DUBAI: Since its foundation in 2010, the Khayrallah Center at North Carolina State University has pursued its mission to research, archive, and inform the public about the history of the Lebanese diaspora.
One of the center’s standout activities is celebrating Arab culture through the annual Khayrallah Prize, introduced in 2015.
“When you talk about the history of the community, culture is a central aspect of who they are, whether it is day-to-day culture, such as food, or high culture as we imagine it to be such as literature, poetry, and art,” center director, Dr. Akram Khater, told Arab News.
A native of Lebanon, he said: “We wanted to not only recognize but to encourage people to explore the idea of being in the diaspora artistically.”
For the 2020 edition of the prize – which received approximately 100 entries of visual art, plays, poetry, and film – two co-winners have been announced: The New York-based filmmaker Zayn Alexander, and Montreal-based poet and scholar Rula Jurdi Abisaab.
Born in Lebanon, Alexander submitted a 10-minute film, “Abroad,” which he stars in and is the first movie he has directed.
It tells the story of a Lebanese couple, Jad and Rania, who live in New York but are struggling to make it into the movie industry partly due to typecasting of Arab actors. Things take a serious turn when Jad decides to return to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, McGill University professor Abisaab’s Arabic novel, “In a Box of Light,” is centered on the theme of light and enlightenment.
Its protagonist is a young Lebanese woman who travels to New York to study filmmaking, encountering people of different backgrounds. Her relationship with an Iraqi man becomes central in her life but is problematic for her family back in a Lebanese village.
Khater noted that the winners’ individual works met the standard of the prize’s ethos.
“We’re looking for something that not only shows a high level of skill in their craft but also material that speaks to the themes of diaspora and immigration, exploring them with honesty, fresh eyes, and depth,” he added.
Both recipients will share the $10,000 prize money. Due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, 2020 was a challenging year for artistic communities around the world, which is why the Khayrallah Prize is a commendable effort to provide some financial help for artistic practitioners.
In normal circumstances, the prize winner would be invited to present their work at a ceremony in Beirut’s Sursock Museum. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a virtual event was expected to be held.