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Don’t Be Seen Reading These Books on Planes! Faizah Shaheen’s Controversial Reading List

Malu  Halasa By Malu Halasa Published on November 19, 2016
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Faizah Shaheen

In July when I was finishing work on a new archive of Syrian uprising art for the British Museum – inspired by the political posters and artwork featured in our book Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline – Faizah Shaheen was detained by the police and questioned under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act for reading Syria Speaks on a plane. 

The transformation of an award-winning anthology of Syrian arts and culture into a jihadi phrasebook illustrates the climate of fear and racial profiling endemic in Britain today. 

By the time Shaheen heard about our book featuring the work of over fifty Syrian artists and writers at the Bradford Literature Festival in February and purchased a copy, Syria Speaks had already made friends in high places. A 25,000-euro grant from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development made the book possible. Before publication, it won an English PEN Promotes! prize. An additional £19,000 was provided by Arts Council England for a UK book tour, which went on to hold readings, short film screenings and panel discussions in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Madrid and Washington DC. 

Syria Speaks was one of several titles Shaheen, a psychotherapist, considered taking on her honeymoon. On the outgoing flight to Turkey she was not asked about book she was reading as new husband Chris napped in the seat beside her. When they landed in Marmaris they were submitted to what was then explained to them as a “random check.” Upon her return to the UK, she was detained and questioned by the authorities for “suspicious behavior.”

Shaheen doesn’t look like other British Muslims who have been detained, questioned and in some instances taken off flights. She doesn’t wear a hijab; on the plane she wasn’t speaking or texting in Arabic. However like many of them she is well educated. Articulate, forthright, she has a charming Glaswegian accent. At the Free Word Centre in October, she wore blue nail varnish. 

The clue to her detainment came when the officers asked about the book she was reading on the outbound flight, which had been described, by the Thomson cabin crew, as a “Syrian phrasebook.” 

An accusation that surprised Shaheen. “Not only does this description show a shocking amount of ignorance in the sense that ‘Syrian’ is not a language, it also demonstrates that [the member of the cabin crew] was drawing conclusions based on no evidence.” 

James Nunn, who designed the cover of Syria Speaks, took the cover image from a political poster by the anonymous Syrian artists collective Alshaab asori aref tarekh (The Syrian People Know Their Way). A boy in a keffiyeh, with a slingshot, graffitied by Mohamed Tayeb, after the shelling and starvation of Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, had been reproduced by Alshaab on a political poster protesting a massacre committed by the regime in Baba Amr – the name of the district in Homs – which appears in Arabic on the poster and on our book’s cover. This poster, downloaded and printed by activists for use during the mass street demonstrations in Syria, was one of 68 collected by the British Museum. The ties between the Syrian street in art and revolution were explored in the installation of Syrian graffiti stencils, with Syrian artist Ibrahim Fakhri from our book, included in 2015 Victoria and Albert Museum’s Disobedient Objects, an exhibition seen by 400,000 people, including Madonna.

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The Syrian People Knows Its Way: This is civil disobedience. There’s no excuse for silence anymore, circa 2012

Suppose Madonna or Theresa May were caught reading Syria Speaks on a plane, would they have been detained and questioned under Schedule 7? Shaheen believes rightly so that she was a victim of discrimination and racial profiling by Thomson. When she demanded an apology from the airline, she waited two months for them to reply.  Their email came the day after she appeared on Channel Four News, and they weren’t apologizing. 

“While we appreciate that in this instance you may have felt that over caution had been exercised, the safety of our customers and employees is of primary importance to us and like all airlines, our crew undergoes general safety and security awareness training on a regular basis. 

“As part of this they are trained to report any concerns they may have had as a precaution and are encouraged to be vigilant and share any information or questions they have with the relevant authorities, who would then act as they see appropriate.”

Shaheen remained unconvinced. “Incidents like this seem to be occurring frequently. Legislation is misused and innocent people behaving in entirely normal ways are branded ‘suspicious.’ We must challenge this worrying trend before it becomes even more widespread.”

Her objections also draw from her professional experiences with radicalization as part of her job as a mental health professional. “Thomson Airways must recognize that being vigilant to radicalization and security concerns does not mean their staff should immediately adopt an extreme and heavy-handed response to anything unfamiliar that they see. They further need to realize that this kind of action can increase radicalization among those it affects.  That, too, is an aspect of public safety that they are ignoring.” 

Shaheen is considering taking legal action against the airline.  

“Reading a book should never be grounds for suspicion of criminal behavior,” said Jo Glanville, director of English PEN. “Being questioned by police because of your reading material is a scenario one would expect to see in a totalitarian state.’ She urged Thomson to apologize to Shaheen and, as part of the training for their cabin crew, give them a copy of Syria Speaks

A petition supporting Shaheen’s freedom to read – and ours as well –  will soon go up on Change.org but not before she catches another plane. As Shaheen was leaving, Glanville emailed her the million-dollar question, “What are you reading?”

Shaheen replied, About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun, and signed off with a smiling emoji.


    Malu Halasa is Jordanian Filipina American writer and editor based in London. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in Ohio and is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books ... Show More

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