‘We wanted to reclaim a space for Syrians to share their stories; we wanted to provide a platform to the voices that the war had taken away.’
Interview with Juan delGado, founder of Qisetna: Talking Syria
Hannah Markay | 17 August 2019
Picture by Syrian photographer Hussein Haddad. Source: Qisetna
Qisetna means ‘our story’ (قصتنا in Arabic). Can you tell us a little bit about how this platform for storytelling and this ‘archive of Syrian experience’ came about?
Answer Qisetna was born in early 2013, as a response to the endless influx of images in mainstream media with narratives of destruction of neighbourhoods across Syria, the increasing level of devastation of cities, and irreparable loss of human lives. Everyday, we were exposed to jets and helicopters dropping barrels, the roaring sound of buildings turning into rubble and the people running through clouds of smoke and dust trying to rescue those who were unfortunately hit by the bombs. This became at times an unbearable narrative that left everyone paralysed. In this flow of obliteration, we felt compelled to approach the Syrians. We wanted to know who they were and listened to their stories with the sound of buildings being torn apart in the background. We wanted to reclaim a space for Syrians to share their stories; we wanted to provide a platform to the voices that the war had taken away.
You say your goal is to create ‘a record of the experiences of ordinary Syrian life in a way that is separate from the daily accounts of politics and the civil war’. Why do you think this is important?
There has been a continuous running commentary of the revolution and war from the onset. And I think over time people become desensitized to ‘negative’ news and cease to care. Unfortunately, a lot of people tend to form their opinions through stereotypes or negative media coverage. Qisetna strives to break this erroneous cycle. It is our aim to convey the true essence of Syria, the rich history, culture, and the human side that war coverage ignored; that which connects humanity and not that which divides. It is their memories that we strive to record in the hope of painting the true picture of Syria. We were determined to create a space that many had forgotten, an inclusive and growing archive for future generations - produced by the Syrian themselves.
Juan delGado, by Eleonor Broma
If you had to describe Qisetna with two words, which would you choose?
Powerful and human.
What are the stories that have stuck with you or your team?
All the stories are an extraordinary testimony of human dignity. They are brushed with the humour that characterises the Syrians. And yet, the story that reminds me of the relevancy of our work was written by Abdullah. After he had to leave behind his young wife and little daughter in Istanbul, he was stranded in Athens. For weeks, we tried to get him on a plane and became desperate as he was stopped every time he arrived at the airport. It was Christmas Eve, when he would eventually boarded: he had never taken a flight before and never been to France.
Another story came from a group of young people in Darayya, a neighbourhood outside Damascus, which has been under siege for years. These youngsters had been rescuing books under the rubble and carefully placing them in the shelves of what became a library of over a thousand books. The books have been marked with the address where they were found in the hope that the owner would come to claim them one day. The story of the Darayya’s Library touched our hearts so deeply that we decided to organise our first storytelling workshop with children living in places that were impossible to access physically. Our first workshop using Skype was delivered to a group of children living in Yarmouk, a district of the city of Damascus, populated by Palestinian refugees.
What was something unexpected that has arisen from the initiative?
In 2015, we were featured by UNESCO in their #Unite4Heritage campaign. They praised Qisetna as an example of preserving the intangible heritage of Syrians, their memories which were under the risk of disappearing. Later, we received a national award by the Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG). We hope our archive will continue to become an outstanding research tool for the future. But it also succeeds in its principal short-term goal of community-building. We commend the Talking Syria website and encourage everyone to take a look.
I would like to focus on language for a second. Are most of the stories written in English or in Arabic? Can you tell us a bit about the translation process? What do you think is lost or gained in translation?
We make it our prerogative to publish the stories in both English and Arabic. We receive stories written in both languages. Depending on which language they are sent, we will provide the relevant translation. A lot of the stories are submitted in Arabic, and not always in Classical Arabic. Some will come with colloquialisms from the area of Syria the writer is from. This very much adds authenticity to the piece. We want to make sure that the meaning of these nuances is not entirely lost through translation. Yes, there will always be certain elements that are hard to convey, but providing the English translation helps these personal stories reach a far wider audience.
