Rhythms of Memory | London/Syria
In this episode, we spotlight Qisetna, a digital platform seeking to preserve the cultural heritage of communities affected by conflict and displacement. Qisetna was founded in London in 2013 in response to the conflict in Syria. The organisation originally sought to reframe the narrative of those being displaced through the practice of sharing stories. The organisation encouraged Syrians of all backgrounds and denominations to capture their memories, producing a rich archive of different stories. Today we get a glimpse into how Qisetna uses storytelling in its many forms in order to protect cultural heritage. I spoke with Sarah Barker, who volunteers her time to write articles and manage Qisetna’s digital content.
Sarah says that Qisetna works with musicians, artists, photographers, poets—-all sorts of individuals who are making their way in new environments. The archive of stories ranges from remembering the scent of orange and jasmine on Damascus streets to sending job applications amongst the backgammon players in coffee shops.
These stories are recorded and presented with an awareness of the individual identity, inclusivity, and diversity within the rhetoric of refugee narratives to provide space for the assortment of cultures that have come to physically inhabit Syria. Qisetna’s intention has always prioritised providing individuals with the space to explore their own sense of belonging and identity. Sarah says that Qisetna does their best to promote these individuals’ work at their own events, as well as events in the community to broaden the spread of stories and connections.
“We are trying to create a digital archive that will make sure that these forms of intangible heritage are protected for future generations. With the way of the world now, that may become a reality for many countries; that they might need a platform that works to protect their art and how life is being recorded.”
Storytelling, says Sarah, is a fundamental aspect of Syrian identity and culture that Qisetna hopes to support in the promotion of their international virtual community. Over the past few years, Qisetna has fostered a worldwide community of volunteers brought together with the goal of protecting Syrian oral heritage. As well as recording memories, Qisetna acts as a platform for outreach, advocacy, community involvement and research. This means that they actively contribute to collaborations such as the UNESCO Unite4Heritage project and have also produced their own storytelling workshops.
“Oral storytelling is such an important part of Syrian customs and traditions. We really want to protect that in as many ways as possible…We do our best to speak to Syrians themselves and allow it to be very natural. Whatever they want to tell us, we will record it. We have nice conversations and we tell beautiful stories.”
“It brings me back to one story we have about a woman who found herself living in the Netherlands and she talks all about how she was making Syrian food and integrating Dutch customs within the food that she was making. It’s a beautiful story about resilience. She’s taking these customs from her previous existence and integrating them within this new European society that she finds herself in.”
Qisetna also features the work of individual artists, writers, actors, and others living and working in the diaspora through their InFocus project. InFocus has highlighted many different profiles over the past three years during the pandemic by bringing Syrians together remotely for conversations on their pasts and futures. These conversations feature a variety of individuals, from cultural producers like Jumana Al-Yasiri who curated the first world music festival in Damascus to Dima Orsho, a soprano singer who performs across the world as a singer and composer.
In 2021, Qisetna began working with Ibrahim Muslimani, a musician born in Aleppo, Syria who, throughout his career, started collecting musical heritage at risk of disappearing, focusing on music that is passed down orally, rare rhythms, musical manuscripts, and records. He has risen to be a successful and established musician and finds himself now in Gaziantep, Turkey: a new community where the difference between languages has been the basis for deepening his work as a musician. In 2009, Ibrahim co-founded the Nefes Foundation for Culture and Arts to bring together the diverse community living in Gaziantep creating a hub of education and musicianship. Qisetna will work closely with the Nefes Foundation to highlight their work with over 250 students from ages 5 to 65.
“They have this slogan ‘two languages, one Nefes’.” It’s such a valuable example of how art can support people in making these new connections, in reconnecting the old with the new existence that they find themselves in. He was producing an album last year and was taking all of these different pieces of music— some religious, some non-religious, some pieces of music that have never been recorded before— really completely intangible heritage. He was recording them with his band in Gaziantep during the pandemic. The album has over 40 pieces and all he said was that wanted it to b a gift for Syrians everywhere.”
What are some of the challenges that Qisetna faces in this work?
The biggest difficulty now is with translation. We operate predominantly online and it can take a while to go backwards and forwards with the translation. It would be lovely if we could include more people that speak Arabic or Syrians themselves to tell those stories honestly and as truthfully as can be. We’d rather take the time to make sure it’s right. Which can mean a lot of back and forth between languages.
What is the Future of Qisetna’s work?
To continue what we’re doing. I would like it if we stayed truthful and held integrity in our work. It’s easy to want to include absolutely everybody and take every opportunity…at the end of the day, it’s important that we stay true to our roots. We have a lot of potential ideas coming up. We’re hoping to do a Syrian film symposium in London in the future. We’re constantly getting different sources of stories and we always have a rolling volunteer program. In a time of change and at a time of cultural heritage becoming a hot topic, I hope we stay true to our roots and we stay true to the people who’ve shared their stories.
How do you position Qisetna’s work in a wider movement, such as at the policy level
The different programs that the EU put forward to protect cultural heritage – when you’re looking at the kind of discourse that is promoted and pushed by the EU programs, it’s often a lot about diversity and a lot about integration and all these kind of words. You have to wonder to what extent the EU consider those who have been displaced within the EU. There are 84 million people displaced worldwide. I think the EU policy that goes forwards protects the EU identity. I think the reality of our world now living in the EU is that we have these displaced individuals as part of our communities as well. When we talk about integration, when we talk about diversity, are these people considered? Through the work we do we support those voices and we just give a platform. We don’t want to interpret their voices or manipulate their voices. We simply act as a vessel that they can use to share their histories and oral traditions. I wonder if these smaller voices can be considered at a larger level…It’s important to consider their opinions and their identities in this EU rhetoric and how we find a balance between EU identity and the identity of those who have been displaced.
Sarah also talks about the importance of promoting multilingualism at a policy level, saying that in speaking to a lot of the artists in their network, they often hear that newcomers feel invisible or isolated from their communities once they arrive and language plays a big role in this. She says it is important that we recognize the reality of our future in regards to people becoming part of new communities and that this requires a consideration of how multilingualism is becoming more and more part of how we coexist.
“I think it’s important to be respectful of the way these histories are handled. And that can’t be lost with this becoming a common occurrence. Despite the fact that so many populations might be moved or displaced, we need to honour the individual and I hope that will continue.”
Throughout this episode, you hear music from Maya Youssef, Dima Orsho, The Nefes School and Nawa Band. Qisetna has also written a contribution for “Amplify: Make the Future of Europe Yours,” Culture Action Europe’s project that brings underrepresented voices within the cultural sector to EU decision-makers.