Jewish World Review July 23, 2003 / 23 Tamuz, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Axis of Email

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Salam Pax isn't unique anymore--and he's probably very glad of it.

Pax (a pseudonym) started keeping an online diary of life in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2002. The diary chronicled daily life--favorite foods, family drama, and the disappearance of a friend, "G.", whom Pax feared had been kidnapped by the government. When war began, Pax was the only known blogger in Iraq, and countless readers checked out his site to see how Baghdad residents were holding up, to leave encouraging comments, and to give advice. (Pax ended up getting advice on gas-proofing a room from an Israeli blogger.) Pax is still blogging at http://dear_raed.blogspot.com ; right now he's trying to find relief organizations that will help child rape victims. If you have any expertise in that area, please let him know.

And Pax is working to get more Iraqi blogs online. There are already three more: G. in Baghdad ( http://geeinbaghdad.blogspot.com ), Zainab (whose URL is complicated enough that it's probably easiest for you to find her by searching for her name on Pax's site), and Ishtar Talking ( http://ishtartalking.blogspot.com ). Women hold up half the tiny Iraqi blogosphere: Both Zainab and Ishtar are female. Their blogs range from G.'s sardonic note that Baghdad has been "hot listed as the best [destination] this summer on the 'Bin-Laden Tourism Board'" to Zainab's fiery rant against the U.S. invasion.

Hossein Derakhshan is also trying to spur the development of Iraqi blogging. Derakhshan, an Iranian emigrant to Toronto, owns Hoder.com, what may have been the first Iranian blog. He wrote the software that allowed Iranians to blog in Farsi (although his own blog is available in both English and Farsi), thus making it possible for many more Iranians to start writing online. Now, in part thanks to his efforts, Iran is jam-packed with blogs. Derakhshan speculated in May 2002 that there were already as many as a thousand Iranian blogs; a year later, Wired magazine put the estimate at 12,000 in Farsi alone (thus not counting the many Iranian blogs in English). Many blogs have followed the student protests that threaten the Islamic Republic's government. Blogs inside and outside Iran were able to disseminate information about the protests and Western media coverage quickly, playing a role similar to that of fax machines during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

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Web enthusiasts often say that "the Internet treats censorship like damage, and routes around it." By going online, Iranians were able to broadcast information and impressions to the outside world, and read uncensored reporting and opinion from outside the country. That's why the Iranian government finally got wise, cracking down by arresting blogger Sina Motallebi and holding him for 22 days. More recently, the government has blocked a host of domains, including Hoder.com, many other news portals and blogs, and several anonymizing services (which make it difficult to trace who's looking at what).

But Derakhshan is far from stifled. He's pledged that if he can't get his site unblocked, he will mount a public protest demanding to know why the Iranian government is censoring him. He's continuing to act as a clearinghouse for Iranian news and blogs. And he's offering to help anyone, especially any Iraqis, start blogs in Arabic.

At this point, you may be thinking, Well, that's nice and all, but so what? We've all seen Internet hype that collapsed at the first prick. And blogs are anything but the biggest story coming out of the Middle East today. Blogs, like any other high-tech innovation, will only benefit the already-privileged at first. They aren't going to be much use to a rural Kurdish woman. So why bother talking about them?

There are three main reasons, in my view. The first is the degree of connection blogs allow. An Iraqi woman in Basra can read daily reports from a U.S. military interrogator in Iraq (who goes by the pseudonym "Chief Wiggles"). Through comments boxes and links, bloggers can talk back and forth and create a community that is surprising in its ability to overcome national and political barriers. Blogs change our view of "the other": We learn either that he is not so "other" after all, or that we have been creating a false idea of him in our own image. We have to reckon with one another's real opinions and experiences, not our preexisting caricatures of grateful Iraqis or brutal U.S. thugs.

One of a dictator's biggest weapons is fatalism: the ingrained acceptance that this is just the way it is, that everyone lives like this, that there's nothing better and no point in trying. Emails and comments from online acquaintances with radically different expectations and experiences helped to erode that fatalism, pointing out that another way is possible. Azar Nafisi's recent best-selling autobiography, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, described the way that Western novels opened new worlds of possibility to her Iranian students. The novels helped give them back their imaginations and their dreams, which the Islamic Republic had sought to blinker and corral. A weblog or a comments box is much less sublime than Nabokov; but seeing one's own life through someone else's eyes can still fire the imagination and provoke hope.

These are some of the reasons Pedram Moallemian wrote a piece for the online magazine The Iranian on July 15 titled, "Blogs Shall Set You Free: You need your own." Moallemian said he had become "hooked" on Iranian blogs, "particularly those who dared to break taboos and post rather personal information on their daily lives, including notes of political dissent, romantic ventures, use of recreational drugs and even organizing to help the orphanages or mental asylums." When he started his own, he was able to present a vivid and personal picture of Iranian life to people who had never seen beyond the headlines. He even snared a few influential readers, including "regime change" guru Michael Ledeen.

The second reason is that the Internet provides the ability to avoid censorship. That makes online access--not blogging necessarily, but at least access to the Internet--crucial for societies struggling to become free.

And the final reason is that blogs offer practice in the habits of freedom. G. in Baghdad posted the poignant observation, "Here in Iraq every citizen was provided--since the early days of the regime--with a whole set of lies that gradually became the foundation on which you would build your perceptions of the world outside. Consequently you end up with two channels, a 'channel reality' that is off the air most of the times and 'channel rhetoric'[:] a mixture of self-denial, conspiracy theory (apologia) and propaganda." Blogs, because they let you carve out a piece of the world that you control, a place where you are both free and responsible, will help turn the "channel reality" back on. They will help the habits of tyranny dissipate, to be replaced by the contentious, unpredictable, but up-front habits of freedom.

That's why it's important that Salam Pax get lost in the crowd.

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© 2003, Eve Tushnet