But the more compelling reason for the singularity of the Arab blogosphere is that the Middle East is a region where the historical and the personal slam up against each other daily in a way they do only once a decade or so in America. This gives even mundane musings elevated significance. Bloggers are writing about their lives. But those lives are taking place in environments in which politics and history cannot be perceived as mere elements on the margins. For the twentysomething growing up in Riyadh, writing resentfully about the power of the religious authorities, the questions are fundamental ones about the state of her society. For the Egyptian blogger, the brutal suppression of a demonstration can make the difference in whether he chooses to stay in the country or leave. This urgency makes the commentary more complex and interesting than the us-versus-them combat of so many American blogs. “We see it’s the whole country at stake,” said a well-known Lebanese blogger who goes by the nom de blog Abu Kais. “For us, watching politics is not like watching a football game. It’s existential.”
Salam Pax is widely acknowledged as the Adam of Middle East bloggers. The blogging revolution that first began to spread through America in the late 1990s (the first “online diary,” as a blog was then known, was created by a Swarthmore student in January 1994) reached the Middle East three or four years ago, and it was only with Pax’s quirky and insightful dispatches in 2003 from a prewar and then postwar Iraq that Americans were made aware that the phenomenon had arrived there, too.
His blog, Where is Raed, had all the hallmarks of those that would follow in its wake. A twenty-nine-year-old recently graduated architecture student who had spent time in the West, Pax wrote in fluent English, observing the chaos that was quickly accumulating around him. At first, he was writing for himself, using the blog as a diary, but then he became aware of the scarcity of Arab bloggers writing in English about anything other than religious matters. As he told The Guardian in 2003, “I was saying, ‘Come on, look, the Arabs here: sex, alcohol, belly dancers, TV shows, where are they?’ All you saw was people talking about God and Allah. There was nothing about what was happening here.” Then the war began, and that impulse to expose the parts of his world that the West was not seeing took on an even greater urgency. By the time of the invasion, 20,000 people were reading Pax regularly. His posts captured an emotional, lived experience of the war, one that evaded most journalists covering the conflict.
A few dozen others then followed Pax, also writing in English, and eloquently capturing the Iraqi experience of the war. Here, for example, is the blogger Mohammed from Iraq the Model writing after a particularly brutal flare-up of sectarian violence in November 2006:
Being stuck at home for four days with all the violence going outside and the fear that it might reach you at home was a horrible experience. When the news came that the curfew was over and people began walking on the streets again there was a strange feeling that was particularly very strong this morning in Baghdad; despite all the rumors and fear from more wide-scale revenge attacks there was a feeling among the people that they must go out on the streets and live in all possible means.
The last two years have seen many more voices emerge from other Arab countries. Jordanian blogs began to appear in the wake of the Iraqi ones. According to the organizers of Jordan Planet, the largest server and aggregator of that country’s bloggers, what was only a handful of blogs last year is now a few hundred. The same is true of Lebanon. There, the blogs came in waves, with the first arriving in early 2005 during the Cedar Revolution, when the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was followed by mass protests that ended Syria’s military presence. The second wave came this summer, during the war with Israel. Egypt, and other, more conservative countries in the Arab world, have far fewer but equally vocal bloggers. Yet even in those nations the numbers have increased in the past year. In Saudi Arabia the number of blogs tripled last year to an estimated 2,000, according to a recent Washington Post article.