Prize Winners 2015

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British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize 2015
Professor Yasir Suleiman, CBE, FRSE, FRCPE
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 for books published in 2014.  

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 which has come to be an eagerly anticipated annual event.  

We are also very appreciative of His Excellency Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah for continuing to take such an active interest in the Prize.  Shaikh Mubarak 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 in Kuwait of sponsoring culture, scholarship and innovation and of the Foundations’ role in this effort.  

The Panel of Judges for this year remained unchanged from the previous few years, and consisted of the following:

Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah;
Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and former Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce;
Professor Carole Hillenbrand, Professor Emerita at the University of Edinburgh;
Professor Charles Trip, Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London;
Mr Alistair Newton, former President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, Co-founder and Director of Alavan Business Advisory Ltd and consultant for Nomura International plc;
And myself.

Alistair Newton, who couldn’t join us tonight, will step down as a member of the Panel of Judges at the end of this cycle of the Prize. I wish to record my personal gratitude and the thanks of my fellow Judges to Alistair for being an excellent Judge and loyal friend of the Prize. We all wish him well for the future.

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 continues to be 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. 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 hard to ensure that the Prize continues to enjoy the high reputation in Middle Eastern Studies it so richly deserves.  

I am delighted 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 within 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. The judges were impressed with the quality of each and every review we received this year so I would like to extend my thanks to the many reviewers who took the time to produce such helpful reports.  

In this context, I would like to add 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 necessary commitment to continue to uphold the integrity of the Prize.

Since 1998 when the Prize had its debut appearance in Middle Eastern Studies, over 700 books have been submitted to the prize.  In its early years, the tally of books for the Prize was around 25 per year, but this number has increased steadily in recent years and once again, over fifty books were submitted for consideration this year.

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

Fifteen publishers submitted books, and again these included both university presses and independent publishers. We were pleased last year to receive submissions from more publishers than previously, and I am delighted that the number has increased still further this year.  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 is 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 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 prize-winners, I would like to mention a selection of books which the judges singled out for honourable mention.  I will announce these in alphabetical order by author.  

Frederick F Anscombe
State, Faith, and Nation in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Lands
Cambridge University Press

Our reviewer commented that this book is ‘a major accomplishment and a book that will prove to be a significant contribution to the fields of Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Balkan history’.  The author contributes ‘a breadth of perspective that few would be able to achieve’.  In short, the reviewer concludes that this is ‘an exceptional work, one that is both scholarly rigorous and clearly written.’

Gideon Avni
The Byzantine-Islamic Transition in Palestine: An Archaeological Approach
Oxford University Press

Our reviewer sees this as ‘a most impressive mix of micro- and macro-scholarship’.  The author ‘has a solid grasp of the theoretical debates that this controversial period has generated and an intuitive sense of how to distinguish those that matter from those that do not’.  In sum, our reviewer asserts that ‘this is a first-rate book: deep, original, erudite, wide-ranging, comprehensive, and written throughout in plain, effective, idiomatic English’.

Julia Phillips Cohen
Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and the Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era
Oxford University Press

This book receives the following comments from our reviewer:  ‘Extensively researched and well-organised, the book draws the reader in through its engaging style and pithy, psychologically incisive analyses’. It is seen as offering a ‘refreshingly nuanced and complex picture of Ottoman Sephardim’. The reviewer concludes: ‘Cohen’s excellent book sets the bar very high for future scholarship on Sephardi Jewry and opens new avenues of inquiry into the study of the late Ottoman Empire, whether viewed from the centre or the margins’.

Najam Haider
Shi'i Islam: An Introduction
Cambridge University Press

Despite being categorised as ‘an introduction’ this book draws praise from our reviewer. While acknowledging that this is not an original piece of research, the reviewer was impressed by the fact that the book ‘draws upon the best traditions and examples of research; it is an accurate reflection of the state of research in its field’.

