Prize  Winners 2014

British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize 2014
Professor Yasir Suleiman, CBE
Chair, Panel of Judges, University of Cambridge

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests and Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the presentation of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize book prize for books published in 2013.  

I would like to start by offering my personal greetings and those of the Panel of Judges to His Excellency Mr Khalid Al Duwaisan, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Chairman of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. We are grateful to His Excellency for generously hosting the award-giving ceremony once again this year and for his continued support of the prize.  

We are also very appreciative of His Excellency Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah for continuing to take such an active interest in the Prize.  He has been involved since its inception, acting as judge and representative of the Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Sabah Foundation, which generously funds the Prize. In this respect, our Book Prize reflects the long-standing interest of Kuwait in sponsoring culture, scholarship and innovation and of the Foundations’ role in this effort.  

The Panel of Judges for this year consisted of the following (in alphabetical order):

Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah;
Mr Alistair Newton, former President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and Managing Director/Senior Political Analyst at Nomura International plc;
Professor Carole Hillenbrand, Professor Emerita at the University of Edinburgh;
Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and, until recently, Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce
Professor Charles Trip, Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London,
and myself.

As ever, I would like to offer my personal gratitude to Sir Roger, who was instrumental in setting up the prize in 1998 and who is now the longest serving member of the Panel of Judges.  Sir Roger’s continued commitment to the Prize reflects the esteem in which we all hold his judgement and I would like to thank him both for this and for the support he has given me personally.  I would also like to add my thanks to all the Judges for working so had to ensure that the Prize continues to enjoy the high reputation in Middle Eastern Studies it so richly deserves.  You may recall that not all the judges were able to attend the ceremony last year and were disappointed not to be able to do so.  I am delighted to say that they are all able to join us today.  

I am also very pleased indeed that the authors of the winning titles are able to join us to collect their prizes.  You will have an opportunity to speak to them once the announcement of the winners has been made.  Publishers of the winning titles have also provided us with some copies of the books for display purposes. We also have order forms which will be placed with the titles, should any of you wish to make a purchase!

The work of the Panel of Judges has consistently benefited from the support of Louise Haysey who has been at the administrative helm since the inception of the Prize. I want to thank Louise for being such an excellent colleague to work with in the administration of the Prize.

Assisting the Panel of Judges in their work are anonymous reviewers whose contribution is important in helping the Judges make their final selections. After long reflection following last year’s judges’ meeting, the judges came to the conclusion that some reviewers were giving generous, read inflated, gradings in their reviews.  Alastair Newton offered to re-design the assessment form in an attempt to eliminate this.  Alastair and Louise worked on this and we introduced a new form for this year’s prize.  I am delighted to say that the judges were impressed with the quality of each and every review we received – and this must be attributed, in no small part, to the change of format in the form.  So our thanks to Alastair for this.  

I would like to thank the reviewers for their assessments, and, in this context, to point out that the Judges read extensively and intensively to ensure that reviews are calibrated. This direct involvement is important to reach what the Judges consider to be informed decisions. This is a long and intensive process but it is a testament to the integrity of the Prize.

I would also like to mention here the judges have added a new rule to the administration of the prize. This is to clarify the position of the judges as authors.  The rule states that ‘Books authored or co-authored by a judge are not eligible for submission to the prize during the period in which he/she serves as a judge, or for a two year period thereafter’.  I should report here that Judges, including this one, have not asked for books to be entered to the prize when they have been serving on the panel of judges.  

Since 1998 when the Prize had its debut appearance in Middle Eastern Studies, over 650 books have been submitted to the prize.  In its early years, the tally of books for the Prize was around 23-28 per year, but this number has increased steadily in recent years and once again, almost fifty books were submitted for consideration this year.

As you will see from the books selected for special mention, the books we received this year again covered an incredibly wide range - the humanities and social sciences, including art and architecture, anthropology, history, international relations, language, law, politics and religion.

Fourteen publishers submitted books, including both university presses and independent publishers. We were particularly pleased this year to receive submissions from slightly more publishers than last year (when 12 publishers made submissions).  This is pleasing as we made a particular effort last year to extend publicity for the prize.  We were also very pleased to receive books from authors whose works have been submitted in the past, which again reflects the esteem in which the prize it held.  

