Today, we have an atypical interview, not with an archivist or anyone related to our sector, but with Juan delGado, a director and founder of a project called Qisetna. Here he explores Qisetna, an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora.
The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.
Archivoz’s Noemi spoke with Juan to learn about the project and explore how it relates to our sector.
(Archivoz) How did this project come about? Can you tell us about its beginnings?
(Juan) In 2011 I was invited by Artschool Palestine in Nablus to develop a project in collaboration with students of Media at An-Najah National University. I spent six weeks researching and learning about how young Palestinians were living. Despite the extremely oppressive conditions of their lives, these young students laughed in a way that I later understood was a form of resistance: “they are colonising our land and they also want to occupy our minds; but laughing is the best way to keep anger away….’ There, I produced my first project in the Middle East entitled, ‘Fluctuations on Time’, in which I started to collect oral stories from young people, their grandparents, and neighbours based in Nablus.
At that time, I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people who until then seemed detached from me and yet, through listening to their stories, had become closer. It was September 2011, and young Syrians had started peacefully demonstrating for change. I learned also that Syria had experienced the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were reduced to poverty, causing a mass migration of rural people to urban shantytowns, and the civil uprising turned from a predominantly peaceful protest movement into a militarized rebellion. I started to contact Syrians through social media to try to understand the situation on the ground. My motivation was not political; after my experience in the West Bank, I was increasingly interested in learning about these communities that I knew so little about.
(Archivoz) Could you tell us what Qisetna is and what the aims of the project are?
(Juan) In 2013, I initiated this project called Qisetna (Talking Syria), which in Arabic means “our story”. Qisetna is an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora. At the time, the massive influx of images coming through mainstream media showed the destruction of cities and bombing of civilians by all sides. Syrians witnessed the transformation of their country into a hellish battlefield, while the rest of the world seemed paralysed and failed to stop the massacre. In the middle of this tragedy, we decided to approach Syrians themselves with a determination to listen. Using social media and based on the trust we had already built through our friends and contributors, in late 2014 our network spread into areas that were physically impossible to access.
We organised a creative writing workshop with a group of children based in Yarmouk, a former refugee camp inside Damascus. This project was a collaboration with Bassam Dawood, a Syrian actor and Hakawati (storyteller) who was living in exile in Berlin, and Jafra, an organisation based in Yarmouk. Using Skype, Bassam connected to the place where the children were and during a six-week period he encouraged them to write a story. It was an extremely challenging project as we first had to establish trust, but the children participated and engaged with writing their stories. This proved for us that social media could be used in a meaningful way to connect with individuals and communities that were impossible to reach physically.
Encouraged by the response from our workshop in Yarmouk, we contacted a young man from Darayya, a city outside Damascus. We had learned that a group of young people had been rescuing books from under the rubble and had built a library of hundreds of books. He apologised for not being able to speak as he had just found out that his father had been killed the previous day. This and other experiences of the young people we were trying to reach, pushed us to moments of tremendous despair, forcing us to reflect on our goals and the consequences of working in such stressful circumstances.
(Archivoz) What is the process leading up to publication?
(Juan) Reaching out to people has been my role since the beginning. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. I grew up in a Spanish family whose members carried the trauma of a civil war. Like many who survived the war, my grandparents could not talk directly about what had happened, and it was only later that I came to understand how many people were living with the trauma of those days. Many turned to drink or violence as a coping mechanism to deal with something that they did not know how to address.
Being neither an archivist, nor an academic, I nevertheless learned early on how important it is to preserve memories. This is one of the main reasons I started Qisetna (Talking Syria) in 2013. In collaboration with two young Syrians, including a journalist, we decided to rescue the tradition of the Hakawati, which refers to a poet, actor, comedian, and historian rolled into one: someone who tells stories. Its root is ‘haka’, to tell a story, or ‘hikayah’, a fable or story, and ‘wati’ implies expertise in a popular street-art.
We wanted to draw out the Hakawati from inside every Syrian, and create a safe space for Syrians to tell their stories. We wanted them to re-claim their voices, which in many cases have been taken from them by the war.
From the very beginning, we wanted to publish in both Arabic and English. This required a tremendous effort to translate and edit the stories in both languages. However the most challenging part was to source the stories and access potential writers, most of whom are ordinary Syrians, students, farmers, some with no formal education. For this we used social media and word of mouth to first build trust, explaining that our project had no political agenda. We noticed that many people had become suspicious of other Syrians and felt utterly frustrated that their tragedy, their individual stories, were not fully acknowledged by the media.
So the process of reaching out to people required us to pay attention to their specific background. This required that we understand not only our own purpose in asking them to share, but also that we pay attention to the dramatic situation many were living under. Our requests of “would you write a story?” were met with surprise and disbelief. However, we gently initiated this conversation which allowed many to re-establish themselves in their own context; they told me “my country is under war, all rubble…and you, coming to ask me to write a story, to tell you a story…. has made me realise how detached I have become from my own being… I see now that I have been living in survival mode for all these past years since the war started.” This initial conversation is the first opportunity to start building trust by carefully listening and giving time for the person to come to terms with their feelings. Once the person agrees to write or tell the story, we assist by reading the draft and asking questions that will shape the story. Some stories have taken more than two months to materialise.