#009 – Still Untitled

The scent of jasmine

“Damascus was the safest I’ve ever felt anywhere, in the company of some of the most stimulating, interesting, and kindest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

15 October 2021

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    Piccia Neri's face looking up to the left, with a smile and the sunlight behind her

    By Piccia Neri

    Reading time:
    10-12 minutes

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    By Piccia Neri.

    How I got on – and off – Facebook

    What’s your favourite flower smell?

    For me, it’s definitely jasmine. That delicate scent immediately makes my soul sing – I love it. It evokes wonderful memories, of a time and place where I was unequivocally happy, all of the time.

    Around 2005, when I was a freelance book designer, I got a fantastic opportunity: a huge publication on the geology of Syria. A corporate social responsibility project: a bilingual educational book of academic relevance, but with coffee table looks, to be donated to the faculty of Geology at Damascus University, with 1000 trees being planted in order to offset the paper used for it.

    Best of all: the project would also involve travel to Syria – all paid for. Basically unheard of in the field of book design.

    I had a long-standing fascination with the Middle East and I knew that Syria was a particularly interesting country in the region, with beautiful natural diversity as well as an incredible wealth of history and monuments from various eras and civilizations. I’d always dreamt of visiting.

    I knew no rest until our team won the pitch.

    It was a triumph. Just like I wanted, I was in charge of the design and print for the whole project. Which meant I also had to take care of the Arabic version of the book. And if you know anything about Arabic at all, then you’ll know that this is easier said than done: the fact that the written language runs from right to left also means that the way you fold the paper and bind the sheets is completely different. Without a doubt, I needed local help.

    As luck would have it, I got it – in the person of  Mohammad, Momo to his friends. Momo was an excellent graphic designer who spoke English better than most Brits, having never lived in the country; that was on top of native level French and good Spanish. Momo loved music, literature, food, wine and the good life. He had a vibrant circle of friends similar to him: fun-loving people who played instruments, painted, wrote, read, and who welcomed me with open arms.

    Opening spread of Chapter 7, Arabic version of the Treasures of the Earth book on the geology of Syria. The 7 remaining columns of an ancient Roman temple stand against a blue sky.

    That’s how in September 2005 I found myself working from a patio much like the one in the photo at the top of this post, in the eastern part of the old city of Damascus, supervising Momo’s work while I was completing the English version of the book.

    My house was just by Bab Sharqi, a city gate in the Christian quarter, strategically far enough from any mosque that I wouldn’t be woken up in the middle of the night by the calls for prayer on tannoy.

    The narrow, stone-paved street I lived on, much like any other road in the centre, had convoluted tangles of mysterious wires springing out the side of the houses,  and reaching out to the other side of the street: an ideal trellis for enterprising jasmine plants.

    In fact, the whole old city of Damascus was like that. Jasmine everywhere, intricately entwined with the haphazard wiring (that was mysteriously functional: I never experienced a power cut). You’d walk around the city centre under a canopy of jasmine flowers, wafting off their celestial scent.

    Street in the old town of Damascus, Syria, with plants climbing across the buildings.
    No jasmine in this photo, but it actually did look like just like this. A bit scruffy, always clean, so green.

    The restaurants we’d meet in were the same: beautiful old Arabic patios whose arches, walls, canopies were covered in jasmine and other climbers, while we drank Lebanese wine and listened to a lute concert.

    Sounds blissful? yeah it was. I know: there was an evil dictator in charge and my friends yearned for democracy, justice, a free press and all the rest. I won’t talk about that, or what happened later.

    I’ll just say: Damascus was the safest I’ve ever felt anywhere, in the company of some of the most stimulating, interesting, and kindest people I’ve ever met in my life. I spent a heavenly couple of months there and had the good fortune of visiting a few times again over the following couple of years. And I seriously looked into the option of moving there and working remotely. As an idea, it was way too ahead of its times and I wasn’t able to do it. Oh but I wanted to.

    Back to reality…


    All right then Piccia, bully for you, but what has Facebook got to do with it?

    I know, that was a massive digression I subjected you to – and I actually had to forcibly stop myself from waxing lyrical for even longer on how wonderful Syria was for me.

    But there is a reason for taking you all the way back down that specific memory lane of mine.

    Believe or not, the hip Londoner that I was at the time first heard about Facebook from her friends in Damascus: in one of those patios, drenched in the scent of jasmine, while puffing from a shisha and drinking mint tea.

    It was late 2006 (or early 2007?) and I was about to go back to London again. I was sad to leave, so that’s when Momo said: why don’t you join Facebook? This way we can stalk each other easily!

    I don’t think I’d heard of Facebook before – but so many in Damascus were already on it. I’ve noticed that isolated places often rely on new technology the most, and are the first to adopt it. In a country that was so far removed from the rest of the world, a tool such as Facebook provided a way to create connections, conversations, show that it wasn’t all about the axis of evil.

    Instagram post with an image of a street in old Damascus with plants and vines

    There is a Facebook group called “Humans of Damascus” that has the aim of preserving the digital memory of the city. There are Instagram accounts (see above) that do the same. So Facebook and all the apps under its umbrella are still helping out the good people of Syria, in a way.

    But I can’t be an active part of Facebook anymore.
    I think it is now official.

    If you’ve known me for a while or you’ve met me through the Design for Geeks group, you’ll notice that it’s been very quiet in there since the end of last winter. That’s when I started feeling that too many things were distinctly “off”, although I couldn’t have put my finger on what exactly. I simply felt I lacked the energy to keep posting in the group, when the algorithm would only show my posts to a handful of people – unless I fed it money money money. Which seems to be the only thing Facebook is interested in. Ruthlessly, and above anything else that matters to me (small details such as truth, integrity, democracy, ethics, honesty…)

    If you’ve recently bought a course, you were probably told to join the group. I’d hesitated in editing those emails because I thought there might still be a chance I’d go back to the group and revive it.

    Cover of Time magazine with Mark Zuckeberg's face and a button asking "Delete "Facebook"? with 2 options below: Cancel in blue and Delete in red
    Great cover, although its visual impact is somewhat hindered for geeks like us by the depiction of a mouse tip on an iPhone interface.

    To test and research, or not? And how much? That is the question.

    The topics of research and testing have been foremost in my mind and working day recently. For starters, back in the summer I published  Module 7 of the UX Blueprint course which focuses on testing. Moreover, I started work on a new project, the build of a new website for the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria: the first step was to create a usability test for its existing website, followed by an extensive research phase that we are right in the middle of at the moment.

    You probably have heard me say before that I believe user research – of which testing is but a facet – is the most important step in the UX process. And I still support that.

    However, there comes a point in the process where you have to stop asking the users, and trust your own gut – before creativity gets killed in the process.

    Think of the famous Henry Ford quote:

    “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    [Given the current egemony of car culture over more sustainable forms of transport, I kinda wish we’d got faster horses instead – but I won’t digress again!]

    Sometimes you just have to stop listening to others only – and listen to yourself and your own creativity instead. That’s the message of this week’s newsletter from Paul Boag: I recommend you either read or watch. Once again, it really resonated with me and the issues I’m encountering in my daily working life.

    In case you missed it: you won’t get out of here alive

    Tweet by @DougCollinsUX showing a confusing sign on a door with the words "Don't Push" on a blue background and "Pull Only" on a red background. Tweet text: Users should never have to rely on instruction, but, at the peril of chaos, when instructions are provided their layout must be clear and concise.

    The importance of layout that doesn’t rely on colour can literally mean life or death, in case of fire or other calamities.

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    By Piccia Neri.

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