An Arena for Creative Ideas

An Arena for Creative Ideas

Photographs by Fahd Al-Kouh

It Is Not a Magazine, It Is an Arena for Creative Thoughts Al-Arabi Wins the Awais Cultural Prize A gold medallion showing the name of the prize awarded to Al-Arabi

Dubai is bathed in light. It receives us on a warm spring night with a bouquet of illuminated flowers. Its crowded airport does not differentiate between night and day. The bustle never calms down and the crowd of humanity does not cease. Every hour thousands arrive, looking for some opportunity, to sell or buy, a deal or an adventure, a caprice or a chance to get rich. The city offers them all kinds of promises, a real Tower of Babel, with all the dreams and temptations that implies.

Abdulilah Abdulqadir is standing with a broad smile on his face. "Welcome to the delegation from Al-Arabi," he says in his loud voice. Abdulilah is the Executive Director of Al-Awais Cultural Foundation. Before that he was one of the artists of the theater and a distinguished short story writer. He left his country Iraq many years ago and has known the coldness and sorrows of places of exile. A tone of anxiety is concealed in his voice beneath cheerful words, the voice of another Iraqi, on his own in his exile.

In a few moments the delegation from Al-Arabi magazine* becomes part of those who came to attend the celebration for Al-Awais Foundation to distribute prizes at its seventh session. The Chief Editor stresses to us, "It is an opportunity for us to establish direct relations with several writers and thinkers who are attending this occasion." Maybe this was the secret behind his decision, which astonished us all, to form a delegation which included several of our colleagues. We had believed that he would be content to attend the prize-giving ceremony on his own, as a representative of all those working for the magazine. But he did not want the employees of the magazine to remain in the shadows, rather they should interact with the event and take part with dozens of intellectuals and thinkers who were brought together by this important occasion, so that there would be a direct relationship between the magazine and its writers.

The occasion, then, was Al-Arabi magazine winning Al-Awais Cultural Foundation's Prize for Cultural Achievement. This was the first time that a private establishment granted its prize to a government establishment, namely Al-Arabi magazine which is published by the Ministry of Information in the State of Kuwait. In spite of that, this

Al-Arabi's delegation to Al-Awais Foundation's festivities was made up of Chief Editor Sulaiman Al-Askari and our colleagues Editorial Secretary Tariq Husni, Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi, Muhammad Al-Munsi Qandil and Fahd Al-Kuh.

Magazine has never at any time been under the supervision of any government. It has always belonged to the Arab public ever since its first issues, and has occupied its status in every Arab household, both in the most populated cities and in emote oases.

We do not want to talk about ourselves. We will leave what is said about Al-Arabi to the report issued by the panel of judges for the prize, in which they set forth the reasons for their judgement.

But before going into details of the celebration and introducing the other participants, we should first of all know the story of this prize, and why it is so important.

The Foundation and its Continuity

We had to look for the Secretary-General of Al-Awais Cultural Foundation Abdulhamid Ahmad. With his quiet nature and modest character, he wanted to keep away from the spotlights, which are usually focused on him on such occasions. He is still a creative person who prefers to sit by himself to do the one thing he loves, writing short stories, the genre which he prefers and of which he has published three collections. He emphasized at the beginning of the conversation that short story writing is a means to overcome human pain, and that words are beneficial where tranquilizers fail. My question was about the prize, of which he has become in charge, since the death of its founder two years ago, and after this prize became transformed from a personal initiative into an established and continuing foundation. "This prize was started at the beginning under the umbrella of the United Arab Emirates Writers' Association," he answered. "Later we felt that it would be better, for the sake of its permanence and continuity, to separate it and make it into an independent foundation, for several reasons among them that the Writers' Association in the final analysis is a local association exposed to many changes. We also wanted the prize to be above reproach and impartial, not linked to the whims of any person or political current. Sultan Ibn Ali Al-Awais adopted this prize with its main conditions and its by-laws, and even more important than that its independence even from its founder and its owner.

