Saqi responds to Faziah Shaheen incident

The Independent reported today that a British Muslim NHS worker, Faziah Shaheen, was detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act on 25 July following suspicions about the book she was reading. Ms Shaheen was reading Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, published by Saqi Books in 2014. This extraordinary anthology brings together the work of over 50 Syrian artists and writers, and is  testament to the courage, creativity and imagination of the Syrian people.

Lynn Gaspard, publisher and managing director, Saqi Books, said:
“Syria Speaks is a book that represents everything Saqi Books, as a Middle East interest publisher, has sought to champion over the years: it celebrates freedom of expression and creativity in the face of horror and oppression. The anthology was supported by the Prince Claus Fund for Art and Culture in Amsterdam, CKU, the British Council, the Arts Council, English PEN and the Arab British Centre, among others. It received glowing reviews and endorsements from Brian Eno and AL Kennedy, who described it as ‘a wise, courageous, imaginative and beautiful response to all that is ugly in human behaviour.’

I am in this business because I passionately believe in the power of words to affect change. However, our government seems to have taken the old adage ‘the word is mightier than the sword’ a bit too literally. We have to do our outmost to ensure that books and other art forms are protected from censorship. I feel sorry for Faizah Shaheen who should not have been singled out for reading Syria Speaks – if Faizah gets in touch I would be happy to invite her to our bookshop in West London and offer her any of our titles.”

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said:
“Thomson Airways should be highly embarrassed about this gross act of misjudgment. The current culture of anxiety around extremism now means that even our reading material has become grounds for suspicion of terrorist activity. The freedom to read any book, no matter the subject, is a fundamental cornerstone of our liberty. No one should ever be detained or questioned by the police on the basis of the literature they’re reading.

Syria Speaks is one of the most remarkable books to have been published since the uprising in Syria in 2011. It gives a remarkable insight into Syrian culture, celebrating the undaunted spirit of the Syrian people. It’s highly ironic, and deeply disturbing, that possessing a work that showcases one of the few remaining areas of freedom for the Syrians, the creative space, should lead to the detention of a British Muslim citizen.

This case also highlights the continuing problem of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, under which the police can detain individuals without grounds of suspicion of involvement in terrorism or other criminal activities. It is overdue for reform.”

Zaher Omareen, co-editor, Syria Speaks said:
“This despicable incident reflects the deep and widespread misunderstanding towards Syria today. It shows how far stereotypes influence our cities under the otherwise understandable security and terror concerns. Judging individuals and even taking measures against them based on their race, their looks, their language, or the printed words they carry is unacceptable and unjustifiable.

It was enough to carry a book which includes the word ‘Syria’ in its title for its owner to be under suspicion as a potential terrorist. I would like to remind the people and the government that Syria must not be reduced to the politicised and power-constructed sound bites carrying simplistic messages of violence and horror. This systematic misrepresentation distorts the common humanistic meaning which we all hold against oppression and tyranny across the world. Syria is no exception. It is a country desperate to heal and find peace, in order to become more culturally enriched and enlightened than ever, thanks to its numerous artists and cultural thinkers who are represented in a modest sample in my seemingly notorious book, Syria Speaks. Syria is not an accusation. And we, the Syrians, must not be constantly under suspicion.

The UK government speaks of integration, tolerance, and understanding the ‘other’. This is indeed a pressing and inevitable process for a democratic, modern, and multi-cultural society. However, it can never happen without reading about the other, not through outlets of mainstream misrepresentation, but through the words of the other. This is a right we should take for granted in a democracy and must not need to defend it.

I stand in solidarity with Faiza Shaheen who faced this humiliating situation because she carried a book on Syria. We must learn from this incident to make sure that no one faces similarly hideous situations in the future.”

Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud was published by Saqi Books in 2014.