The Man Who Brought Blogging to Iran

Hossein Derakhshan discusses the nascent blogging movement in Iran and his trip to Israel to try to help Iranians understand a country their president describes as an enemy.

hossein.jpg
Hossein Derakhshan (Photo: Lisa Goldman)


Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian blogger whose blog, “Editor:Myself,” helped ignite what has been a surprising blogging phenomenon in Iran when, in 2001, he posted instructions about how to set up a Weblog in Farsi. Since then, nearly100,000 Iranian blogs have been created. The Iranian government, eager to control information, has tried to block Derakhshan’s blog, but it is still incredibly popular with young Iranians. For the past two weeks he has been blogging from Israel — a country that has been demonized in Iran for as long as he can remember, and one that the current president, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has demanded be “wiped off the map.” Derakhshan is on a mission, using his blog to try to defuse the tension between Israel and Iran, and giving the thousands of young Iranians who read him a more humane vision of the people their president describes as an enemy.


Gal Beckerman: You’ve been described in many places as the “godfather” of the Iranian blogs. How did you get the title?


Hossein Derakhshan: I kind of introduced this idea to Iranians, because maybe there were a few other people blogging in Persian but nobody was reading them. I had this background in Iran. I was a journalist and people were familiar with my name and with my work, and I had enough free days to figure out how to set it up. I posted instructions about how to make a blog using free Web services that were available. That’s what I did, and it became very successful and within a few months we had two or three thousand people who were using my instructions and were blogging in Persian — which was very surprising to me, because I had no idea that Iranians would be so into expressing themselves and writing about the things web logs are for.


GB: Were the blogs much like the blogs you see in the West? Were people using them the same way?


HD: No, I guess they’re less informative, less political, compared to what happens on the American blogs. There are many, many genres in Iranian blogs but some of the very popular ones are about literature and poetry. There are some that don’t write anything original, that just cut and paste. But there are many interesting ones now, you can read hundreds of interesting Iranian blogs everyday. It’s not limited to certain famous people anymore; it’s actually mainstream now. From trendy art students in the north of Tehran to young clerics in the holy city of Qom, it’s very mainstream. There are secular, anti-religious, anti-regime people and there are also some fundamentalist-supporting revolutionary guards.


GB: What has the government’s response to the phenomenon been? I imagine they must have been worried.


HD: Because it was the reformist government that was presiding while this thing was developing, they didn’t actually crush it at the beginning. Quite the opposite; they embraced it and they helped it grow.


GB: That was during Mohammed Khatami’s reign?


HD: Yes. The government was very supportive of the whole thing. I know they lent some money to a company giving free blogging service in Persian to Iranians at the time, and it’s still operating. It’s called persianblog.com. And that was a very significant reason that blogging became mainstream — because it had the correct script and an interface and it was much easier for Iranians to work with that then it was with blogger.com or MySpace, which they had been using.


But even during Khatami [government officials] started worrying about the influence of some of these blogs. Because they had no control over them. And then they started blocking many of them, including mine. Mine was one of the first blogs to be filtered. With other Web sites, it’s been about a year now since they have been blocking them. In the last few months they have really started filtering and blocking people’s access inside Iran. They can’t shut down the Web sites themselves because they are not hosted in Iran. So they just filter them out.


GB: Do you have a sense of why your blog in particular was censored that way?


HD: I do. I know why, because they told me. I went [from Canada] to Iran for the last elections this past June. As I tried to depart, they stopped me at the airport and they said, you can’t leave, you have to apologize. They wanted me to explain my writings. They expected me to comply with Iranian press laws, even though I didn’t have a license to work in Iran and I didn’t live there. They said, we have some issues with your blog, including insulting the Supreme Leader, bringing up the negative arguments about the nuclear program, discussing the Iran and Israel relationship. It really bothered them that I was discussing Internet censorship. I was trying to teach Iranians how to bypass filters.


