His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai with Arab Reading Challenge champion Sham Al Bakour in Dubai on Thursday. Image Credit: WAM

Dubai: The sixth edition of the Arab Reading Challenge Awards at the magnificent Dubai Opera on Thursday turned out to be one of the most moving ceremonies that Dubai has ever witnessed with the seven-year-old champion, the youngest ever, stealing the show with her riveting life story, even as another participant touched hearts with a stirring presentation.

Moroccan Mariam Amjoun, the winner of the 2018 Arab Reading Challenge, moved His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to tears when she read out an extract from his book My Story, dedicated to his mother.

Equally gripping was the moment when this year’s champion, Sham Al Bakour from Syria, received her award from His Highness, her tiny frame belying her brutal past.

As the girl’s mother Manal Iter said in a video ahead of the presentation, “Sham herself is a story.”

It turns out that Sham lost her father in a horrific car explosion in war-torn Syria’s Aleppo in December 2015, when she was just six months old. She also sustained injuries with shards of broken glass in her head but survived along with her mother.

“We knew about the death of my husband Mohammed just 15 minutes after the car exploded,” said Manal.

Beating the odds

A born winner, Sham wowed audiences as the video went on to show how she literally rose from the rubble, beat the odds to become an avid reader and defeated 61,000 participants to represent Syria in the reading challenge.

As Sheikh Mohammed said, “The Arab Reading Challenge is the greatest gift the UAE could present to the millions of Arab youth, because reading is the key to the future.”

Lina Hamai, Principal of Sobhi Daya School where Sham studies in Grade 1, said: “Sham is a little leader, who can do whatever she is guided to do.”

Allam Omari, supervisor at the school, spoke of how she has the ability to read and tell stories that she reads in a captivating way.

Touching upon the first chapter from the story “Little Women”, Sham read out a letter from her father saying that he misses his family a lot but cannot come to see them because he is on the frontlines of the war.

“When I read stories, I see they are full of personalities,” Sham said.

Sham also sang in the video, paying rich tributes to her mother: “My Mother is paradise. She taught me all the fundamentals. She is a Kaaba...”

When she was asked whom she would give the prize if she won the competition, Sham said she would give it to her mother.

A delighted Manal said, “Just seeing her laugh is enough for me.”

The coordinator of Syria’s reading challenge initiative, Ali Abbas, said, “When I see Sham, I see Syria in her eyes after 20 years. I see the future of Syria.”

Syria’s Minister of Education also appeared in the video saying Sham is very creative and has wonderful skills.


She was received by the minister at his office after she won the competition in Syria where she defeated 61,000 participants to represent her home country in the Arab Reading Challenge and emerge the winner in Dubai on Thursday.

The other winners

Finishing in second and third place at the challenge were Adam Al Qasimi from Tunisia and Rashid Al Khateeb from Jordan. A total of Dh1.9 million in prize money was awarded. Besides the Dh500,000 for Sham, Dh1 million went to the best school Al Mokhtar School from Morocco, Dh300,000 for the best supervisor