27 October, 2016
The Arab Reading Challenge: A Meeting of Minds
Monday the 24th of October 2016 saw the finals and awards ceremony for the Arab Reading Challenge take place in Dubai, UAE. The Challenge was a year-round effort that saw a reading competition held across the Middle East and further afield which resulted in over 150 million books being read by some 3.5 million children. The competition, launched by Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2015 brought together students in over 20 countries and 30,000 schools.
Each student recorded a summary of the books they had read using a series of colour coded ‘passports’ – each passport represented ten books read. By finishing all five coloured passports, students entered the challenge. Each participating country held national finals and awarded a winner. In October 2016, the winners were flown to Dubai to compete for the top prize.
In all, some $3 million in prizes were awarded to participants in the challenge, including awards of resources and bursaries for children, families, faculty and schools. The winning school, awarded for its work in encouraging reading outside school hours, was in Nablus, Palestine and was awarded $1 million towards facilities and resources for the school. The winning student, seven-year-old Mohammed Farah from Algeria, won $100,000 towards his educational costs and a cash prize of $50,000 awarded to his family.
The Challenge touched hearts across the Middle East and not only created a remarkable focus on reading in Arabic but also brought to light many remarkable stories of courage, perseverance and achievements in the face of hardship.
It prompted prominent thinker and novelist Paulo Coelho to write a letter to Sheikh Mohammed in which he praised the challenge. “Reading is indeed the fundamental approach to uplifting any society out of its miseries, whatever they are,” Coelho noted. “It is the first step on the path toward a positive change and is a fundamental building block of a bright future.”
Sheikh Mohammed wrote back, “I am optimistic, Paulo, about this generation. I am optimistic about the spirit of determination that I saw, in the face of challenges. I am optimistic about the future, as it flourishes under the mantle of books.”
The text of both letters is given here in full:
A letter to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid
Dear Sheikh Mohammed,
I always wondered about the secret of life. Yet, like many people before me and many yet to come, the more I ponder on this amazing gift bestowed upon us, the more elusive the answer seems to become. Still, this has not dissuaded me from pursuing this issue further, as I remain motivated to read and learn as much as possible about the world around me. While some may deem such a pursuit futile, I am a strong believer that greater knowledge and understanding makes a person a better human being. In addition, my search for the answer to the question about the meaning of life has led me to the realization that my mission in life is to write!
Attempting to uncover one’s purpose is probably one of the most difficult journeys in life, and maybe it is the only adventure that gives us a real value. According to the prevalent wisdom, this can be achieved through reading or experimenting. While both options are not available to each individual, as some have limited means for experimentation and exploration of the world around them, everyone should be given the chance to read.
I once read the proverb, “you cannot hide perfume and knowledge,” which I believe is an Arabic one. I would like to take the liberty to expound upon it by saying that reading is the perfume of knowledge, for only readers’ fragrance permeates every place they visit. They are the flowers that not only people can enjoy for their scent and beauty, for they also conjure a sense of wonder and happiness without an apparent reason.
I thus really admire the Arab Reading Challenge you have established, for it sends a powerful message to the Arab world and the entire world about the importance of reading and learning. Your noble actions convey your attitude toward the injustices and inequalities in this world. Reading is indeed the fundamental approach to uplifting any society out of its miseries, whatever they are. It is the first step on the path toward a positive change and is a fundamental building block of a bright future.
I have been influenced by many people, one of whom is Jorge Luis Borges, who once said: “Let others pride themselves about how many pages they have written; I'd rather boast about the ones I've read.” I concur with Borges, in that knowledge is not reflected by the number of books in the bookstores, but rather by how many people read them and how much of what they have read they truly comprehend. We become much better people if we allow books to change us and use that knowledge to give back to life.
I also greatly admire Ibn Arabi, who said: “A vessel that is not powered by a wind from within is a poor one.”
I can confidently say that your actions have prompted the UAE and the Arab world to start creating your own destiny. By riding the vessels of knowledge, powered by the wind of reading, you will soon anchor on the shores of a very bright and prosperous future.
Allow me to congratulate you, the winners and all the participants in this amazing endeavor. I look forward to your future initiatives, as I am sure that they will bring the real value to books in the twenty first century.
Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
A Letter to Paulo Coelho
“There is no future without books”
My friend, Paulo Coelho:
I have reflected on your message, and on your experience, and I have pondered the conclusions you reached: that the secrets of life and of self-discovery are revealed to those who abide by two rules and two rules only – to read and then, having read, to gain experience.
We have a message and experience that I wish to share with you. The message is that there is no future without books. This message, founded on a millennium of experience, is a great truth.
We have experienced a time when the people of our region focused on books. At that time, we were pioneers, leaders, open to all cultures. We became a beacon for humanity, and paved the way for the European Renaissance. Did you know, Paulo, that in the 9th century, our region had over 100 publishing houses on the outskirts of Baghdad alone? Those publishing houses published thousands of books. They were also home to more than just publishers; they were cultural hubs where scientists, researchers, intellectuals and translators from myriad religions, civilisations and walks of life gathered to share ideas and debate. We also had a ‘House of Wisdom’, which housed over a million books, and where hundreds of writers and thinkers lived. When its life was centred around books, Baghdad was, my friend, a beacon in the worlds of astronomy, medicine, mathematics and philosophy. Where is Baghdad today?
I do not want to dwell too long on mentioning the profusion of other libraries; the libraries in Alexandria, Cairo, Andalusia, and Morocco. But what I do want to say is that we have learned a clear lesson: there is no future without books; no enlightenment or tolerance or co-existence, without books; no creativity or innovation or invention without books; no economic prosperity or pioneering or leadership, without books.
My dear friend, I am still optimistic. Did you hear the story of the Moroccan girl, Kothar? She was diagnosed with cancer three days after joining the Arab Reading Challenge. It motivated her to read 166 books in only a few months. Or the Jordanian girl, Rama, who entered the Challenge? Born blind, she couldn’t find books in braille so she leaned on her friend, who could only see with one eye; the girls together read many books, with one eye only. I have heard the stories of many contestants in the Arab Reading Challenge, which saw over 3.5 million students participate.
I am optimistic, Paulo, about this generation. I am optimistic about the spirit of determination that I saw, in the face of challenges. I am optimistic about the future, as it flourishes under the mantle of books.
Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum