Syria Speaks, subtitled Art and Culture from the Frontline, was first published by Saqi Books in 2014. But it received renewed attention last week after psychotherapist Faizah Shaheen was seen reading it by a Thomson Airways crew member on a flight to Turkey, and reported for “suspicious behaviour”. On her return from Turkey, where she had been on honeymoon, Shaheen was detained and questioned by police under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act.
“The story went viral it was quite frantic last week,” said Lynn Gaspard, Saqi’s managing director. Demand for the book, which showcases the work of more than 50 artists and writers, shot up when Shaheen spoke out about what had happened to her. It climbed to around 300th place in Amazon’s charts, and Saqi has now put through a reprint of 1,000 copies. The publisher has also shipped in 450 copies of the book from the US, and 30 from Beirut. According to sales monitor Nielsen BookScan, it was selling between one and five copies a week in previous months.“We had to bring over all these copies because we’d sold out by last Friday afternoon,” said Gaspard. “I’m so glad people are still reading this book two years on, although I feel so sorry for Faizah … It’s absolutely horrific what happened to her. I totally understand that we need to be vigilant and careful, and that there is a real problem, but come on, people.”
Shaheen herself retweeted a series of comments from Twitter users who said they had ordered the book from shops and libraries in support. “I’ve been humbled by all your support and encouragement. I’m pleased that sharing the story has raised the issues that need to be addressed,” she tweeted on Friday.“In a time when Syria’s creative output is more accessible than ever, the west should not dismiss it as something threatening or alien. These are the voices that we should be listening to, as we consider Syria’s future,” co-editor of Syria Speaks, Malu Halasa, wrote in the Guardian on Thursday, while Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, wrote in the Independent that “if you want to protest, start by buying a copy of Syria Speaks – and reading it in public”. Glanville previously said in a statement that “the freedom to read any book, no matter the subject, is a fundamental cornerstone of our liberty”, and that “no one should ever be detained or questioned by the police on the basis of the literature they’re reading”.
Gaspard said that the situation in Syria had moved on since the book was published. “Now it is just total chaos and mayhem, but these people are still there their voices are being drowned out,” she said. “It’s such a privilege to be associated with this book, to be able to publish it. It’s never about the money, it’s just important to get these voices, to try to bring them to the mainstream.”
Following last week’s events, a contributor to Syria Speaks, Robin Yassin-Kassab, will now also be appearing on 18 August at the Edinburgh international book festival, at a panel on the subject of refuge, migration, banishment, exile and sanctuary. Saqi said it had been “thrilled with the support among authors and readers”.