It is a year since Faizah Shaheen, a psychotherapist from Leeds, was detained by police at Doncaster Sheffield Airport. On 25th July 2016, Faizah was returning from her honeymoon when she was held under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, under which the police can detain individuals for suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. Faizah had been reported by a Thomson Airways crew member for reading Syria Speaks: Arts and Culture from the Frontline.
Syria Speaks is a book of art and writing that showcases the work of more than 50 artists and writers who are challenging the culture of violence in Syria. It is a celebration of a people determined to reclaim their dignity, freedom and self-expression. It also features Arabic script on the front cover, which was allegedly what had alerted the member of staff who reported Faizah. This is sadly not the only instance where a traveller has been detained for reading Arabic texts (Google programmer Nicholas George was detained in California over his Arabic language-learning flashcards), and it will likely not be the last.
But can a language, whether written or spoken, be dangerous? It’s clear that the Arabic language is being associated with terrorism. In Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic: Words and Pictures on How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Alien Next Door, Lebanese poet, journalist and women’s rights activist Joumana Haddad deals specifically with her fatigue of justifying the language: “Yes, I speak Arabic. Go ahead and sue me”; “Yes, I speak Arabic and it is with this language that I have attacked fundamentalists and terrorists more vehemently than you ever will, putting my life at risk”; “Yes, I hold an Arab passport and it is with this passport that I have travelled the world to give talks about my books.”
Following Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban”, this year has already seen a huge drop in successful visa applications to the US for visitors from Arabic-speaking countries. Visas issued to people from the six countries on the initial “ban” list were down 55 per cent in April this year when compared to the same month in 2016. If this continues, and those who hold Arab passports, like Joumana, are less able to travel the world to talk about books, we are facing very dark times ahead. After the incident at the airport, Faizah said: “I do question if... it would be different if it was someone who wasn’t Muslim.”
Today, books on planes continue to be a contentious matter across the Atlantic. The Transportation Security Administration in the US recently tested a programme in which airline passengers were asked to remove books from their hand luggage. The official statement on the TSA website reads, “Books have been used in the past to conceal prohibited items. We weren’t judging your books by their covers, just making sure nothing dangerous was inside.” Clearly, whoever came up with this security measure has watched Andy remove his tunnelling hammer from the bible in “The Shawshank Redemption” one too many times.
Faizah Shaheen is now proposing to take legal action against Thomson Airways over her treatment by the airline last year. Incidentally, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic... also has Arabic script on the front cover. The image is from Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian’s “Barlon Ansambel” (which translates as “let’s talk together”). We will keep publishing books with Arabic type on the cover. It is our way of saying that there is no such thing as a dangerous language. After all, Arabic is, as far as I know, the only alphabet that has a smiley face for a letter.
Elizabeth Briggs is publishing assistant at London-based publisher Saqi Books, which published Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic... on 17th June (£12.99).