Basically they told me that if you stop writing, then you are free to come back. But if you don’t, you can’t come back, or you can come back but you will be prosecuted.


GB: They told you this as you were leaving?


HD: They actually prevented me from leaving. They asked me to stay for another week and they summoned me to the Information Ministry and they officially interrogated me.


GB: I find the way that you are using your blog to be very interesting. It’s different than the more popular blogs here. It’s almost like a form of witness. You are really going out into the world, seeing things, and reporting on them. A lot of bloggers focus on analysis, chewing on what the media has produced. But you are doing something very different.


HD: I think that if you have enough audience with a blog, you can be both an observer and an activist. I think the example of my visit to Israel is exactly that, me trying to do those two things. It’s gotten great publicity. And that’s one of the main purposes for coming here. I wanted to counter the image that Ahmadinejad has produced around the world about Iran. I keep doing that, and at the same time I am reporting whatever I see for my Iranian audience. They have long been deprived of any genuine, unbiased information about Israel.


GB: That’s what’s interesting. You become a proxy for everyone else. I love the video and the photos, you taking it all in and sharing it. Have you been enjoying your time in Israel?


HD: It’s pretty nice. I like Tel Aviv. It’s one of those cities that even if you don’t speak Hebrew you can fit in. And there are so many Iranians here. [Ed.: There was a substantial and ancient Jewish community in Iran, almost all of whom left following the Islamic Revolution.] The strangest thing happened yesterday. I was on a mini-bus traveling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv talking on the phone to a friend of mine in Persian and then a guy who looked Iranian — but you can never tell, because Israelis all look Iranian to me — looked at me and let me know he understood me. One other guy who was sitting in the mini-bus then laughed and then the guy in the front turned around and smiled. It is so interesting to see what a high percentage of the population are Iranian. It must be the highest percentage outside of Iran.


GB: Have you been getting feedback from young Iranians reading your blog [who are] surprised about the picture of Israel you are presenting?


HD: Go to my Persian blog and look at the first comments after the post when I first announced I was going to Israel. That one got maybe 160 comments, almost all supportive, maybe 95 percent. That was very surprising. I had no idea it would get such support. But apparently it’s one of those things that have captured Iranians’ minds — especially young people who don’t have the history of experiencing anti-imperialist, radical left propaganda from the time of the revolution. It’s also kind of a forbidden place for Iranians, so it makes you more interested to understand exactly why it is forbidden.


GB: Have your own misconceptions been challenged?


HD: Israel is very much demonized in Iran and there is nothing but propaganda. What I found here though was a real democracy. There is real political partisanship [but] I was surprised to see how moderate the majority of the people are. That’s why Kadima [the new centrist political party created by Ariel Sharon before he fell into a coma] is winning and why it’s so popular. And a lot of Arabs actually live here, which I found interesting because it would be impossible for Jews to live in any Muslim country. I found Tel Aviv to be much more cosmopolitan and fun than I imagined. I like the cafĂ© culture. It’s very much like Europe, and I wasn’t expecting it. People are very secular here. Jerusalem was different. I dislike religion and it’s a very religious city.


GB: And you’re staying with blogger friends?


HD: I’m staying with an Israeli-Canadian who I first met in London at a blogging conference [Lisa Goldman, has blogged about her take on Hossein’s visit]. She was open to the idea and she was nice and offered me help and now I’m here.


GB: Do you think there is room for bloggers to move in the direction that you have gone, to use their blogs in the same type of activist way you are?


HD: What I am trying to do with my blog is like rapping, and Iranian politics is like classical music. What I’m doing is unconventional, its political activism that only requires a little bit of creativity, which is completely missing from the political culture of many countries. And if it wasn’t for Howard Dean’s movement in the U.S. and the Jon Stewart phenomenon, I have to say that I haven’t seen any kind of creative new approaches to politics anywhere as far as I know. But those two things really inspired me, and I’m trying to go on and go beyond them.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.