Sara Scalenghe
Disability in the Ottoman World, 1500-1800
Cambridge University Press

So often, when a thesis is turned into a book, the end result is not as pleasing as one might expect.  This book is one of the exceptions that we receive at the Prize every year.  Our reviewer commented that ‘this is an excellent book [and that] it was a pleasure to read.  The book represents an excellent piece of sound scholarship’.  The reviewer continued: ‘Throughout the book the author makes intelligent and interesting use of modern medical research - being careful not to push too far in her use of such data to explain the past - and displays a clear engagement with and knowledge of secondary material’.  

Before moving to the winners themselves, I would like to make special mention of one book which the judges found almost impossible to categorise.  This is:

Sheila S Blair
Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art
Edinburgh University Press

Many of you will know that Sheila has already won the prize twice with previous books.  The judges had a lengthy discussion regarding eligibility, concluding that each book should be decided on merit alone.  Previous submission should not enter into the judgement.  This book impressed the judges tremendously, receiving comments from the reviewers such as:

One  reviewer commented that the book is commendable for ‘the breadth that it shows in discussing its subject within broader concerns’, while another reviewer expanded on this:  ‘The book has a special importance, demonstrating how the detailed study of a single object can illuminate a wide range of histories: stylistic, technological, social, political and economic’.  

One reviewer concluded that the book is ‘an immensely important book for students, academics and the lay-public alike.  It is written in an engaging and lively style’.  

From the praise received by the Blair book and the others receiving an Honourable Mention, 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:

Christina Riggs
Unwrapping Ancient Egypt

Our reviewer’s opening remark is as follows:  

‘My giving an A classification to Christina Riggs’ Unwrapping Ancient Egypt in all categories - including originality and contribution to the field as well as interest to a wider readership - indicates how impressed I am with this book.  It is a truly remarkable work’.

The reviewer continued: ‘Christina Riggs has made a fundamental contribution to Egyptological understanding which speaks to a wide range of disciplines and contexts in the modern world.  The final chapter, entitled ‘Sanctity, is designed to be uncomfortable reading because it problematizes much in modern museum practice and attitudes to the ancient world.  As a reminder of modern understanding and ethics this chapter is a salutary and effective conclusion to this outstanding book’.

I would like to invite Christina Riggs to accept her prize.

The second of our runner-up titles is:

Yonatan Mendel
The Creation of Israeli Arabic
Palgrave Macmillan

Our reviewer opens the review by stating: ‘This is an excellent study that sheds light on the ways in which the long history of Muslim-Jewish relations and the Arab-Israeli conflict have shaped Arabic language instruction in Jewish-Israeli society before 1948 and especially after the establishment of the State of Israel’.  

The reviewer continues: ‘Dr Mendel’s study is one of the best studies written on the topic in any language including Hebrew.  The ability of the author to use a wide range of primary sources in Hebrew and Arabic, even classified ones, and to study them without any bias have contributed to a ground-breaking publication which adds significantly to the existing scholarly research in the field’.

The reviewer concludes: ‘It is without any reservation that I recommend this book [as a winning entry] for the Prize’.

I would like to invite Yonatan Mendel to receive his prize.  

Our winning title this year is:

Pascal Menoret
Joy Riding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt
Cambridge University Press

Our reviewer opens the review by saying that: ‘Joy Riding in Riyadh is truly a joy to read [please forgive the pun].  Inspired by wide scholarship on youth and urbanisation, Menoret offers a unique contribution to the field.  His book is a great example of being close to the interlocutors and distant enough to capture their outlook’.  The reviewer continues ‘Moneret’s contemporary focus is enhanced by serious historical research on urbanisation projects and development over the last decades.  Menoret’s command of language and dialect makes his book an excellent contribution to local culture and youth sub-culture’.

The reviewer continued:

‘Menoret offers clear historical analysis of development projects that unpacks many myths about the merits of wide scale construction and destruction of the urban environment.  He also reflects on rural urban migration that has displaced thousands of Saudis who flood cities in search of wealth and jobs. The city turns to be an unfriendly environment where movement, assembly, and fun are controlled, surveyed and monitored’.  

This is a truly remarkable book.  So it is with great pleasure that I invite Pascal Menoret to accept the main prize.

Thank you.