" That was followed by the publication of a founding charter authenticated in the Sharia Courts, and an Amiri Decree was promulgated ensuring its operation. This firm legal basis gave this Foundation the ability to conduct its work even after the death of its founder.

" Sultan Al-Awais' relationship with the Foundation ended as soon as the money needed to launch it had been assigned. After that he left the Board of Trustees the freedom to invest and preserve this money and to manage the Foundation. During his lifetime Sultan Al-Awais never interfered in the work. Even if he wanted to interfere, he never did. The Board of Trustees would not have allowed it.

" The Foundation has two sides, a cultural side supported by an economic or investment side. The Board of Trustees invests the Foundation's money in several financial and real estate projects. There are annual returns from this income, which are spent on the prize and its administrative costs. We reinvest any surplus from this money, in order to expansion in future, either in branches of the prize or in value of the sums allocated to each of its branches. In this way we are similar to the international Nobel Prize, and we could call the Awais Prize "the Arab Nobel Prize".

" Although we are basically a cultural foundation which grants prizes, we recently established a fund to support culture. Some cultural projects are supported from it, like the UAE Writers' Association, for example, and the project of a book in a newspaper

" We are now preparing to move to the new building which will be ready in three months. It will have ten storeys, seven of which we will exploit commercially to increase the revenues of the prize, while the Foundation will occupy the other three storeys. It will contain a library, a cultural café, a theater and an information center.

" The prize will not cease to develop itself. Soon we will increase the value of the prizes, from $100,000 per branch to $150,000. We will print the complete works of all those who have won the prize, who are 46 writers and thinkers so far. That will be in editions of fine quality which we will give to public cultural institutions. "

Dubai National Bank Director Abdulrahman Al-Awais, who is a member of the Foundation's Board of Trustees, says, "The money which Al-Awais left is a trust and a charitable endowment for Arab culture. We are trying to invest it in all kinds of secure investments, and I can say truthfully that it is continuing to grow. I don't want to mention exact figures, but it is enough to say that after the construction of Al-Awais Foundation's building the capital will multiply about five times."

An Honest Prize

But what wins respect and credibility for the Awais Prize? There are many prizes in our Arab world, and controversy and criticism is often stirred up about them. We often hear that they are influenced by the whims and temperament of those in charge of them. But these criticisms have not yet been raised regarding the Awais Prize, It has always been for its honesty and the precision of its judgement, as more than one official in the Foundation told us. This was confirmed by the Foundation's Executive Director Abdulilah Abdulqadir when he explained the mechanisms which govern the process of candidature, the selection of panels of judges and then the selection of prizewinners. "We are an independent, non-profit making foundation," he stated. "It was founded by Sultan Al-Awais because of his great love of Arabic poetry and literature. He was a successful merchant and a poet at the same time, who believed that writers and poets in the Arab World are deprived of their due. For this reason he established this prize in 1992, but it was not announced until 1994.

" We studied the Arab arena and found that all the prizes offered in it have the stamp of government authority which stands behind them. These prizes came to an end because there is no continuity of contact between a creative person and this authority. So we thought of making this prize subject only to the authority of creativity. That is it would be awarded to any Arab author, or author of Arab origin, who writes in Arabic, regardless of his nationality, religion or color. If you consider the 46 prizewinners, you will find that they represent all colors of the spectrum in Arab culture, from far right to far left. One of the characteristics of this prize is its neutrality. No official of the Foundation, whatever his level, is allowed to interfere in the allocation of this prize, indeed our responsibility ends with the selection of the panels of judges. We do not have the right to criticize any decision which these panels adopt. All the Board of Trustees does is to ratify the decision, we do not have the right to discuss it. The panels of judges change each session, and a judge may not be used for more than two sessions throughout his lifetime. Consequently the prize is not consecrated in a particular direction of method. Selecting the panels of judges requires a great effort in the Foundation's work. We ask and seek the views of associations and councils which specialize in the cultural field to propose those they regard as suitable. The number of candidates for judges may amount to more than 400 specialists in the field of thought and culture. The panel of judges is subjected to a lengthy study so that the Board of Trustees may choose the final panel made up of twelve specialists. This matter takes three months. Our work ends when these panels are formed. They are geographically distributed so that they represent all parts of the Arab world. They are also intellectually distributed so that they represent different intellectual and artistic trends. These panels have a period of seven months of real work. Each one works by himself, in complete secrecy. We send them all the books proposed, and they present a report about everything that has reached them, so that we can be sure that the judge has familiarized himself with all the books that have reached him. The do not examine each other's reports until a short while before the prize is announced. We forbid them to contact the news media during this period. They meet more than once if there is a difference of opinion, and the meeting does not break up until after they have reached a final decision. This is presented to the Board of Trustees, for endorsement only.

