Sheikh Mohammed has written an open letter to Paulo Coelho: “Did you know that in the 9th century, our region had over 100 publishing houses on the outskirts of Baghdad alone?” 

This week saw the finals of the Arab Reading Challenge – a competition sponsored by the UAE that saw 150 million books read by 3.5 million children across the Arabic speaking world in just a year.

Seven-year-old Mohammed Farah from Algeria was given Dhs367,000 toward his education and Dhs183,000 for his family after winning the competition – the primary student had read and summarised more than 50 books in a year. Meanwhile, a school in Nablus, Palestine, was given Dhs3.67 million for its facilities and resources for encouraging students to read outside of school hours.


H.H. Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, said the competition was all about making sure “the weapon of Arab nations was and will remain knowledge”. 

Reading about the challenge prompted prominent novelist and poet Paolo Coelho to write a letter to Sheikh Mohammed: “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.”

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“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.

“I once read the proverb, “you cannot hide perfume and knowledge,” which I believe is an Arabic one,” Coelho added.



Sheikh Mohammed replied to Coelho’s letter, starting with, “There is no future without books”.

“We have experienced a time when the people of our region focused on books,” Sheikh Mohammed said of the Arab World.

“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.”

Okay, we’re inspired now … off to charge our Kindle.

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Images: & Getty