The New Arab Conversation

Young bloggers in the Middle East are talking to the ‘enemy,’ and possibly sowing the seeds of reform.
January 1, 2007

Bombs don’t discriminate between combatants and children. This sad fact became an inconvenient one last summer for Israel, which had maintained that its bombing of Lebanon was solely an attack on Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and menaced the Jewish state’s northern border. To an anxious Lebanese population who’d seen most of their country’s south reduced to a parking lot, Israel’s persistent message — We are doing this for your own good — rang increasingly hollow.

By the beginning of August, the French and American ambassadors to the United Nations had finally hammered out a cease-fire resolution. But as the Security Council prepared to vote, the Lebanese government and the Arab League declared that the agreement was too favorable to Israel. A tense and edgy delegation arrived in New York on August 8 to plead the Arab case.

Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, didn’t have to do much at those deliberations — simply listen to the complaints, appear to be the least obstructionist in the room, and restate his country’s position, as absurd as it may have sounded by that point, that Israel’s bombs were in fact helping the Lebanese people to free themselves from the “cancer” of Hezbollah that had metastasized in their midst. In this last task, he had an unusual ally: “I believe that one courageous Lebanese youngster was speaking for many when he wrote in his Internet blog, and I quote, ‘It is not only Israeli soldiers that the Hezbollah has taken hostage. It is us, the people of Lebanon.’”

This “Lebanese youngster” was, of course, a blogger, and maybe the first to have his words bounce off the solemn walls of the United Nations. And though he probably would not have appreciated being deployed as a weapon in Israel’s public-relations war, the presence of his independent voice, a counterintuitive opinion not filtered through any official source, said a lot about the power of Middle Eastern Web logs to expose a hidden trove of multiple perspectives in a world that the West often imagines as having only one perspective — that of the “Arab Street,” a place of conformity, of mass acquiescence to singular passions, be they blind support for a dictator or seething hatred of Israel.

Last summer was, in fact, a watershed moment for the Middle Eastern blogosphere. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah not only brought attention to the many different Arab conversations that had taken place on homemade Web sites in the past two or three years, but also launched thousands more of them. And they were more than just a handful of aberrant voices. They reflected a new culture of openness, dialogue, and questioning. And unlike the neoconservative notion that these ideals can be dropped on a foreign population like so many bomblets, the push for change here is coming from within. Whether it is a Jordanian student discussing the taboo subject of the monarchy’s viability or a Saudi woman writing about her sexual experiences or an Egyptian commenting with sadness at an Israeli blogger’s description of a suicide bombing, each of these unprecedented acts is one small move toward opening up these societies.

The Arab blogosphere has been growing for a few years now, though not at a particularly quick pace. Only 10 percent of the Arab world has Internet access, yet that is a five-fold increase from 2000. Of course, not all Arab blogs are about liberalizing Arab society. Some use the technology as another front in the jihad against the West being waged by groups like Al Qaeda. One, Irhabi 007, who was recently profiled in The Atlantic Monthly, created Web sites to disseminate videos of beheadings and insurgent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Most analysts and bloggers put the number of Arab bloggers at fewer than 25,000. Of those, a majority blog in Arabic. And though there are surely interesting discussions happening on those sites, Arab bloggers themselves say that a particularly interesting alternative space is being formed on the sites composed in English. Now aggregated on blogging portals like iToot.net and enhanced by the YouTube-like Web site Ikbis, it is in this community of people who are self-consciously half-turned toward the West that one can feel the breathing becoming easier.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Those bloggers are people like Roba Al-Assi, a twenty-one-year-old design student in Amman, Jordan, who recently wrote about her opposition to the death penalty for Saddam Hussein:

ldquo;It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice (I know he killed thousands, but it is in my moral fabric to be better than others. Throw him in jail for the rest of his life, that’s a lot worse than death).rdquo;

Or the Egyptian blogger who calls himself Big Pharaoh, a twenty-seven-year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo, who expressed his support for the Egyptian culture minister who was criticized for stating that he thought the hijab, the traditional woman’s head covering worn by some Muslim women, was “regressive”:

"There are numerous things that make me proud of this country. How the country descended into such stupidity, ignorance, and darkness is definitely not among them. I feel like vomiting every time I think about how this man was virulently attacked for merely stating his opinion on a thing as stupid as the hair cover."

Or Laila El-Haddad, who, on her blog, Unplugged: Diary of a Palestinian Mother, describes herself as a “journalist, mom, occupied Palestinian — all packed into one,” and posted this account of crossing at Rafah from Egypt back into Gaza, after waiting in limbo for weeks for the border to open:

"Some wailed in exhaustion, others fainted; still others cracked dry humor, trying to pass the time. We stood, thousands of us, packed together elbow to elbow like cattle, penned in between steel barriers on one end, and riot-geared Egyptian security guards on the perimeter, who were given orders not to allow anyone through until they hear otherwise from the Israelis — and to respond with force if anyone dared."