Many reviewers made specific mention of the accessibility of the style of writing and the broad appeal of some of the titles.  One of the criteria on which books are assessed is by their ability to open up the area to a wider readership.  We were particularly pleased, therefore, to receive books which succeeded, and succeeded admirably, in so doing.

Before moving to the books selected by The Panel of Judges for honourable mention, and to the prize-winners themselves, I would like to mention a selection of books which impressed the judges, but did not reach the shortlist.  I have noted these in alphabetical order by author.  

Emarn El-Badawi
The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions

Our reviewer notes that ‘This book builds on the now substantial literature investigating the links between the Qur’an and Aramaic Biblical texts that has burgeoned in the wake of Christoph Luxenberg’s Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran (2007 = English tr. of German 2000 edition).  However, whereas Luxenberg’s focus is primarily on individual words and his approach heavily philological, El-Badawi casts his net wider, examining whole passages and phrases and looking at “general linguistic relationships” (p. 49) beyond the purely philological.  

His conclusion that the Qur’an is in dialogue with Aramaic Biblical texts is in line with recent publications by Gabriel Reynolds, Sidney Griffith, Holger Zellentin and others, but he demonstrates this by recourse to a much greater range of material than is the norm and relates examples to a thematic context.

Jorg Matthias Determann
Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East
IB Tauris

Our reviewer commented that the book is ‘a valuable contribution to understanding history in its political context in addition to analysing history as an academic subject written by specialists’.  The reviewer makes particular mention of the fact that the author uses ‘local histories that celebrate regional and local contributions to the formation of the state’.  In summary, ‘the book is written in a lucid style and is accessible to both an academic and lay audience.  It is unique in its subject matter and will no doubt become a source text for many future historians and those interested in the wider context of writing history in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East’.

Jacob Norris
Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905-1948
Oxford University Press

Our reviewer was impressed by the quality of the research commenting,

‘It is indeed very difficult to provide original monographs on mandatory Palestine. The period of British involvement in the land was examined from almost every possible angle and at times one felt every stone had been turned and every dimension had been explored.
This is what makes this a particular achievement.  [The book] offers a new global context for analysing that history (one which until now was only offered by economic historians)’.

From the positive comments on these submissions, we move to those selected for Honourable Mention:

Abdel Razzaq Takriti
Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976

In the words of our reviewer:

‘The author provided in this valuable book a thorough study of the Dhufar revolution
and the popular armed struggle by drawing on a wide range of archival and nearly lost oral sources, due to the age of the people involved. He succeeded in retrieving and revising an almost lost history of an epical moment in Omani history and Arab revolutions. In 10 chapters across 340 pages with supporting appendixes, Takriti was also successful in contextualizing the revolution within the revolutionary movements in the 1960s and the decolonization process that was spreading across the south within the realm of the 'Bandung spirit'.

And our reviewer concludes:

‘In sum the Monsoon Revolution is a valuable academic contribution to the fields of the history of Oman, Middle East and Gulf studies, British imperial history, anti-colonial history, revolutions and political theory. Its value is apparent to students, scholars and informed readers of the history of the region and the transnational anti-colonial and liberation movements. Takriti has achieved his aim of contributing to an 'appreciation of that struggle and the world to which it belonged'.

Paul Heck
Skepticism in Classical Islam

Our reviewer describes this work as being ‘Pathbreaking’ on Islamic theology that ‘traces the still little known theme [of speticism] in an erudite manner’.  

Jonathan M Bloom
The Minaret

This is a revised edition of a previously published work.  Such works would normally be excluded from consideration.  However, as our reviewer points out:

‘The book under review is a revised edition of an important reference work that was published in 1989 under the same title for Oxford University Press, but which went out of print too soon thereafter. This 2013 version is, however, very much more than a mere “second edition”; for in addition to streamlining his argument and updating his footnotes and bibliography, the author has expanded his book greatly with the inclusion of three new chapters. These chapters investigate the development of the minaret in geographical regions and historical periods not covered in the 1989 publication. Comprising “Part III” of the book, the new chapters do more than buttress the book’s main arguments, but give it an encyclopaedic scope and a thoroughly contemporary relevance.’

‘Lastly, it is an antidote to so much of what passes for scholarship in art history today. The author trades in facts; not fancy. He scrutinises the material culture and pores over the historical texts, alive to what the former can be said to say and what the latter do in fact say, as well as what they do not; his arguments follow.’

