisalat Prize for Arabic children's literature at the 29th Sharjah International Book Fair.
"This is a big prize," said Ms Aboulmagd, who accepted the cheque on behalf of her Cairo publishing house, Dar El Shorouk, and Walid Taher, the writer of Al Noqta Al Sawda (The Black Dot), which will split the money evenly.
"I was involved in last year's jury so I know how fair the prize is and that the jury is representative of all of the Arab world," she said. "We worked very hard to make this book happen and it is a very special moment for me to receive this award."
Book prizes such as Sharjah's are part of the maturation of the Arab publishing industry, but that industry faced up to a more difficult milestone this week.
Only hours after Ms Aboulmagd collected the cheque, the committee behind the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in Abu Dhabi announced they had retracted one of their nine annual awards on the grounds of plagiarism.
Dr Hafnaoui Baali, an Algerian author who won the literature category in the Zayed awards for his book Comparative Cultural Criticism: an Introduction, was found to have used poorly referenced or unreferenced passages to the extent that he seemed to be representing them as his own work.
"It was a commendable course of action," said Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan al Qasimi, daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah and founder of the Etisalat prize. "It goes to show they have integrity and they were not willing to turn a blind eye. By taking back the award, they have made a stand and helped all of us to set standards."
This was her aim when she started the Etisalat prize last year.
"We wanted to recognise those who already have high standards," she said in an interview this week, "and by doing so we were raising the bar for others to follow."
She said: "I set up Kalimat, my publishing house, three years ago but I wanted to find a way to encourage other publishers to improve themselves so I came up with the idea of an award.
"We went for the largest cash prize so it would really make an impact on the winner. Plus it would act as a great incentive for others.
"The idea was to work towards a rapid growth and development of Arabic children's literature and to raise it to international standards."
When he introduced the award, Abdul Aziz Taryam, the general manager of Etisalat for the Northern Emirates, said progress required sustaining literate generations, and that was why the telecommunications giant had donated the money.
As the UAE is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, cash was not the main obstacle for the award. A bigger problem, said Sheikha Bodour, was the perception that in the Arab world contest rules are often bent or broken.
"There is always a lot of talk about what goes on behind the scenes," she said. "There are whispers of judges on committees having vested interests and hints of biased behaviour.
"That's why when we created a prize - especially one with such a large award - we were extremely strict with the judging process. It was essential to maintain an impeccable reputation."
The judges in the Etisalat prize are not revealed to the participants until the day the award is presented and any entries who are revealed to have any sort of connection to one of them are immediately ruled out. They also aim to have five different nationalities among the five judges, to give the greatest variety of opinion.
Sheikha Bodour said Nabiha Mheidly, last year's Etisalat Prize winner, had "single-handedly changed the face of publishing" in her home country of Lebanon.
The mother of five and her publishing house Dar Al Hadaeq won the Dh1m inaugural prize with her series of children's books Ana Oheb (I Love).
Ms Mheidly said the award has given her a new sense of responsibility to provide quality books to her readers.
"I now consider every book as a project for an award," she said. "We have to be careful with every element as a publisher. Awards are passports, they take you forward, but you need to be aware of the example you are creating."
Ms Mheidly's books, which teach children how to express themselves by encouraging them to voice what they love, are being used in schools in Beirut. Many classes have also taken the books to the stage, and Ms Mheidly fondly remembers one such performance.
"It was a wonderful experience," she said. "They made costumes the same as the characters in the book and it was like a rainbow on stage. It made me feel like a child at Eid when I saw it - I was deeply deeply happy.
"Every time I see a child reading my book I feel satisfied."
The notion of responsibility was one also felt by the new winner. Ms Aboulmagd said the prize had made her more accountable.
"If your next book [after winning this award] is not excellent, then you are in trouble," she said.
"So you work harder to meet those expectations. It actually ends up driving the whole industry forward."