Woman detained after reading Syria art book on flight

Woman detained after reading Syria art book on flight

Publisher Saqi Books has said it is saddened after a British Muslim NHS worker was detained after reading one of their titles on Syrian culture on board a flight.

Faizah Shaheen was stopped by police at Doncaster Airport on 25th July after she was reported by a Thomson Airways cabin crew member on her outbound flight a fortnight earlier for “suspicious behaviour” and interrogated for 15 minutes, reported the Independent.

The suspicions 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 from over 50 artists about non-violent protest and “challenging the culture of violence" in Syria published in 2014.

Lynn Gaspard, publisher at Saqi Books, told The Bookseller that Shaheen's detention and 15-minute interrogation was "a sad reflection of our times" and added that the book "represents everything Saqi, 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, and it's a book that our publishing house is very proud to be associated with", Gaspard said. "We have to do our utmost to ensure that books and other art forms are protected from censorship, and that readers are protected from harassment. I feel sorry that Faizah Shaheen has 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."

She added: "British Muslims face increasing hostility in this country – there has been an alarming increase in attacks against Muslims, particularly women, over the past few years, even more so since the recent atrocities in France. However, another worrying development is the growing unease towards and censorship of various art forms in Britain."

Shaheen, from Leeds, told the Independent she felt she had been discriminated against because of her faith and now intends to make formal complaints against the police.

“I was completely innocent – I was made to feel like a culprit,” she said. “I became very angry and upset. I couldn’t understand how reading a book could cause people to suspect me like this. I told the police that I didn’t think it was right or acceptable. I do question if whether it would be different if it was someone who wasn’t Muslim.”

Syria Speaks is an English PEN-supported title and received a grant from its Writers in Translation programme, which is turn funded by Arts Council England. Samar Yazbek, a contributor to the book, was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize in 2013, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy.

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said Thomson Airways should be "highly embarrassed" about its "gross act of misjudgement".

"The current culture of anxiety around extremism now means that  even our reading material has become grounds for suspicion of terrorist activity," Glanville said. "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."

Glanville added: "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."

A spokesperson for Thomson Airways said in a statement: “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. We appreciate that in this instance Ms Shaheen may have felt that overcaution had been exercised. However, like all airlines, our crew are trained to report any concerns they may have as a precaution.“