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“Not being an archivist, nor an academic, however I learned how important it was to preserve those memories.” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part two)

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) What language barriers does the project face?

(Juan) When we started, our core team agreed that Qisetna would commit to promoting the cultural heritage of Syrians, which included publishing the stories in English and Arabic. As many of the collaborators were ordinary Syrians, the stories were written and told in dialect, and we decided to respect that. Our team of translators, who are spread all over the world, were aware of this, and our editors acknowledge the local accents of the authors. We make a great effort to respect the integrity of the voice, balancing the style and the standard Arabic used. Our aim is to make visible the diversity of accents and dialects across Syria, which we believe should be preserved and documented for Syrians themselves.

(Archivoz) How does this project work in terms of its structure? What do the volunteers do? If somebody would like to volunteer, how can they become involved?

(Juan) Our initiative operates with a horizontal structure, meaning we make decisions as a team. As a creative producer my role is to propose new activities to the editorial team. Our volunteers are a mix of professionals and students, both Syrian and a wide range of other nationalities. We actively encourage Syrians to participate in ways that benefit them, such as meeting other Syrians, or learning skills in creative writing, marketing, social media, etc. Our volunteers contribute to the project as editors and translators; and recently some volunteers have started to produce digital content for our social media.

(Archivoz) Could you explore the future of the project?

(Juan) Qisetna is anchored in the reality of what is happening in Syria and how Syrians are adjusting to the huge demands of the circumstances they are living under. The power structures are establishing a new status quo in the country. We are continuing to contact individuals in the hope of sharing our concern for the preservation of memories that are otherwise in danger of fading away. We are also connecting with the Syrian diaspora across Europe and beyond, as well as talking to universities and the Centre for Migration Studies in Turkey to assist with translation. Turkey is an important place for us as there are many Syrians living and settling there and we want to increase public awareness. Many Turkish people do not come into contact with Syrians and when they do, they often display xenophobia and racism. There is a massive language barrier because a majority of Turkish people don’t speak Arabic, which means they cannot engage with Syrians. We are planning to translate the project into Turkish, to make the stories accessible to Turkish readers both on our website and social media, thereby promoting social integration. We honestly believe this can help tackle the increasing hostility against newcomers. Our aim is to engage Turkish citizens in the translation and encourage dialogue across communities.

We also have plans to develop our social media presence. For example, we are planning to create a YouTube channel which will feature interviews with Syrian artists living in the diaspora. We hope that the In Focus platform can promote Syrian artists who want to share their experiences, vision, and artistic practices.

Secondly, we are growing our archive in order to preserve Syrian cultural heritage and this allows us to develop new content. We pride ourselves on being different from other archives because we work with current stories and contemporary oral history. We are what you would call a living breathing archive which is constantly developing.

(Archivoz) We are an archivist journal. We know that you are not an archivist project but your project appreciates the importance of preserving oral history of Syria. Could you explore this aspect?

(Juan) Oral stories are told by living individuals about their own past, or the past of other people. Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records. We also understand the importance of connecting stories across generations and want to disseminate content using platforms that are used by young people. We recently started a campaign, Syrian Diaries, in which we asked Syrians to share a photo of an object that is precious to them and a short story attached. Qisetna is actively exploring new ways not only to preserve but also to share and disseminate the stories that land on our desks. Podcasting is a new way to engage with global audiences and we are producing digital content to connect Syrians across borders with contemporary artists through our new project In Focus.

(Archivoz) In 2017 you won an award form ARA (Archive and Records Association UK and Ireland). Was that gratifying? Could you tell us a little bit about what the award consists of?

(Juan) The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) is a national organisation which aims to support and promote community archives in the UK. Its Community Archive Award celebrates the contribution of community archives within the archive sector and aims to promote and share good practice. Qisetna (Talking Syria) was the overall winner in 2017, and also won the ‘Most Innovative’ category in this year’s awards. In reaching their decision, the judges commented:

Qisetna (Talking Syria) is an extra-ordinary example of an archive both preserving the voices of displaced and fractured communities for the future and acting as an engine of community resilience in the present. This is an archive at its best: raw emotion, portraying real life and its impact on individuals and families, community leadership and involvement, a focus on tomorrow – the younger generation – and an excellent website for outreach and advocacy. This archive will become an outstanding research tool for the future. But it is also – evidently – succeeding in its principal short-term goal of community building. We also commend Qisetna’s website and encourage everyone to take a look. The use of large apps gives a wonderful simplicity and clarity. From the first click, we all felt compelled to keep reading.