" This is the strict system which has continued for seven full sessions, in which 46 writers have won, as I mentioned earlier. Sixty-four judges have judged in them, critics and eminent people well-known in the Arab world. They covered the fields of poetry, short stories, novels, plays, literary studies, criticism and human studies, and the prize for cultural and scientific achievement. A total of 603 candidates have been proposed for these prizes.

The most famous people who won them were the poets Nizar Qabbani, Fadwa Touqan, Abdulwahhab Al-Bayyati, Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri, Shaikh Yusuf Al-fQaradawi, Dr. Edward Said, Shaikh Hamad Al Jasir, Edward Al-Kharrat, Sanaallah Ibrahim, Dr. Fuad Zakaria and Zaki Najib Mahmoud.

A Poet Who Does Not Die

In 1981 I was fortunate to meet that extremely modest poet whose memory is preserved and whose reputation remains even after he departed this world. We were a large gathering, at the Jenadriya Festival in which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia brings together the elite of Arab culture every year. On one side of the reception hall in the Riyadh Hotel, a slender man was sitting, listening to the conversation and participating in it thoughtfully and in a quiet voice, eager not to cut off the flow of those who were speaking effusively. He introduced himself nodestly, "Sultan Al-Awais from Dubai". The news of the prize had begun to spread. No one believed that this thin man was the one who was awarding this massive prize. "It's a small thing for our brothers the Arabs," he said on that day. "Do you know that I also like to establish schools? I've established a technical school in 10 Ramadan City in Egypt, and two others in Morocco. And I will establish more."

It seemed as if his goodness as a creative person had gained the upper hand over the instinct of a merchant which strives after profit. Or he had become bored with accumulating money and wanted to win a little glory. He began to talk humbly in a quiet voice about his experience in life. His father had been a well-to-do merchant, one of the first pearl merchants known on the mainland of Dubai which was the pearl trading center in the Gulf. He was known as trustworthy, so that people used to leave their money in bags in his safe keeping. He used to take them and write the names of their owners on them and keep them in a special box, so that their owners could take them back whenever they wanted.

This is what qualified him to establish the first national bank in the region, which controlled by the financial grip of the English at that time. The Dubai National Bank was opened in 1963, but his father died before the opening. His brothers proposed him for the Chairmanship of the Board of Directors of this bank.

The direction of the bank marked the end of a long period of trading in everything, first of all pearls which were the leading product in the Gulf. When the pearl market collapsed because of the spread of the cultured variety, he began to spread out into dried fish, for export to South East Asia. But the great adventure was in gold smuggling. "Gold was forbidden in India by order of the English," Sultan Al-Awais said in an interview with Al-Arabi magazine in 1993. We merchants used to come with gold from Switzerland and sell it to whoever asked for it. There were many risks. The ship used to carry gold worth millions of dollars. As soon as it left port it became a hostage to the sea and fate. Many ships sank, and others jettisoned their cargo in order not to be caught smuggling."

