Art, Books

Don’t judge a book by its cover

A recent book celebrating the artistic spirit of resistance by the Syrian people has made the news. Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline is a collection, translated into English, by over fifty artists and authors who confront violence in their country with poems, songs, satirical cartoons and political posters. It gives voice to the silent and tells an unheard story. It was described in a review by A. L. Kennedy as a “wise, courageous, imaginative and beautiful response to all that is ugly in human behaviour.” The book was a winner of the English PEN award, and its publication supported by the British Council and the Arts Council. It celebrates openness, tolerance, creativity and freedom.

A young woman, who is an NHS worker from Leeds, was reading it on her honeymoon as she travelled by aeroplane with her husband from Doncaster airport to Marmaris in Turkey. She had purchased it at a literary festival. Cabin crew staff at Thomson Airways saw her on the flight reading the book, with Syria in its title, and decided to inform the authorities. Two weeks later, on 25th July 2016, when the happy couple had returned to Yorkshire, she was detained and questioned in Doncaster airport under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. They later released her. A spokesperson for Thomson Airways said in a non-apology “We appreciate that in this instance Ms Shaheen may have felt that overcaution has been exercised.” They showed an element of confusion (given Ms Shaheen was allowed to travel on both legs of the flight) by asserting “the safety of our customers and employees is of primary importance”.

This is a book about art and culture. It is well know that ISIS is not an artistic movement. Indeed ISIS has a penchant for destroying art, ancient statues and archaeological artefacts. Art is the very opposite of violence; one creates the other destroys. Part of her job requires Ms Shaeen to work with teenagers in Leeds challenging stereotypes and fighting radicalisation. Perhaps she was able to do some positive work with the officers. It is not clear whether the police confiscated her book or not, but if they did I propose that they read it and enjoy the “beautiful response to all that is ugly in human behaviour.”

In May 2016 Dr. Guido Menzio, an Italian economics associate professor, was flying from Philadelphia to Canada to give a talk at Queen’s University. He had recently won the Carlo Alberto Medal given to the best Italian economist under forty. Whilst the plane waited for clearance for takeoff on the runway, he worked on a paper about price dispersion using a notepad to solve differential equations. A fellow passenger, worried that the mathematical symbols she saw were in fact arabic script, passed a note of concern to the stewardess. Dr. Menzio was promptly escorted, in a confusion of algebra and arabic, off the flight and into the arms of the dark-spectacled men in black.

Should security protocols rely unquestioningly on information given by the inept and clueless? Shouldn’t this culture of fear be faced down, not pandered to?

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