“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/