This long experience in finance and trade did not extinguish the embers of poetry inside him, on the contrary it enriched his poetic experience. He bought and sold, gained and lost, and poetry remained his final wealth and the fervent love of his soul. Many students of poetry have agreed that he was a love poet of a unique type, in addition to his vagabond personality which is not bound by time and place. Perhaps his most famous of his love poems is the one in which he tells about his ardent passion as a lover to the woman he loves:

Your love still gives me to drink and I gulp it down,

My soul's thirst is not quenched and the flow of water from its springs does not stop.

From this poetic soul with a taste for poetry the prize was born.

The Champions of the Prize

This year was Al-Arabi's appointment with the Awais Prize. It was not alone in the arena, but was surrounded by a constellation of Arab writers and creative people who were also honored by the prize. In poetry, the prominent Bahraini poet Qasim Haddad won it. He represents a whole generation of young poets in the Gulf who have come in through the door of modernity and experimentation in the form of poems and giving them new contents.

He told Al-Arabi what he felt about the prize: "I did not expect this prize. It was enough for me to recite poetry, this is what makes me feel strength. Yes, I'm strong because I write poetry. Through it I breathe lost air. Other than that I don't do anything well. There is no meaning to me or to my existence except to the extent that I write poetry, sincerely without greater aims or illusions."

Qasim Haddad spent three decades writing poetry, all the time trying to add something new to each poem that he wrote. Although his poetry is sometimes obscure, it is possible to follow the mythological and historical symbols from which he sought inspiration. The poet is also an eager user of modern technical equipment. He was an original founder of a poetry web site on which he has collected several modern poetic experiments. He also has his own personal web site and believes that using these techniques will not only help to spread poetry, but also influence the fashioning of its form and content.

The second prizewinner was the famous short story writer Zakaria Tamer. He is a writer of multiple creativity. He wrote short stories first of all, and then left them for the world of children. He writes stories like the points of pins, which prick sharply and penetrate quickly. He has made the world of stories rather like successive blows on the outer crust of the Arab mind, in the hope that it will wake up from its unconsciousness. The poet Muhammad Al Maghut has said of him, "He is a blacksmith. At times he strikes against deaf hardness and flowers of embers pour out, and repeatedly beats on the embers of the language. For nearly half a century, Zakaria Tamer has been weaving a special texture of story writing for Arabic literature. Inasmuch as he was rebellious, harsh and fierce, to that extent he went far in artistic professionalism, so that it seems he has been able to confine the storm within a framework."

His partner in winning the prize for story writing was the Egyptian writer Muhammad Al-Basati. His literature is of a unique type, and has set him apart among the generation of the 1960s who tirelessly persevered in writing and creativity without being bound by ready-made experience. He celebrates a world of marginal and forgotten people, to offer in image overflowing with humanity. He says, "I belong to a generation of writers which has witnessed events and upheavals which are rarely combined in a single lifetime. We have lived through four wars to liberate our country, and a revolution with all its aspirations. We have lived through it being broken, splintered, and retreating. Now we ive a nostalgia for a past which I do not think will return."

The prize for literary studies and criticism was won by an Iraqi emigrant, Dr. Muhsin Jasim Al-Musawi. He is a critic and an academic whose activities are well known throughout the Arab world. He has lived a full cultural life inside and outside Iraq, and has written several studies in Arabic and English about Arabic novels and poetry, and has criticized Orientalism. He wrote his famous book Falling into the Magic Circle about the effect of The Thousand and One Nights on English literature, and then The Society of a Thousand Nights. "The Arabs are a t4roubled nation," he says. "We are livng in a wretched phase of our lives. We have a wide culture and enormous wealth, but it is a nation torn apart by its tyranny and its inability to represent the spirit of the age and its real achievements."

Th last champion of the prize is Dr. Abdulwahhab Al-Masiri, who won it in the field of human and future studies. He is a great thinker. Suffice it from the harvest of his long journey in research and study that he crowned it by writing an important encyclopedia The Jews, Judaism and Zionism, which took him more than a quarter of a century of research.

