Arjan El Fassed is one of the co-founders of the Electronic Intifada and author of “Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien” (“Not Everyone Can Throw Stones: A Dutch Palestinian in search of his roots and identity”). El Fassed made headlines last year for having a street in a Palestinian refugee camp named after his Twitter account, and has been involved with an online initiative in which people can request messages to be spray-painted on the West Bank wall. In this interview with Global Voices he talks about the potential of social media to help the Palestinian cause.
You have described yourself as strategist for humanitarian campaigns and social media. Do you think social media can play a role in effecting change in the Palestinan situation?
Already in the 90s with the rise of internet, I have always felt that internet as a communication tool would help tremendously in getting voices of people heard, especially from people living in military closed areas. More broadly speaking, in the debate in mainstream media around various conflicts you hardly hear the voices of ordinary people. Whether in Afghanistan, Somalia or Palestine, the vast majority of people, ordinary women and men, are hardly listened to. What you hear are political and military leaders and some self-defined experts that talk about people, but you hardly hear the voices of ordinary Palestinians. People like you and me. Social media easily connects ordinary women and men in Palestine to ordinary men and women in the West.
A year ago you made headlines by having a street in Askar refugee camp [near the West Bank city of Nablus] named after your Twitter account. Why did you choose your Twitter account and not simply your name?
At that time a group of marketing experts were visiting Askar and wanted to support the renovation of a youth centre in the camp. As they were walking around the camp, they noticed that one of the unique selling points of the camp was that the streets had no names. In the West, you first need to be well-known or not living anymore, if you want to have a street named after you. In the age of Twitter and Facebook people want to get acknowledged. By naming the street after my Twitter account I could relate this simple notion of a camp where the streets have no names to a vast number of people in the West that were looking at the enormous developments in social media, that on a daily basis were experiencing these new developments and who took notice of the headline ‘First street named after a Twitter account‘. If a street would be named after an ordinary name, they wouldn't have paid attention.
Is it true that your account is one of the most popular in the Netherlands as a result?
Yes, indeed, and as a result I was the first Dutch Twitter account in the world's top 1000 of most-followed Twitter accounts and the first on Twitter's own suggested users list, between Barack Obama and Coldplay.
@arjanelfassed tweetstreet in Askar refugee camp (photo courtesy of Arjan El Fassed)
In the spring of 2004, a good friend of mine, Justus van Oel visited Gaza and other parts of Palestine. He was shocked by what he experienced, and by everything that he did not know, or did not want to know. With support from a Dutch development organisation and former colleagues of his in the Dutch advertising industry, he organized three workshops with young Palestinians. The goal was to create effective, out-of-the-box communications concepts, that were inexpensive to execute as well. The first project, Send A Message, was making it possible to leave a personal, spray-painted message on the Wall. Over 1,400 messages have been placed.
Spray-painting a message (photo courtesy of Send A Message)
What kind of response has there been, and can you give us some examples of the messages that people have requested?
This project was listed by Time Magazine as ‘most influential graffiti art’. Through the mainstream media, the project and Palestinians trapped behind the Wall, reached an audience of over 550,000,000 people. A story we will always remember is this: Caspar from the Netherlands is celebrating his honeymoon in Indonesia. He sits next to his wife, whom he proposed with a message on the Wall, and they watch an international news channel. This channel shows an item about Send A Message and camera zooms in at Caspar's marriage proposal on the Wall.
A message on the wall (photo courtesy of of Send A Message)
Do you have any other initiatives coming up?
Yes, together with the Dutch-Israeli filmmaker Benny Brunner, a crossmedia project about 60,000 Palestinian books that were systematically looted during the 1948 war. The story of the stolen books is not only at the heart of our project, a documentary film to be produced about what happened, but also an online launching pad of a much bigger and wider endeavor: we intend to communicate the scope and depth of the destruction of culture in 1948. Ideally we want to bring those looted private libraries virtually back to life.
The Great Book Robbery can be followed on Twitter here.
You can “send a message” on the West Bank wall until 1 October; for more details see here.