Publisher Saqi Books has joined calls for Thomson Airways to apologise after a British woman was detained after reading one of its books on a flight.
Faizah Shaheen was stopped by police at Doncaster Airport on 25th July 2016 after she was reported by a Thomson Airways cabin crew member on her outbound flight a fortnight earlier for “suspicious behaviour” and interrogated for 30 minutes. The “suspicious behaviour” related to the book she had been reading on the flight – Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud - a collection of essays and other documents published by Saqi from over 50 artists about non-violent protest and “challenging the culture of violence" in Syria published in 2014.
Shaheen was stopped by police when she returned to the UK two weeks later, and taken to a room at Doncaster Airport for questioning under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. She told the BBC that the interrogation lasted around 30 minutes, during which she was asked about the book, her work and the number of languages she spoke.
The mental health care worker said she was being forced to take Thomson Airways to court because the company had not apologised to her. Her lawyer Ravi Naik, of ITN solicitors, said that while Thomson had acknowledged its initial communication, it had not responded to its correspondence since January.
Elizabeth Briggs, editor and publicity manager at Saqi Books, added her voice to calls for the airline to apologise for its behaviour. She told The Bookseller: “It’s right that Thomson should apologise. This cannot set a precedent. It is unacceptable that anyone should be held under the terrorism act for reading a book – the most important tool we have to combat ignorance. What is needed – and needed fast – is common sense, conversation, and a better understanding of other cultures.”
Shaheen believes she was singled out by the airline because of her race. However, Thomson said its crew were "trained to report any concerns" as a precaution.
Shaheen said: "I felt upset and distressed, followed by anger. I struggled to accept that I was being singled out for reading a book on art and culture. One year on, Thomson Airways has failed to provide an explanation or apology despite legal involvement. This attitude has left me with no option but to seek a declaration from the court under the Equality Act."
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, which helped fund the publication of the book, said Thomson's actions amounted to a “fundamental violation of our liberty, undermining our freedom to read any text we like in a public place”.
“Thomson should review its staff training procedures so that such an error never happens again,” Glanville said. “Reading a book should never be viewed as grounds for suspicious behaviour."
Thomson said in a statement: "We're really sorry if Ms Shaheen remains unhappy with how she feels she was treated. We wrote to her to explain that our crew undergo general safety and security awareness training on a regular basis. As part of this they are encouraged to be vigilant and share any information or questions with the relevant authorities, who would then act as appropriate."
Last year, Saqi Books reported a “surge of demand” for Syria Speaks following the incident, with Lynn Gaspard, m.d. of Saqi Books, telling The Bookseller: "I think the most heartening development has been the wide public support for Faizah Shaheen and for the book.”
To date, Syria Speaks has sold 1,321 print copies for £15,437, according to Nielsen Bookscan.