This is regarded as one of the rare mammoth scholarly works which expose the terrorism and racism of Israel. In addition his work includes his studies of general civilizations and world literature, and finally children's literature. Muhammad Hasanein Haikal has said of him, "Since the 1960s Abdulwahhab Al-Masiri has taken upon himself a task which his mind, his heart and the most beautiful years of his life gave him. It is the task of studying Judaism and Jewish histories and identities, so that he almost became a living encyclopediaon the subject. A completely different experience."

A Record for the Arab Mind

Al-Arabi did not go to the prize-giving ceremony empty-handed. Its delegation carried a present with it, an exhibition consisting of more than 70 pictures which told the story of the development of the United Arab Emirates over 30 years. These included many rare photographs taken by photographers from Al-Arabi during their successive investigations.

The opening of the exhibition, entitled "The Emirates in the Eyes of Al-Arabi", was a real surprise. All those who were invited stood astonished in front of the photographs, particularly the older ones. They were taken back to the world of childhood, and began to recall places which had disappeared and faces which had been young at that time. Some of the old memory awoke full of nostalgia for what had passed, and astonishment at the transformation and development that had occurred in this part of the world. I place of ancient houses, tall towers rise up now, and instead of residential quarters asphalt roads stretch out, and that stone bridge which crossed the creek has been turned into a massive tall bridge.

Al-Arabi proved that it is a comprehensive record for our Arab world. It writes the history not only of intellectual and creative development but also of the development of construction. Many Arab cities have been born, grown and prospered under the lenses of Al-Arabi, just as many creative minds have grown and prospered on its pages. Perhaps this is the significance of the cultural achievement which pioneering magazine has carried out. Its Editor in Chief Dr. Sulaiman Al-Askari stood on the stage to receive the prize in the midst of a procession of prizewinners, and to hold the crystal statue on which is inscribed the emblem of the Foundation. In spite of the lenses of the cameras, he never forgot that this prize is merely a signpost on a long road, and that Al-Arabi magazine, like any living entity, must develop itself continually, or else it will become impotent. "The long history of the magazine must not make us forget that we are facing a new age that we must take by storm. Al-Arabi will not be content with its paper image, it is getting ready to occupy its site on the Internet. It is thus entering a new phase on a par with its first issue, namely the world of electronic publishing. This development will require a new treatment of its content and of the roel which it will play. Al-Arabi will develop the method of interactive reading between itself and its readers, so that it opens the way for them to exchange opinions on anything published in it. It will not only reach all its readers in all parts of the world, but it will also bear he burden of defending Arab culture in the midst of a sweeping current of the culture of globalization which is trying to devour all local cultures. The task of Al-Arabi will be to defend the spirit of the Arab nation and its cultural identity, and this is what we are striving to affirm.

Al-Awais Foundation's Statement on Al-Arabi Winning the Prize The statement by the Board of Trustees on Al-Awais Cultural Foundation on the award of the Prize for Cultural and Scientific Achievement in its present session to Al-Arabi magazine went to some length to explain this award which the magazine won out of 42 candidates from the fields of science, thought and literature, as well as a number of scientific and cultural establishments. The following is the text of the Board's statement:

" The Board's decision to grant Al-Arabi magazine this prize comes to crown and honor the progress of this magazine, which has extended for almost half a century of fruitful giving which has influenced Arabs at various levels, and its persistent work in consolidating the method of rational and scientific thinking our contemporary Arab culture. Since it was founded in December 1958, it has been helping to achieve the national dream, through the articles it publishes about Arab culture in its numerous literary and artistic branches and its part in dealing with the economic, social and scientific problems of Arab societies, and in making Arab readers aware of their homeland through investigations about all parts of the whole Arab homeland and its civilizations, its past and its history. It has truly become the Arab readers' window on the cultures, civilizations and geography of their homeland, just as it is a window on the civilizations of other peoples.

