What’s So Scary About ‘Syria Speaks,’ Collection That Got Faizah Shaheen Questioned Under Terrorism Act?

We all know it’s not okay to do math or study Arabic on a plane. And now, apparently, it’s not okay to read collections of Syrian literature and visual art:

Work by Comic4Syria is also incorporated into the collection.
Work by Comic4Syria is also incorporated into the collection.

This, after 27-year-old Faziah Shaheen was pulled aside because a Thomson Airways crew member on her outbound flight two weeks previous had noticed Shaheen reading the collection and reported her for suspicious behavior.

According to The Independent, “police officers questioned her for 15 minutes under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act and told her the suspicions related to the holiday book she had been reading – Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline.”

Back in 2014, ArabLit spoke with Syria Speaks co-editor Malu Halasa — she worked on the book with Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud — about bringing together the work of more than 50 Syrian contributors.

Many people, Halasa said in a 2014 Skype interview, “think that culture has no place in conflict. And yet culture and art is the very place where people find solace. But also they dream about society, and dream about what they want to do. Dreaming is subversive in a situation like Syria at the moment.”

Just as reading Syria Speaks on a plane in 2016 is apparently also subversive.

Syria Speaks includes work by award-winning writers Samar Yazbek and Khaled Khalifa, whose International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted No Knives in the Kitchens of This City is set for a fall release in English translation by Leri Price. Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab writes about the literature of the Syrian uprising, there are cartoons by the celebrated artist Ali Ferzat, a “Letter for the Future” by Mazen Darwish, a short story by the brilliant Rasha Abbas, and a wide variety of other visual and textual art.

Indeed, Lynn Gaspard, publisher and managing director of Saqi Books, expressed pride in the book:

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 regression. The anthology won support from 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, and that readers. I feel sorry for Faizah Shaheen who should 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.”

So what made the Thomson Airways employee believe that the act of reading this book was a danger to society? Online commenters have focused on the cover, which features a child holding a slingshot.

Saqi Books notes that the cover image comes from a poster by Alshaab alsori aref tarekh, which depicts a character by Mohamed Tayeb. “Zaytoun, the Little Refugee, from the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, is a political, artistic and educational project, which contests the monopoly of power to write history.”



  1. Looks like an interesting read and pictures would help me! There is so much edginess at the moment and this seems to affect judgement.

  2. Westbourne Grove.
    I am also speechless over this “incident”…

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