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Real stories inspire — Words of wisdom

Ali Sulais has a way with words. This talent led him to participate in the iRead competition, where his work first received national acclaim.

Elements magazine|Marshall Katheder   |   Interviewee; Ali Sulais|

  • In 2015, Ali Sulais won the ‘Reader of the Year’ award as part of the iRead competition, hosted by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Ithra
  • The Ithra program focuses on developing participants’ writing and public speaking skills, as well as cultural exchange
  • Ithra brings together readers from across the Kingdom to celebrate the unique beauty of the Arabic language and the power of self-expression
  • Now a published author and Doctor of Psychology, Ali is still involved with Ithra, and returned to judge the 2020 iRead competition
  • Finding the right words is hard, but worth it.

    When writing is done well, each phrase forges fresh mental connections; as you read, your synapses fire, blazing new trails in the wilderness of your mind.

    “I’m striving to acquire the ability to embed ideas or questions that have been always critical to us all as human beings,” says Ali Sulais, a 25-year-old author and psychologist from the Eastern Province.

    “To achieve this, I’m reading a lot of philosophy — and many novels that animate philosophical ideas through stories.”

    But Ali says his original source of inspiration was closer to home: though he doesn’t hail from a literary family, he credits his grandmother as his muse.

    “I remember my brothers, cousins and I, surrounding her, as she sat on the ground, cross-legged on a blanket. We used to ask her for another story each and every time.”

    Now, years later, Ali, the author of two collections of short stories and two novels, is the one being asked for more.

    Illustration from Ali’s story - A young Ali watches on

    In 2015, Ali won the iRead competition, an annual contest hosted by Ithra, formally known as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture.

    “Each and every day at iRead was a new experience and a new level of excitement. I didn't expect that  reading can be a lifestyle rather than an action,” Ali says. “It was life-changing and unforgettable.”

    Each year since its inception in 2013, primary, elementary, secondary, and university students apply to iRead. The applicants are first prompted to provide a critical review of a literary work. These entries are then whittled down to around 200. After each of these students is interviewed at one of the regional Ithra hubs (located in Riyadh, Dammam, and Jeddah), 40 finalists are selected.

    These finalists then attend a three-week program in Dhahran at the Ithra center, a cultural facility that includes lecture halls, a theater, a library and a cinema. While Ithra hosts several similar national competitions, this event focuses on reading, creative writing, research methodology, and critical thinking.

    At the end of the iRead program, an academic and cultural panel selects 10 finalists to compete at the closing ceremony with a live presentation.

    The winner is named “Reader of the Year.”

    “Ithra feels like a dream - or heaven - for a reader. It’s a place where you are surrounded by great minds, authors and books.”

    Ali Sulais, Author

    Ali was a published author prior to joining iRead — his first novel, AlHarbawat, was published in 2010, while he was still a teenager.

    It was during iRead that Ali was given a platform to explore new topics, challenge himself, and allow himself to be challenged by others. "iRead improved my skills and deepened my readers as a reader first, and then as a writer," he said.

    During iRead, students are provided with access to varied media, such as film, music, theater and literature, as well as funding and support to develop the artistic project of their choice. This gives them the opportunity to explore and discuss different lenses and perspectives with each other.

    “That’s the interesting part of it! You might enter the program not knowing what your interests are. And then, as you’re learning about all these different things, you start to also realize new things about yourself. Things you didn’t know about who you are.”

    The program helps to establish a network of like-minded readers and critical thinkers that can continue well after the competition is concluded. Ali is still in touch with the friends he made at Ithra –he says they helped him discover his "true self."

    “All of us are interested in books and reading and some topics like philosophy and literature,” he says. “It is a little difficult to find companions in this field.”

    “My experience at Ithra has changed my perspective on many things in life,” says Ali. “iRead was a great challenge to my previous ideas and thoughts. I left [the program] with new, deeper ways to look at things. I was also introduced to new fields to read about, by our mentors, other readers and guests.”

    Ali continues to give back to this community and joined the judging panel to evaluate the final students for iRead 2020, where he helped select the eventual winner from among the initial 13,000 initial applications.

    “Working currently as a psychologist, I am trying to make use of storytelling as a tool to better explore and understand the complexity of human beings, and then to invest this knowledge in improving my future projects,” says Ali.

    The competition's first iteration was in 2013, and it has run every year since then, engaging more than 50,000 participants in that time. The competition has evolved in the six editions since its launch: The final show is now broadcast online live – significantly expanding its reach: iRead is now expected to reach more than 200,000 students by 2022.

    “It's becoming a national activity that everybody is looking at with a sense of pride,” Ali says.

    “[Saudi Arabia] is quite a large country. When you dig deeper, you find people from different regions – people from the west, people from north or south – have totally different sets of cultures and traditions and things like this. But iRead was a national competition, which gave us a platform to meet with people from all over the country; it was my first encounter with people from many areas around the country that I've never been to before.”

    Ali emphasizes that iRead is about more than encouraging young people to dive into a book. Rather, he says that bringing different communities in the Kingdom together, to share their ideas and sharpen their talent, is the most fruitful aspect of the program.

    “[The program] provided me with a great network of friends and readers from all over the country,” he says. “And that cultural connection is everything.”

    Watch Ali's story


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