By Hussein Haddad, courtesy of Qisetna
Can you illustrate the process of preparing the stories for publication? What are some typical questions that authors ask?
Sometimes the process after contacting a Syrian until the moment she or he delivers the story can take over two months. Many people ask, ‘But, who is interested in my story?’ This leads to conversations about the value of these memories, and their connection with the cultural heritage of the ‘Hakawati’, the storyteller. Also, we are aware that remembering might trigger the pain caused by the traumatic experience that person has gone through. Qisetna is not just about publishing stories, but also about community building and empowerment. Some of the writers are now regular contributors to our website becoming editors and translators of other people's stories. Sourcing stories requires patience, understanding and above all, respect. We respect and value the courage of digging through the pain and feelings of loss, and rescue a memory, an episode, a moment in the life of that person that connects her or him with their humanity.
You mentioned the anxiety of writers not wanting their stories to affect families back home. What kind of measures do you put in place to avoid possible ramifications of the storytelling?
A large number of those sharing stories with Qisetna have fled a war zone, yet this does not negate those they may have left back home can also be in danger. So we often change any names to pseudonyms or change the names of places to avoid identification. If requested, we refrain from publishing photos of the writer. This is something which we give much importance: confidentiality and respect are two core principles in our work.
You are a Spanish filmmaker working on an initiative to preserve the memory of Syria. Can you tell us a bit about that experience? What are some things you have learnt from the project?
For many of us who are not Syrians, the war seems something distant and even obscure. I am one of the grandchildren of those who lived through the Spanish civil war in the late 30s. My hometown, Cartagena, was the second most important industrial city in the Republican zone. All this made it a principal target for air attack by Italian and German planes supporting the Nationalists under General Franco. They had to endure constant air raids. Although they survived, my grandparents were left traumatised, their homes destroyed by planes of the German Condor Legion dropping incendiary bombs on the city. Years later, I enquired my granddad about what happened; he could not talk, and I understood this trauma had a huge impact in the generation of my parents, those who live through the post-war of hunger and poverty. My mother never went to school and started to work at the age of thirteen and my father suffered from alcoholism as many other of his generation. I believe this experience was what drove me to start Qisetna:Talking Syria, in an attempt to find an explanation to what is seen as indescribable narrative.
Can you tell us a bit about the rest of your staff? How did they join the initiative? How would people describe your team?
Qisetna team are almost all working voluntarily. They do this out of passion for the oral word, the collation of human experience, a recording of a people’s history. They do this to preserve people’s memories, their language, culture and heritage. Something that has been scattered across the continent and over time could be irrevocably lost through the process of trying to ‘assimilate’ people. The team, mostly Syrians, have either joined through their own initiative having come across Qisetna or I have approached them. What they all have in common their dedication and commitment to preserving our message and conveying it to more and more people. People would describe my team as a group of selfless people, giving their time to a cause that they genuinely believe in. This is a team across countries, our members are in Sweden, Canada, Malaysia, Syria, France, Dubai, and across the UK.
What are some long-term objectives you have as a team for Qisetna?
To continue recording stories, whether through performance, visual art, recording, music or the written word. To build bridges between communities through making these as accessible as possible. To implement working in partnership with a wide range of educational and art institutions in order to broaden exposure. We are constantly working on our objectives, and my team is encouraged to always contribute in this by sharing ideas. We are lucky to have a diverse team of workers that are talented in their own special ways and are all adding to the success of Qisetna and its continuing evolution.
Hannah completed a M.A. in Social Anthropology and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, with a year abroad in Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. During her MSc. in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, she focused primarily on alternative safe and legal pathways for mobility. After the master’s she interned at Generations For Peace in Amman, Jordan, where she currently works, and Mediterranean Hope’s Observatory on Migration in Lampedusa, Italy. She enjoys hiking, anything involving bodies of water, and questioning what it means to be a hospitality-accepting vegetarian.