As the month of October wound down, one Etsy user received a particularly disturbing email from Etsy’s Marketplace Integrity team. Without any forewarning, the team had removed two items “of Syrian origin” from her shop.
Jumana runs Watan, a personal project through which she creates and then sells Palestine-themed art. The name comes from the Arabic word for ‘homeland’, and Jumana’s handmade art pieces explore the deeper and more personal connections Palestinians share with their country.
Watan is hosted on the popular e-commerce site Etsy, and her storefront features a sketch of the iconic Baha’i Temple in Palestine, framed calligraphy pieces, and an assortment of traditional Palestinian embroideries shaped into pins and pendants. Her sales include bracelets, posters, and phone cases — all designed in ways that celebrate and in some cases even teaches about her heritage.
Although Jumana’s microstore is Palestine-centric, she draws from elsewhere in the region. This past April, Jumana dedicated her project to Syria-inspired pieces. According to an announcement she published on her store’s Facebook page, all proceeds from these pieces would go directly to Syrian charities bringing relief to the conflict-struck country.
Soon after, Jumana released a collection of pins that traced back to all parts of the Middle East, including Syria. Made of sculpting clay and special glue, each pin featured a vintage stamp and a unique message drawn from the stamp’s context and history, including where the stamp was printed, what year it was released, and what it signified.
Two of the stamps were from Syria. One, printed around 1938, depicted the mountainous Syrian city of Sednaya, north of Damascus. Jumana’s message shed light on the historical significance of the city to Christians worldwide. The second, printed eight years later, depicted the first president of an independent Syrian republic, Shukri Al-Quwatli, just after French colonialist forces left Syria for good.
The two stamps were up until late October when Etsy’s Integrity team took the listings down and sent Jumana an email informing her of their action and warning her that future Syrian listings constituted further violations of Etsy policy. Etsy states on its website that it complies with international trade laws. Although no historical context is given, Etsy prohibits its users from making transactions involving items “of Cuban or Syrian origin”.
Currently, the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Treasury Department maintains sanctions against six countries. Broad sanctions against Syria began in 1986, although it is easy to mistake them as a response to the Syrian civil war.
Broad sanctions were imposed against Syria in as early 1979, but new legislation imposed stricter bans in 1986.
The U.S. has repeatedly backed its sanctions by citing the Syrian government’s extensive track record of human rights abuses. This was seen again in 2011 following the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s violent response against a popular uprising.
OFAC does not maintain blanket bans against Syria, however, especially considering the dire nature of the situation in Syria. The United Nation confirmed at least 190,000 dead, with 130,00 missing or captured and millions displaced from their homes since the beginning of the conflict. Nevertheless, the Department of the Treasury calls its sanctions program against Syria “one of the most comprehensive sanctions programs currently implemented by OFAC”.
This leads Jumana and others to wonder why something as small and as nonthreatening as a stamp is considered dangerous or contraband enough to be delisted. If anything, Watan’s Syria-related items educates buyers on the country’s rich history and directly contributes to the support of Syria’s displaced population. Had there been no mention that the two stamps were printed by a Syrian printer at a time when the country was moving closer and closer to achieving independence, would the stamps have been taken down? Is Etsy — and by extension the U.S. government — exercising principle or poor arbitrary judgment, or are they one and the same in this case?
Ironically, the U.S. government has reportedly eased “certain aspects of the sanctions program to support the Syrian opposition and the people of Syria”. But words are different from actions, and by the looks of it, the sanctions appear to be doing more harm to the Syrian population than good.
In Jumana’s case, delisted items means fewer opportunities for education and, more pertinently, less to donate to NGOs working day and night to bring aid and relief to millions of Syrians affected by war.