Why reader Faizah Shaheen’s detention should outrage us all

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At a time of great turbulence and uncertainty in many parts of the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of alarming news stories flooding our airwaves, newspapers and screens. Nevertheless, yesterday I came across a story that shocked me profoundly.

According to the Independent, Faizah Shaheen, a British Muslim woman, was detained at a UK airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act after an air steward reported her for suspicious behaviour last month.

And the suspicious behaviour in question? The 27-year-old National Health Service worker had been reading Syria Speaks, an award-winning art and culture anthology showcasing the work of more than 50 writers and artists challenging violence in their war-torn nation.

Far from an extremist text promoting radicalisation, the book had actually been supported by English PEN, the charity on whose translation funding panel I often sit. Yet, because an air steward thought it suspicious, Shaheen returned from her honeymoon to face 15 minutes of distressing questions from UK police.

This may not sound like much in the face of the extreme hardships and atrocities affecting many others around the globe. However, it points to something deeply disturbing and intimately connected to the cruelty being inflicted on millions by extremists, despots and inhumane policies.

As I discovered during my quest, a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.

To do this, people need to be able to read without looking over their shoulders, without fear of penalties or reprimands. When a person picks up a book, their focus should be on whether they will enjoy it and what they might get from it, on how it could broaden their horizons, rather than on how being associated with it might limit or threaten them.

Without this freedom, the world shrinks and fragments. Frightened to venture beyond the bounds of sanctioned subject matter, we find ourselves locked in an echo chamber, where the same ideas and perspectives reverberate at us time and again, and the Other becomes ever more inscrutable and strange.

Living in that sort of bubble, our appreciation of the humanity, complexity and dignity of those who do not conform to our mores quickly dulls and fades. And when that happens, discrimination, violence and persecution of those others ceases to seem unacceptable, because they are increasingly hard to imagine as people at all.

That is why Faizah Shaheen’s detention enrages me and should enrage all those who value and believe in the free circulation of literature. That is why I join English PEN in condemning what happened. Because, on a fundamental level, the cruellest things human beings do to one another stem from precisely this: preventing people sharing ideas and stories.

Picture by Konrad Förstner on Flickr.com.

Italy: beyond the #stopkony effect

The power of compelling storytelling has been demonstrated this week. Within hours of the release of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 film urging the world to ‘stop’ Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, by lobbying for his arrest, the subject was trending on Twitter, clogging up Facebook feeds and scoring Youtube hits in the millions.

The premise of the film is simple. Director Jason Russell exposes the atrocities of the rebel group, which has recruited and brutalised 30,000 children since its inception in 1987, through the story of one former child soldier, Jacob, whom he met while visiting the country as a student nine years ago. The sucker punch comes in the form of a description of the actions of Joseph Kony to Gareth, Russell’s young son, who, on hearing about the deeds of the ‘bad guy’ for the first time, declares that we must ‘stop him’. The issues are so simple and clear-cut, it seems, that even a four-year-old child can grasp them.

However, I suspect Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, which blew open the workings of the Neapolitan mafia in 2006, would advocate a different approach.

Like Russell, Saviano has a personal stake in the story he is telling. In fact, he grew up in the area and watched acquaintances, friends and even his own father suffer at the hands of the Camorra, which metes out a level of violence that Saviano claims has hurled the region into a covert civil war.

His passion for his topic is evident. He knows the power of the personal story every bit as well as Russell does and uses it again and again to bring home the horror of life in the region. We hear of teenagers caught in the crossfire, priests executed for speaking out, beheadings, burnings, flayings, and even the clan member killed by having his mouth and nose stuffed with sand. Indeed, Saviano goes much further than Russell in his attempt to paint a vivid picture, having witnessed the aftermath of brutal murders many times. ‘I believe the only way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty,’ he writes.

The individual accounts, though, are only one aspect. Packed with facts, figures, names and details — the result of years of painstaking research — the book traces the web of power in which the region is entangled, revealing how the Camorra controls 50 per cent of Naples’ shops, as well as Campania’s rubbish collections, milk distribution, music festivals, factories, construction, the merchandise it ships all over the world and even parts of the global fashion industry. Saviano’s aim, he says, is to ‘pull the threads of the economic knot one by one to arrive at the criminal head’.

He also contextualises his accounts, providing a rounded picture of Camorra life — from the complex codes that govern the clans’ relations with women and religion to the bizarre copy-cat effect that films like The Godfather have had on the gangsters. At times, he almost seems to feel compassion for the clan bosses, who enjoy a brief reign in the full knowledge that they will soon be overthrown and murdered, writing of the ‘suffering and solitude of a man who must always think he is about to be killed’.

Set against this are the ambulance-chasing reports of the world’s media, which arrived to cover a particularly bloody conflict between clans in 2005. Ignorant of the context and character of the world they are covering, the journalists tear through the streets in search of ‘the worst possible story in the shortest possible time’. In extreme cases, their camera lenses seem to accelerate the horror, goading the gangsters to even greater shows of machismo and ‘the war kills quickly, out of respect for the reporters’. The desire to condense what is a complex and far-reaching crisis into a simple narrative of goodies versus baddies appears to do more harm than good.

Not long after the publication of the book, the Camorra set a bounty on Saviano’s head and he was forced to go into hiding, where he remains to this day. No doubt, if someone asked him if he would like to ‘stop’ the Camorra, he would say yes. But his book shows that the only way we can hope to tackle such entrenched and widespread criminality is by tracing the roots of the problem, understanding its context and the complicity of everyone involved in it, including ourselves.

Arrest one clan boss and there’ll be another one tomorrow. And, who knows, he may be worse.

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss). Publisher (this editon): Pan Books (2008)