(Archivoz) Since the award, has the ARA been in contact with the project? Do you have any archivist volunteers? 

(Juan) We are currently seeking an archivist and this is one of our priorities for 2019. As a small team we have so far always been preoccupied with sourcing stories, editing, translating, and mentoring the contributors.

(Archivoz) Do you have any archive systems or an inventory for your project?

(Juan) We don’t have any. With all our content, we rely entirely on our bilingual archive, and disseminate it through our social media. At present we are talking to several academic institutions which we feel could help with building an inventory for Qisetna, becoming a repository for future researchers.

(Archivoz) Are you aware of the issues and problems of digital preservation? Do you ever consider that?

(Juan) It would be unfortunate if one day the web disappeared! For the past seven years we have been producing data and digital content that is available on the web. Although we produce a monthly backup of our archive and are learning how to effectively preserve and make our content accessible, we have had to learn more about how to secure the content from technological failures or errors.

(Archivoz) Many thanks for your time and the opportunity to explore this amazing project.

<< back to part I of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna

Web: https://www.qisetna.com/

“I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part one)

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.

>> proceed to part II of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna

Web: https://www.qisetna.com/

‘[Insta]Poetry is not a luxury’: On the Urgency of Archiving the Diverse Voices of Social Media

In today’s digital age, verse has gone viral. Since 2013, young poets have turned to photo-sharing platforms like Instagram to self-publish their texts and gain a wide readership.

Fitting their words into the square Instagram picture frames, paying attention to font and sizing, writing texts that are accessible both in style and content, instapoets are making poetry visually appealing, relatable, scrollable, accessible, and portable to followers.

The repercussions have been significant: recent UK and US surveys reveal that poetry is on the way to becoming a bestselling literary genre. In 2017, a report by the National Endowment of the Arts (the largest survey of American adults’ participation in the arts) and UK statistics from book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan showed that the number of poetry readers had nearly doubled since 2012. The biggest increase was among young adults, especially young women and people of colour – a significant shift from the traditional middle-aged male poetry buyer, who now represents only 18% of poetry readership in the UK. In 2017, the top-selling poetry collection was Milk and Honey by 26-year-old Punjabi-Sikh Canadian “instapoet” Rupi Kaur, which has sold 3.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. Eleven other instapoets made it into the top twenty bestselling poets list that year. While these figures indicate the financial success of instapoetry in book format, they can only hint at the size of its online readership. Therefore, to counter this focus on the physical object of the published book, I want to initiate a discussion on social media that is responsive to the ways that the poetry itself appears online in order to think about alternative ways of archiving “beyond the book”.

Despite the media attention instapoetry has received since its beginnings, the academic and literary world has remained suspicious, and continues to question its literary legitimacy. Very little academic material has been published on the topic, and apart from a very small number of papers on Rupi Kaur’s writing, instapoetry is treated as a footnote. Is this simply the result of the slow-paced process of conventional academic publishing or might this also be because writing an academic article on instapoetry would give it some cultural and academic legitimacy? The most virulent criticism was voiced in a 2018 article by British poet Rebecca Watts, who condemned “social media’s dumbing effect,” compared instapoets to social media influencers, and denounced “the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft” that she argued is characteristic of the genre. Her concerns undoubtedly reflect those of many poets and academics who worry that poetry is no longer being taken seriously. Yet there are historical parallels. In 1856, as more and more middle class women started writing for a living, George Eliot wrote an essay entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” lamenting the affectation and clichés of women writers, and the “absence of rigid requirements” of the novel form which, she contended, “constitutes the fatal seduction of novel-writing to incompetent women” (Eliot, 324). Being a new genre, the novel was accessible and socially acceptable for women writers, as it had relatively low status, was easy to read, bore “no long and intimidating tradition of ‘great masters’”, and “did not demand a knowledge of the classics, of rhetoric, or of poetic devices” (Eagleton, 60). The similarities between the novel then, and instapoetry now, are striking, as this new generation of “outsiders” is carving out a space to be heard outside mainstream publishing.

