Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

Arab Reading Challenge reality show aims to foster love of literature among children

The eight-episode series follows 16 children from the Arab world competing for a Dh500,000 grand prize by reading, summarising and analysing 50 Arabic books of their choice
Muna Al Kendi (L), Secretary General Arab Reading Challenge, and Shahad Ballan (R), TV presenter at MBC, announce the Arab Reading Challenge Show. Antonie Robertson / The National

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Agatha Christie and Saud Alsanousi are some of the authors Jumana Al Malki has read to prepare for a new reality show.

The Saudi Arabian pupil is one of more than a dozen children who will use her literary prowess to win votes and a share of Dh11 million in prize money on MBC’s newest series, the Arab Reading Challenge Show.

The eight-episode series follows 16 children from the Arab world competing for a Dh500,000 grand prize by reading, summarising and analysing 50 Arabic books of their choice.

About 13.5 million children from Year 1 to Year 12 participated in last year’s Arab Reading Challenge. Finalists advanced through school, regional and national competitions before they arrived in Dubai in late August. Contestants progress by answering questions about characters, theme and language before a jury of esteemed Arabic literary judges. Contestants will be judged on comprehension, articulation of the Arabic language, teamwork, critical thinking, analytical skills and creative expression.

The challenge was launched in 2016 by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to spur Arabic reading and pupils from 62,000 schools in 49 countries participated this year.

It is the first time the competition will be televised. The first one-hour show will air on MBC on Friday, September 27. The programme will run for eight weeks.

“Before, nobody could see the talent inside the children, what they know, what they can give, so we decided to shift the final challenges to television,” said Muna Al Kindi, the Secretary General of the Arabic Reading Challenge. “Arabic is really a huge art and we need to deliver that message.”

Literary Arabic, known as Fus-ha, is a language far more complicated than the spoken Arabic used in everyday life, usually taught in an outdated manner and seldom heard by children outside the mosque or classroom.

Governments across the Gulf have identified Arabic literacy as a priority issue. In July, Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council established the Arabic Language Authority to advance the use of Arabic in daily life.

Governments have successfully turned to television in the past to win hearts where the classroom failed. Reality TV programmes featuring Arabic poetry, like Million’s Poet and Prince of Poets, ignited interest in traditional poetry with audiences of 15 million viewers tuning in weekly to watch contestants drop lyrical couplets on the politics of the day and battle each other in poetry duels.

“It’s a responsibility for television to shed light on talents, on our heritage as Arabs, on our mother tongue,” said Shahed Ballan, the show’s presenter. “It’s such a rich and beautiful language that we should cherish it and teach it to our children and grandchildren and pass it on.”

This year’s final 16 contestants, representing 14 Arab countries, arrived in Dubai a month ago with their families and quickly settled into a life of study at Dubai Future Academy.

“Now they are exactly like brothers and sisters,” said Ms Al Kindi. “One mother said I came with one child only but now I have 16 children.”

Only five bookworms will progress to the live final at Dubai Opera in November, where TV viewers will be vote for the next Arab Reading Champion.

Additional cash prizes will be awarded to best school, best teacher and all semi-finalists.

Last year, the competition extended entries to Arabic readers outside the Arab world for the first time. Arabic expatriate children can compete and represent their country of residency.

“Our target is basically to present these heroes as role models for other kids,” said Ms Ballan. “The have reached where they are today because they have put in so much effort and so much work. It’s a message to every child around the Middle East, if you start with one book you can be where these heroes are today.”

Updated: September 18, 2019 06:35 PM