James E Montgomery
Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books

James Montgomery is a previous winner of the prize, so it comes as no surprise that our reviewer comments:

‘James E. Montgomery’s study must rank among the finest scholarly works on classical Arabic literature ever to have appeared in any language. I would in fact consider it to be the best I have come across.’

‘Montgomery’s book is not only a work of great scholarship. Between the lines the reader can sense the story of an intense, long and deeply personal quest. It is that of a modern, Western intellect undertaking everything in its power to encounter, comprehend and elucidate one of the most complex and creative minds of the Islamic Middle Ages. The resulting sense of drama informs the writing on every page and turns the book into a human document of the first order.’

From the praise received by these books, you will appreciate the quality of the books to which we are about to award a prize!

So with no further ado, I move to the winners:

This year, the judges awarded two Joint Runner Up prizes and one winning prize:

The first of the runners-up is:

Asma Afsaruddin
Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought
Oxford University Press

Our reviewer opens his report by stating that ‘This is one of the best books I have read on Jihad in a long time.’

The reviewer continues:
‘This breadth of scope makes this book a very good ready reference for anyone wanting to acquaint oneself with the ancient and modern debates on jihad. The value of the book is enhanced by the fact that the author provides the relevant Arabic texts in transliteration, thus making it easy for experts to check her interpretations.’

The reviewer concludes:

‘This is a great work, a genuine manifestation of erudition (‘ilm) as it should be.’

I would like to invite Professor Afsaruddin to collect her prize.

The second of our runner up titles is:

Remke Kruk
The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature
IB Tauris

Our reviewer notes that ‘This is a pioneering scholarly work of great importance but wide appeal, written clearly and simply (and, often, amusingly) so as to be accessible to the general reader.’  

‘The author does not confuse literary (or visual) representations with social reality, or posit a simple correlation between them.  She makes sparing but telling, critical use of relevant theory.  Her own long-standing and extremely broad knowledge of the Arabic epic genre enables her deftly to distill rambling and confusing narratives whose bulk and intricacy would baffle most readers; and thanks to her first-hand knowledge of the epics’ performance, she successfully conveys how oral story-tellers played to their audiences, and is able to some extent to reproduce the experience for her readers.’

‘This book puts a lifetime of profound scholarship at the service of the general reader and researchers alike.  Its unassuming diction, far from detracting from its erudition and critical maturity, serves to remind all its users that the study of this type of material requires the same standards of accuracy and seriousness (but also balance – and humour) as that of “high” culture, and is in every way of comparable significance.’

I invite Professor Kruk to collect her prize.

Our winning title this year is:

Lara Deeb & Mona Harb
Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi'ite South Beirut
Princeton University Press

Our reviewer opens the review by saying quite that:

‘Leisurely Islam is a superb book, one that surpasses most studies of contemporary Middle Eastern cities with its sensitivity, its aliveness to theoretical exposition, with the coherence and fluidity of its writing, and with its extraordinary contribution not only to scholarship but to our general understanding – both political and social – of what leisure might mean in the context of a given neighbourhood, what the politics of a neighbourhood are, and how youth participate in both quotidian and high-level politics of their time.’

‘The book is instructive for understanding the particular politics of Lebanon (Who are the people who support Hizbullah? What complex social relations and human lives does the term “Hizbullah stronghold” efface? What are the relationships between the youth in the Dahiya and the youth elsewhere in the city? How are sectarian lines drawn and maintained?), about youth politics today (How does the generational categories intersect with class and sect and gender?), and about what piety might mean in practice. In this latter instance, the book is perhaps most important. What it does is to show us the lived versions of piety rather than the one represented most often not only in mainstream media but also in scholarship. The piety and moral adherence in this book is supple, flexible, and bends to neoliberal and modern versions of economic and social life. That Deeb and Harb know their subject so well and provide such deep, rich, and detailed ethnographies and urban maps show us how impoverished a great deal of writing about faith and piety has become when it does not take account of the lived experiences of the pious subjects.’

‘I really do think this book is one of the best books that has come out in Middle East Studies this year and more deserving of the Kuwait prize than any other book I have reviewed for the Prize over the last few years.’

I would like to ask Professor Harb to accept the award on behalf of herself and Professor Deeb.  

Thank you.