Most successful instapoets are young, feminist, from minority or immigrant backgrounds, and many of them are women, and/or queer, and/or working-class, and/or with disabilities. They often resort to Instagram after being turned down by publishers; indeed a report by the UK development agency Spread the Word in 2015 found that Western publishing tends to favour books by white male writers, resulting in the BAME writer community being underrepresented. Instagram thus offers a creative outlet for sections of the population who are usually barred from more traditional forms of poetry. In this sense, Watts’ piece voices a general sense of uncertainty that is created by instapoetry’s flouting of hidebound poetic traditions. Clearly this raises questions as to what exactly qualifies as “literature”, and more crucially, who has the authority to define a text as “literary”. In an essay entitled “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” written in 1977, African-American feminist poet Audre Lorde suggests that our definitions of literariness are a white Western male invention. Poetry, she writes, “is a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean” (Lorde, 37). Challenging the emphasis on intellect over emotion in Western culture [reiterated by Watts, who contrasts the media-celebrated “honesty” of instapoets with actual “poetic craft”], Lorde convincingly argues that for minority women, “poetry is not a luxury”. Instead, it is vital for survival as it allows women of colour to access and communicate their emotions. It is a socially meaningful medium through which to think of new ways of being and to initiate “tangible action” towards social transformation. For instapoets such as Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Amanda Lovelace, “honesty” is the way they raise awareness of political matters like sexuality, abuse, gender, race and immigration. The debate about the “literariness” of instapoetry has overshadowed a more important fact: through social media, minorities and women not only have a creative voice but are also being heard, and are experimenting with language, rhetoric and form in innovative ways.

I first became interested in instapoetry while assessing the British Library’s holdings of contemporary North American migrant narratives as part of a PhD placement. Taking a literary perspective initially focusing solely on books, I started investigating their practices regarding online writing. I was surprised to learn that the British Library cannot acquire and collect websites or Instagram pages as easily as it can a book. The UK Web Archive, hosted at the Library, is confined to UK-based or UK-associated websites (either hosted on a UK domain or authored by UK residents) which it can collect through non-print legal deposit. It can also pull information from web pages that have no UK-based domain if there is a clear link with the UK, but permission is needed from the creators of the content and rights need to be cleared. Social media content is even more difficult to archive, as many sites also block attempts to “harvest” content. The legal restrictions are a real barrier for the archive, leading me to wonder whether the UK web archive in its current form might not be inadequate. As instapoets regularly delete older posts, their work is lost forever if it is not collected in time. A search on the UK Web Archive and the American Internet Archive (known as the Wayback Machine) suggests little trace remains of the years 2014-2015, the period when instapoetry peaked. If we think of a book as a final product, then an Instagram page can be viewed as a digital manuscript, the followers’ comments as editor’s feedback, and each deleted post as a draft that ends up in the bin. I prefer to see the published book and the Instagram page as two separate entities, especially given that instapoets continue to use Instagram even after publication. Rupi Kaur’s bestseller Milk and Honey may find its place in an archive someday, but then only half her work will have been recorded, as her books and her Instagram page simply cannot be compared with each other. Instead of one per page, poems on Instagram are interspaced with pictures and positioned on a board, rather like the page of a comic. The concept of time is also different: the reader starts with the most recent poem and scrolls down (or back) in time, and this creates a sense of ongoing progression that cannot be reproduced in a conventional book with a beginning and an end. 

Instapoetry evidently poses challenges to current academic practices regarding interpretation and archiving. Unfortunately, the archiving system in its current form continues to prioritize literature published in books over self-published online writing, and although the reasons are primarily technical and legal, this contributes significantly to the marginalization of minority voices.

Cover photo: Rupi Kaur’s instagram page, picture taken by Matteo D’Ambrosio

Works Cited
  • Eagleton, M. (1989). Gender and Genre. In C. Hanson (Ed.), Re-reading the Short Story, London: Macmillan Press, pp.55-68.
  • Eliot, G. (1967). Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. In T. Pinney (Ed.), Essays of George Eliot, London: Routledge, pp. 300-324.
  • Lorde A. (1984). Poetry is Not a Luxury. Sister Outsider, Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, pp. 36-39.
  • Watts, R. (2018). The Cult of the Noble Amateur. PN Review 239, 44 (3).