Promoting Arabic literature and fostering understanding between cultures are two of the great commitments pursued by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Center, organizer of the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize (SZBA), according to what its president, Dr. Ali bin Tami, told Atalayar.

Translated literature, an essential tool for building bridges between cultures

Ali bin Tamim
photo_camera Ali bin Tamim

Dr Ali bin Tamim recently visited Spain to take part in a seminar on the Arab literary tradition and its relationship with our country, an activity that marked the first collaboration between the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize and Spanish institutions such as the Euro-Arab Foundation for Higher Studies and the University of Granada. He hopes that this joint work will continue over time, given the importance of Spain in literature, and what it represents, moreover, as a meeting point between the Arab world and Latin America.

The president of the Arabic Language Centre did not hesitate to affirm that 'literature is a cornerstone' for tolerance and achieving a better world, and a key factor in 'promoting the values of dialogue, acceptance and openness to different cultures', hence the need to encourage translation, another of the objectives of the Centre over which he presides and of the SZBA Prize, where he is secretary general.

Granada hosted a seminar on the Arabic literary canon, an event born of the collaboration, for the first time in Spain, of Spanish institutions with the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize. What does this joint organisation entail?

The Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize remain committed to our mission of promoting Arabic literature worldwide, fostering intercultural understanding and partnership, and promoting the status and use of the Arabic language in the cultural, scientific, literary and creative spheres.

Spain occupies a prominent position in the world of literature, and our collaboration with Spanish partners marks an important step forward in the promotion of Arabic literature and culture in all corners of the world. Spain is also the meeting point between the Arab world and Latin America and we would be delighted to continue these collaborations in the years to come, as such cultural collaborations are of vital importance in supporting cultural diversity and nurturing creativity.

During the seminar it was said that this meeting was expected to be the first step on a long road. What initiatives would you like to launch?

Through this recent event and upcoming initiatives, the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize aims to raise awareness of the Prize among Spanish academic networks in Spain, especially among academic and literary institutions. This collaboration also aims to increase awareness of Arabic culture and literature in Spain by building a long-term relationship with FUNDEA and the University of Granada to organise additional future events involving writers, academics and experts in Arabic culture from Spanish universities.

Through such rich programmes, we seek to strengthen Spanish-Arabic dialogue and encourage the participation of Spanish and Latin American intellectuals in the prize's initiatives, encouraging them to apply for the prize in any of its four categories that accept nominations in Spanish (Arabic culture in other languages, Translation, Arabic manuscript editing, and Publishing and technology), or encouraging publishers to apply for the Translation Fund, which provides funding to international publishers to translate the prize's winning or shortlisted literary titles into other languages, including Spanish.

You took advantage of your stay in Spain to meet with other institutions, what was the purpose of these meetings, and what was your assessment?

Our trip to Spain offered us a unique opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience with our Spanish partners. We were honoured to meet and work closely with the Euro-Arab Foundation for Higher Studies (FUNDEA), the University of Granada and Casa Árabe, three prominent and highly influential institutions that share our commitment to cultural exchange and collaboration, and with whom we work closely to explore innovative ways to bring our cultures closer together through literature and deeper understanding.

The Arab artistic and cultural influence in our country is more than evident. Why do you think that Arab literature, however, does not occupy the place it should?

We believe that there is a lot of interest in Arabic literature in Spain, precisely because of these strong cultural connections with the Middle East. Efforts are already being made on the ground to celebrate and recognise the importance of Arabic literature in Spain, and there is certainly room to do more. With the international programme of the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize, which is active around the world, we want to add to these efforts. Our event in Granada with the Euro-Arab Foundation last month is just the latest example of our commitment to supporting the study, research and celebration of Arabic language and culture in Spain.

The Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre's Kalima Project and the SZBA Translation Fund, for example, consistently support the translation of literary works from Arabic into Spanish and vice versa. This is not limited to Spain, but to the entire Spanish-speaking world.

In addition, we recently collaborated with the Mexican Embassy to offer Arabic language courses to Latin American embassy employees, who showed remarkable participation and interest in learning Arabic.

Spanish universities have outstanding Arabists, but perhaps their research remains in the academic sphere. What could be done to bring it to society?

The work of these brilliant Arabists is a large part of what we are trying to highlight and celebrate through the SZBA. The prize recognises and celebrates the work of scholars and institutions and their contribution to Arab studies and research.

There are multiple categories dedicated to the work of international scholars, Translation (from and into Arabic), Arabic Culture in other languages, Arabic Manuscript Publishing, and a fourth category, Publication and Technology that recognises the efforts of international institutions. 

What do you think of Spanish literature that focuses its stories on Arab countries or characters, bringing us closer to their culture or, on the contrary, falling into stereotypes?

Spanish literature and its prominent authors are extremely aware of the intricate nature of Arab culture and its history, and likewise Arab authors have a vast knowledge of Spain's rich culture. However, there is a difference between misusing these characters and investing them in an inspiring plot. It is certainly more useful and enriching if these characters are included in a context that aims to achieve dialogue and understanding rather than stories based on assumptions that do not build a solid foundation for cultural communication. Therefore, we can say that if the inclusion of Arab countries and characters contributes to spreading knowledge and creativity, it is certainly fostering understanding between our two cultures.

Ali bin Tamim
Ali bin Tamim

You are secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize, which is organised by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, which you also chair. This is one of the most prestigious awards in the Arab world with 10 categories, from children's to translation. Have you noticed if the presence of Spanish authors or academics is increasing?

