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Reading Syria Speaks, a Book on Arab Art, Culture and Protest, can be Dangerous

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on August 9, 2016
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On July 25th, a British woman, Faizah Shaheen, who is a mental health nurse working for the British public health care system helping teenagers with radicalization issues was stopped and questioned by police under the British Terrorism act. Her crime? Reading an award-winning cultural anthology about art and writing by Syrians—on an airplane. As Jo Glanville, director of English PEN said in a recent op-ed, “We appear to have lost our judgment and critical faculties, perceiving threats where there are none and collaborating in a deluded exercise in censorship.”

The 2014 book, edited by the London-based writer and curator Malu Halasa, brings together poetry, essays, cartoons, art, political posters and songs by Syrian authors and artists who are challenging the ongoing culture of violence in Syria. Malu Halasa answered a few questions for Bookwitty:

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Malu Halasa

This event follows many others in which Arab and Muslim people who are travelling have been stopped, questioned, and even arrested for reading or writing in Arabic. What stands out for you with this recent event?

I think the biggest issue is that Arabic, as a language, has become a problem. Syria’s not the problem. I fear the script and calligraphy has become tainted and is equated with terrorism and violence. How can you damn a whole culture for a small violent minority?

In this case the book wasn’t even in Arabic, it was just the title on the cover?

If you’re seen with a book with a cover referring to the Arab world on it you’re seen as being provocative. The BBC yesterday asked me if I thought our cover was provocative, if it could cause a kerfuffle. I said no, I didn’t think so, and was graffiti illegal? The cover was designed using a poster by the anonymous Syrian artists poster collective, Alshaab alsori aref tarekh (The Syrian people know their way). During the Arab Spring graffiti was a form of resistance. What are people supposed to do, just lie down and die?

It was all the more ironic that the person reading your book works in radicalization issues…

I’m very glad she went out of her comfort zone to read the book. Syria Speaks has a message of non-violence; it champions creativity and freedom of expression, which counters radicalism. Moreover, the news about Syria just shows Syrians as victims, we don’t show them in their best light; people are expressing themselves articulately, poetically. We get airstrikes in the news, but not poetry. 

English PEN's Jo Glanville called for people to resist by purchasing a copy of Syria Speaks and reading it?

If there is anything good to have come out of this experience it is that the book has made new friends. People who didn’t know Syria Speaks are now picking it up. More importantly they are reading a wide range of Syrian voices. The book’s contributors are more than victims of a never-ending war, they are making sense of their experiences and dreaming either of the country that has been destroyed or the country they will build anew. We have too many examples where bombing the troublesome Middle East has led only to more violence and more militias. Because this strategy fails time and time again, surely the voices of Syrian poets,writers, filmmakers, artists and human rights advocates are important to hear right now. They know their culture and society well; the seeds of Syria’s reconciliation lie in their work and lives.

Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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