International contestants for the Community Champions Award at Mohammed bin Rashid Library in Dubai Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: Semi-finalists of the sixth Arab Reading Challenge, who are Arab students living in foreign countries, gathered at Mohammed bin Rashid Library in Dubai on Wednesday for a final interview, on the eve of the awarding of the Arab Reading Champion who will be announced on Thursday, November 10.

They came from various parts of the world – from Europe, North America, Asia – all vying for top honours in the largest-ever Arab literacy initiative launched in 2015 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The awarding ceremony, which will be held in-person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, will take place on Thursday at Dubai Opera, and the total prize to be given is Dh1.9 million, divided into Dh1 million for the best school, Dh500,000 for the first champion, Dh300,000 for the outstanding supervisor, and Dh100,000 for the community champion (a category for Arab students living in non-Arab countries).

Globally, over 22 million students from 92,000 schools participated this year Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Millions of youth

Over 22 million students from 92,000 schools participated this year. Sheikh Mohammed had earlier tweeted: “Millions of Arab youth rush to read 50 books every year, which is a push to a better future for all of us... Since its launch in 2015, the Arab Reading Challenge has attracted the participation of nearly 79 million students. They are the beacon of knowledge that will drive our development in the coming decades.”

Sheikh Mohammed also underscored Arab Reading Challenge is the largest and most successful investment in Arab minds, to regain the glories of the Arab civilisation, by creating new generations that are capable of advancing their societies.

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Meet the readers

On Wednesday, Gulf News spoke to some participating Arab students living in foreign countries. 

Habiba Mousa Eid, 9, representing New Zealand

Nine-year old Habiba Mousa Eid is a first-time participant in the Arab Reading Challenge, representing New Zealand in the category for Arab students living in foreign countries.

Habiba with her mother Rehab Abdelmoniem Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Habiba was born in Egypt and her parents moved to New Zealand when she was five. She is now a Grade 5 student, attending an English-speaking school but her mother-tongue is Arabic.

She is fluent in both Arabic and English. Her mother, Rehab Abdelmoniem, was her first teacher, who taught her how to read and write in Arabic.

For the reading challenge, Habiba said she has read around 50 Arabic books plus another 50 English books for a total of 100 titles in the past one year. Her favourite book is Saher Oz El Ageeb, orginally written in English and titled ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by author Lyman Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow.

Yousef Al Awadhi, 16, representing Italy

Kuwaiti teenager Yousef Al Awadhi is an 11th grade student at Marymount International of Rome. His father, who is working in the petroleum industry for the Kuwaiti government, brought the family to Italy five years ago.

Yousef Al Awadhi Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Yousef is fluent in Arabic, English and Italian. He is representing Italy and this is also his first time to participate in the reading challenge. He said he became an avid only five years ago.

He told Gulf News: “I wanted to understand global history and politics. I also wanted to learn more about the Middle East and European history. I also read books in economics and finance.”

“For the competition, I’ve finished a total of 25 books in the past year alone. The more I read, the more I become curious about things, which led me to read more books. Reading is a rich source of knowledge and it helps us to understand the world more. That is why I also encourage young people like me to read more,” he added.

Maroua El Bakri, 11, representing Spain

Maroua El Bakri is a Grade 6 at Escuela Parque de las Aguas in Spain. She was born in Morocco and her family moved to Spain in 2015. Her mother tongue is Amazigh, a language indigenous to North Africa. She is also fluent in four languages, including Arabic, Spanish, French and Catalan.

Maroua with her father Abdelaziz El Bakri Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

For the Arab Reading Challenge, she told Gulf News, she had read a total of 65 books, mostly in Arabic and some were written in French, Spanish and Catalan. One of her early favourite books is titled Al Bajaat Al Mutawahesha (Wild Swan).

Maroua credits her father, Abdelaziz El Bakri, as her first teacher and language mentor, who taught her to read Arabic at the young age of two.

Her message to the youth: “Read and discover the rich Arab culture and history. Reading Arabic literature also helps us connect with our past, even though we live in other countries.

Sana Aziz, 11, representing UK

Sana Aziz is currently a Grade 7 student at Cardiff High School in Wales. She was born in Iraq but her family moved to UK when was 18 months old.

Sana Aziz with her mother Semaa Ismael Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Sana describes herself as an avid reader of books in Arabic and English. She said in the past year alone, she has finished over 25 fiction and non-fiction Arabic books, plus other books in English.

“It takes me around 3-5 days to finish a regular novel,” she told Gulf News, adding: “I love reading history, fantasy and YA (young adult) novels.”

Her mother, Semaa Ismael, was also her first teacher and the one who instilled in her the love for reading. As for her future career, she is planning of becoming either a scientist, pharmacologist or doctor someday.

Dora Alhalabi, 13, representing Norway

Dora Alhalabi is no stranger to Arab Reading Challenge, having participated in the competition since 2020.

Dora with her mother Tasneem Baadarani Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

She was born in Syria and her family moved to Norway in 2008. She is fluent in Arabic, Norwegian, English, and is now learning to speak Spanish.

Dora said she was six when she read her first Arabic book and since then she has finished over 600 books in Arabic, English and Norwegian.

Dora is currently a Grade 8 student at Tonning Skule in Norway. She was a finalist in the previous edition Community Champions Award and her aim is to finish in top place this year.