Since we added the Spanish language to the Arabic Culture in Other Languages category in 2013, we have received many academic nominations in Spanish in SZBA across four categories (Arabic Culture in Other Languages, Translation, Arabic Manuscript Editing and Publishing and Technology), and I am pleased to see the Spanish historian, José Pascual Martínez, among the finalist authors last year and, before that, the late Spanish Arabist, Professor Pedro Martínez Montavez, who was the award's Cultural Personality of the Year in 2009.

In addition, we have received valuable nominations for the prize in the category of Arabic Culture in Other Languages, in which a number of leading Spanish scholars were shortlisted, namely:

  • "Los moriscos antiguos murcianos: Expulsión, vuelta y permanencia" (1609-1634), by José Pascual Martínez.
  • " La vida de los edificios: La mezquita de Córdoba, la lonja de Sevilla y un carmen en Granada", by Rafael Moneo.
  • "Leer La Alhambra", by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez.

During our meeting with Casa Árabe, attended by its director Irene Lozano Domingo, we launched the Arabic edition of the book "La Alquimia en Al Ándalus" by the Spanish author Ángel Alcalá Malavé, translated into Arabic by Khadija Benyaya, under the umbrella of the Kalima Translation Project, an initiative of the Arabic Language Centre in Abu Dhabi. The book highlights an important period in which al-Andalus became the lodestar in various disciplines of the sciences and arts, during which Islam held the torch after the Roman Empire.

The period is considered an essential historical source for the history of alchemy in Al Andalus and the contributions of Muslim intellectuals and other scholars from various civilisations, who made Cordoba a scientific centre. In addition, the book examines the important role played by Andalusian alchemists in the scientific renaissance of Al Andalus, which culminated in the time of Abderraman III, who created the Tree of Knowledge and established a culture of tolerance between the three Abrahamic religions. This is in addition to his contributions to the spread of Islamic civilisation in Europe through translations of scientific works of the Arabs in the Latin Middle Ages.

Kalima is an inclusive cultural project aimed at reviving the translation movement in the Arab world. It has translated and Arabised many treasures of international literature and culture from foreign languages, including Spanish.

Arab authors are little read because they are not translated, and the same is true of Spanish-language authors in Arab countries. Why is there not a greater commitment in this direction?

Supporting the translation of Arabic books into Spanish and Spanish books into Arabic is one of the key points of the mission of the Arabic Language Centre in Abu Dhabi. We believe that literature creates important cultural bridges between countries and peoples, which is why we have dedicated initiatives such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize Translation Fund and the Kalima Project that create opportunities for these exchanges.

One of our most recent collaborations is with a Brazilian publisher, Editora Rua do Sabão, to translate Iman Mersal's Sheikh Zayed Book Prize-winning literary book into Brazilian Portuguese through the Translation Fund. We hope that similar projects can be developed in other countries in the region.

On the other hand, through Kalima, we translated several books from Spanish into Arabic, among them:

  • "Tratado de Arquitectura Hispano Musulmana", by Basilio Pavon Maldonado.
  • "El enigma del agua en Al-Andalus", by Cherif Abderrahman Jah
  • “Cuentos populares de los gitanos de España".
  • " Historia de la dominación de los árabes en España ", by José Antonio Conde

It is also important to remember that we always welcome the participation of publishers from Spain and Latin America to take part in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and meet with Arab publishers and translators.

Thanks to initiatives such as Banipal magazine in Spanish, we can get closer to Arab literature. What is its current state? After the so-called Arab Spring, do you think that new generations have emerged with other ideas, with other things to tell?

Projects like the magazine Banipal are essential for the dissemination of Arab literature outside the Middle East and North Africa, and we are pleased to have been able to support the magazine by awarding them in 2020 in the Publishing and Technology category.

Through our work, we have been able to see first-hand the richness of current Arab literature and the brilliant contribution of new generations of writers, in particular thanks to the Young Author category of the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize, dedicated to Arab writers under the age of 40.

This year, Algerian writer Said Khatibi won the Young Author category with a work of detective fiction that describes the lasting effects of the Algerian war on future generations. The book is a breakthrough in the crime novel genre and we hope to see it translated soon.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Prize also aims to promote intercultural dialogue. Is it through literature that a more respectful and tolerant world can be built?

Literature is a cornerstone of this goal and a key factor in promoting the values of dialogue, acceptance and openness to different cultures and celebrating the diversity of human heritage. Through the initiatives of the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize and the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, we build on the approach of tolerance represented by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who worked tirelessly to foster an open and accepting environment in the UAE, dominated by tolerance and respect.

It is of great importance here to also highlight the role of translated literature, which is an essential tool for building bridges between different nations of the world, as it plays an integral role in representing cultures, literature and heritage in different languages. Through the Prize's Translation Fund, we want to offer readers around the world a window through which they can explore the best Arabic literary works in their own languages, and vice versa, through the Kalima translation project, we seek to translate the world's most important books in all fields of knowledge into Arabic.

Let's finish with a curiosity: what book are you reading at the moment? Which author should we read, know?

The mutual influences between Arabic and Spanish literature are obvious and long-standing, but what we strive for today is to present more notable works by the greatest poets in the Arabic language. One example is Abu Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, whose poetic works offer a wide window to explore Arabic culture and heritage from pre-Islam to his time (915-65 AD, 303-54 AD). His lasting influence is also evident in contemporary poetry in the works of prominent poets such as Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish. We hope to see works by Al-Mutanabbi translated into Spanish that can offer Spanish audiences the opportunity to revisit his poetic verses, which convey profound wisdom and insights on themes of courage, pride, love and longing for the homeland.

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