Opening speech by Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, for the UNESCO Sharjah Prize’s 10th ceremony

Excellency Mr Abdullah Alneaimi, Permanent Delegate of the United Arab Emirates to UNESCO,

Director-General of the Department of Culture and Information of the Government of Sharjah

Madam President of the International Jury,


Ladies and Gentlemen prizewinners,

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues,

I should like to welcome you all to UNESCO on the occasion of this exceptional ceremony.

The ceremony is exceptional on several counts. First of all, we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of this prize for Arab culture. In one decade, it has established itself as a major event on the world cultural calendar. We owe this to the generosity and ambition of His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, Governor of the Emirate of Sharjah and founder of the Prize. We also owe it to the high standards of the International Jury, which I salute.

This evening, I am thinking of all the writers, translators, philosophers, sociologists, historians, artists, publishers and theatre directors from different backgrounds who have stepped up to this stage to bear witness to the vitality and diversity of Arab culture. Each winner, by exploring in their manner a singular aspect of this culture, in fact emphasizes what binds cultures together in a universal dialogue.

This event also coincides with the first anniversary of the early days of the Arab Spring. We must remember that the slightest aspiration for a better life, for dignity, freedom and the emancipation of peoples is embodied by a culture and a language. Culture, literature and the arts do not distance us from the world; they help us to understand and forge it as we wish. A cultural renewal accompanies civic renewal. This message concerns all of humanity and drives us forward.

UNESCO is a meeting place for all such cultures, and I am delighted at this lively exchange between confirmed artists and new forms of artistic expression in the Arab world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a an honour to present this evening the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture to two eminent personalities – Mr Elias Khoury, from Lebanon, and Mr João Baptista de Medeiros Vargens, from Brazil. Both will come on stage in a few moments, but I think we can already give them a round of applause.

Elias Khoury is an intellectual and writer of global renown, whose work has touched women and men across the world. His novel, Gate of the Sun, about the fate of Palestinian refugees, has been translated into Hebrew and reflects his deep commitment to fight all stereotypes, to show that the “Other” is but a reflection of “I”.’ His work is imbued with the profoundly humanist sense of the inherent dignity of every individual. Comfortable in many cultures without being a prisoner of any single one, Elias Khoury is always seeking to defend the human rights of all and to show the importance of experience and memory for all cultures. It has guided his work to protect the great cultural heritage of his native city, Beirut. He is today one of the wisest observer of events taking place in the Arab world.

The work of João Baptista de Medeiros Vargens is guided by similar aspirations. His work has shed important, and I would say fascinating, light on the ties that link Brazilian, lusophone society with the Arab world. The result is a new map of linguistic interweaving, of deep exchange and of mutual enrichment between two cultural areas. This is the first time the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize rewards a personality from Latin America. I see this as further proof that intercultural dialogue knows no borders and that this dialogue is nourished by the tireless efforts of what we may call “travellers of the mind”.

In a world that seems to move more quickly every day, we need new forms of dialogue between cultures, we need new bridges of respect and understanding between peoples. Our diversity is a great strength and a foundation for peace – but this calls on us to work every day against forces that fragment humanity and to do everything to strengthen the values and ties we hold in common. 

The UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture is a major step in this effort.

I wish to thank once again Elias Khoury and João Baptista de Medeiros Vargens for their commitment to these goals.

I wish everyone here a wonderful evening.


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