" Through many years of regular publication, Al-Arabi magazine has published diverse and comprehensive articles covering many Arab and international questions, civilizations, thought, the heritage, creativity, the arts, literature, the natural and technical sciences and household and family matters, as well as reviews of the latest Arabic and international books. It has also run cultural and intellectual competitions. Its publication of Al-Arabi Al-Saghir each month is a conscious contribution from it to building up the consciousness of the younger generation. It also contributes to teaching Arabic to non-Arabic speakers and conveying Arab script, calligraphy and its spirit to other peoples and nations.

" It is worthy of mention that Al-Arabi magazine, since it was first published, has devoted itself to innovation in everything related to this vital publication, its form, its intellectual material and its general content. This has made it keep pace with contemporary Arab people and with all the technical, intellectual and industrial development that occurs.

We must also mention Al-Arabi books, which are regarded as one of the great cultural achievements which it adds to its method of publication to serve Arab readers.

The Board of Trustees of Sultan Al-Awais Cultural Foundation believes that many of the candidates to win the Prize for Cultural and Scientific Achievement in the fields of knowledge deserve to win it. However the Board has decided to grant it this time to an institution. Al-Arabi magazine was at the forefront of these institutions which are candidates, because of the distinctive pioneering scientific and cultural spirit which it represents and the important vanguard role it has played in cultural and information work, which our Arab nation needs."

The statement dealt with the final report of the panel of judges for this session and the considerations which led it to grant the prize to the winning names. The following is the text of the report:

" On the basis of the aims of the Sultan Ibn Ali Al-Awais Cultural Foundation in serving Arab culture and Arab people of culture, and in accordance with the Foundation's traditions in its previous sessions,

" The panels of judges met in the period between 9 and 15 November 2001 under the chairmanship of Dr. Muhammad Al-Mutawa, member of the Board of Trustees, with the membership of the following:

Dr. Ahmad Al-Iraqi, Dr. Amina Ghusn, Dr.Baqir Al-Najjar, Dr. Jamil Matar, Dr. Hatim Al-Saqr, Dr. Hamdi Sayyid Al-Sakkout, Dr. Said Harib, Dr. Salahuddin Boujad, Dr. Abdullah Ahmad Al-Muhanna, Dr. Ali Abbas Alwan, Dr. Fakhruddin Qabaro, and Dr. Walid Saif.


Muhammad Al-Munsi Qandil

Ministers, ambassadors, writers and thinkers were all guests at Al-Awais Foundation's prize-giving ceremony

A certificate of appreciation on Al-Arabi winning the prize for cultural achievement

Dubai Creek: a combination of people, history and a meeting between commercial and cultural prosperity

Al-Awais Cultural Foundation's building, to which the finishing touches are being added. It will be the headquarters for managing the Foundation, an amply provided library, a cultural café and a meeting hall.

Abdulhamid Ahmad, the well-known story writer from the Emirates and Secretary-General of Al-Awais Foundation

Abdulrahman Al-Awais, member of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation

The center of the city of Dubai, where the features of modern architecture are embodied in everything, even its mosques

Dr. Sulaiman Al-Askari - Kuwait The Prize for Cultural Achievement for Al-Arabi magazine

Qasim Haddad - Bahrain The Poetry Prize

Zakaria Tamer - Syria The Story Prize

Abdulghaffour Hussein, member of the Board of Trustees, delivers the speech for Al-Awais Foundation

Muhammad Al-Basati - Egypt The Story Prize

Dr, Abdulwahhab Al-Masiri - Egypt Prize for Human and Future Studies

Dr. Muhsin Jasim Al-Musawi Prize for Critical Studies

The opening of the photographic exhibition entitled "The Emirates in the Eyes of Al-Arabi"

Lebanese television broadcaster Reem Al-Samaidy visiting Al-Arabi's wxhibition

A commemorative statue in crystal, a gift from Al-Awais Foundation to Al-Arabi magazine

A safari in the desert of Dubai arranged by Al-Awais Foundation for the members of the delegations of writers and thinkers

The cover o the book which tells the story of Al-Arabi

Abdulilah Abdulqadir, a man of the theater and the Executive Director of the Foundation

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