Dubai: 7-year-old who nearly died in Syrian war defies odds to be crowned Arab reading champion

Ceremony features reading from Sheikh Mohammed's book 'My Story' in which he writes about his mother


Lamya Tawfik

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Published: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 7:14 PM

Last updated: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 9:42 PM

Sham Al Bakour was just 6 months old when she nearly died in Syria. On Thursday, the tiny 7-year-old stood tall as she was crowned the Arab reading champion in Dubai, taking home Dh500,000.

Sham has indeed come a long way from that tragic day in her war-ravaged homeland when a missile hit the car she was travelling in with her father, killing him on the spot. She, however, survived to tell her tale.

And at the grand finale of the Arab Reading Challenge at the magnificent Dubai Opera, she shone brightest from among 22.27 million participants from 44 countries, as she picked up the coveted award at the hands of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Sham, who read 70 books to win the competition, said: “I love reading because there’s so much that you can learn so that we can be successful. I invite all children to take part in this competition because it is very rewarding.”

When the jury asked her which book she read more than once, Sham said: “Reading a book three times is better than reading three books once. A book that should be read repeatedly is one which talks about the life of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) because of the teachings in it which we can learn from and apply in our lives.”

Her mother Manal Mattar, a constant source of strength and encouragement for Sham, said: “I wanted her to grow up strong so that she would never be overcome with sadness. I wanted her to know that she is unique,” she said. “I want her to have an impact in whatever she does in life,” added Manal.

Adam Al Qassimi from Tunisia was second in the reading challenge, while Rashid Al Khatib from Jordan ranked third, receiving cash prizes of Dh100,000, and Dh70,000 respectively, at the first in-person reading challenge awards since the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the occasion, Sheikh Mohammed, tweeted “We concluded today the Arab Reading Challenge. A competition in which 22 million students from 44 countries took part, each reading 50 books during the academic year. The winner this year is Sham Al Bakour from our beloved Syria. Syria the land of civilization, language, culture. Syria the land of science, scholars and history.”

In another tweet, the Dubai Ruler said: "The Arab Reading Challenge is a challenge to build a civilisation that starts from minds that are enlightened through books. It's a challenge for us all to follow the first divine instruction: 'read'. Our goal is to have a reader in every house. We cannot build a better future for our Arab youth without reading and knowledge."

Sheikh Mohammed said that civilization begins with enlightenment and reading enlightens the mind and the path towards a better future for Arab generations. “The Arab Reading Challenge is the greatest gift the UAE could present to the millions of Arab youth, because reading is the key to the future,” he said.

Other award winners on the night

During the closing ceremony, three other awards were presented. Mokhtar Gazoulit school from Morocco was chosen for the Best School Award from among 92,583 participating schools.

The Al Tarbiyah Al Ahliyah Intermediate and Secondary Private Schools from Saudi Arabia won the second place, receiving a prize of Dh500,000, while the Al Ahed Al Zaher Secondary School from Bahrain came in third winning a prize of Dh300,000.

The Outstanding Supervisor award went to Nour Al Jabbour from Jordan who was selected out of 126,061 supervisors, while Nada Al Sattari, 13, was crowned the Community Champion. The award recognises a reading stalwart from students living in non-Arab countries. Marwa Al Bakri from Spain was second, taking home Dh70,000, while Nadia Al Bahnasi from Austria came in third for a price of Dh30,000.

Nada, a Palestinian living in Belgium, said it all felt like a dream: “I’m so grateful! When they called out my name, I thought I was in a dream, I didn’t believe it.

"When I get back to Belgium, I want to help in building a school called “The Dream” to support the teaching of Arabic in a fun way. I also want to support the refurbishing of my grandfather’s library in Palestine.”

One of the poignant moments of the evening came when Maryam Amjoun, winner of the Arab Reading Challenge 2018 read excerpts from Sheikh Mohammed's book “My Story” in which he writes about his mother Sheikha Latifa bint Hamdan. His Highness was moved to tears by her moving rendition.

Ceremony highlights

Other highlights of the evening included Egyptian singer Abu and young singer Mustafa Kadoura singing a special song titled ‘Reading is Light’ while Palestinian singer Mohammad Assaf sang a song titled ‘Read and Challenge Illiteracy’.

The ceremony included the ‘National Anthem of Arab Countries’ operetta, which featured artists from different Arab countries singing selected clips from the national anthems of Arab countries.

The sixth edition of the Arab Reading Challenge – the biggest in its history - has witnessed a 536 per cent growth in the number of participants compared to the first edition.

The competition, organized by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, offers a prize of 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.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of The Executive Council of Dubai; and Lieutenant-General Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, also participated in honouring the winners, in the presence of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairperson of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority; and Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, Secretary General of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives.


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