In the American blogosphere, opinions and life tales blossom a millionfold every day. But against the background of a largely party-line mainstream local Arab media, and the absence of avenues for national conversation, these Arab bloggers, most of whom are anonymous for their own safety, commit small acts of bravery simply by speaking their minds. It should be said that most of the people maintaining blogs do come out of the highest strata of society, economically and educationally, so their opinions can seem at times to represent no wider a circle than the upper crust of any given country. But, as Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian blogger who was forced into exile in September 2005 for his democracy activism, which included blogging about his eight-month interrogation by Syrian security services, put it: “There is nothing wrong with admitting that we represent a certain elite. It’s not exclusively an economic elite, though economics surely plays a large factor. These are people who are comfortable, who have more time to blog. But in itself this is not the problem. The importance of this technology at this stage is to connect the elites better, to network the elites, to make them able to share more ideas and organize.” The power of the medium, Abdulhamid says, will come when those bloggers find a way to “cross the bridge between the elite and the grass roots” — a process that is already beginning, through a few organized demonstrations coordinated by bloggers, online campaigns, and the posting of information about police brutality or sexual harassment.

Blogs can serve two functions: they are diaries, where the minutiae of a life are spelled out in 500-word posts, and they are a personal op-ed page, in which a writer comments at will about news articles and daily political developments, rambles in anger or appreciation, or promotes ideas. All of this happens every day on American blogs. But the context in the Arab blogosphere is different. For one thing, it is so much smaller. In the U.S., political blogs tend to split off into separate spheres of left and right that rarely touch — call them Huffingtonville and Hewittland — each with its predictable response to any political event. But the small size of the Arab blogosphere forces people with contrary opinions, or even more mildly divergent viewpoints, to engage each other. As one Arab blogger said, “We’re not big enough to preach to the choir yet. There is no choir.”

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.

To hear the bloggers themselves describe it, blogging has taken off in the Arab world because it presents an opportunity to reclaim individuality. In a region where leaders, be they Hassan Nasrallah or Ismail Haniya, claim to speak on behalf of all Arabs, a blog is a chance to contradict, to undermine, and to assert. “Every leader thinks they represent everyone in these countries,” says Abu Kais. “And I think that’s something we challenge every day in our blogs. We challenge what they say, and we always show the politicians as hypocrites, really. We have documented what has happened over the past two years and are able to contrast statements that show the level of the hypocrisy. That’s something you don’t always find in Lebanese media.”

The dynamism of the blog posts, as well as the string of comments that usually follow each of them, can best be appreciated when viewed against a backdrop of the mainstream Arab media. With the exception of a few papers in Lebanon (notably, the English-language Daily Star) and a handful of publications in Egypt and Jordan, most local media in the Arab world are still either directly state-controlled or subject to such intimidation by the government that journalists and editors rarely challenge authority. Each country’s media have their red lines that cannot be crossed. In Jordan, it is the monarchy. In Egypt, it’s the Mubarak regime. Any criticism of fundamentalist Islam’s growing role in Arab society is off limits to everyone. And in much of the Arab local media Israel is portrayed as the ultimate evil. Israel, in fact, can be a tool of state control in Arab media. A high level of anti-Israel rhetoric serves the purpose of directing anger and scrutiny away from the regimes in power.

That was mitigated somewhat by the advent in recent years of satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, which offer at least the potential of a more independent analysis and criticism of Arab governments. But by some accounts, both channels, though Al-Jazeera more so, have taken on a tone and a content that plays, as one Syrian blogger put it, “to the largest common denominator, drawing on the same language of victimhood, the tired Arab nationalist line. It is Fox News. Many people compare it to CNN. I think it has to be compared to Fox.” (The Israeli media, for their part, though certainly free and open to criticizing the government and not averse by any means to plastering the country’s problems on the front page, also resort most often to simple narratives and well-known generalizations when it comes to depicting the Arab enemy, not giving serious attention to the aspiration of the Palestinians, for example).

The bloggers have stood out against this background. Some of them have even used the Web for political action. Bloggers led an Arab movement to support products from Denmark in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon riots and the Arab boycott that followed. They have also organized demonstrations and, much like American bloggers, used their Web sites as forums to expose injustices. Egyptian bloggers recently circulated video of men wilding in the streets of Cairo, sexually assaulting women at random, eventually bringing the incident to the world’s attention. Jordanian bloggers, angry that the government regulators had decided to block access to Skype, a phone service that allows users to communicate freely over the Internet, started a campaign that led to the decision’s reversal. And then there was the war, in which bloggers organized donations for the displaced of Lebanon.

Still, there are good reasons why most of the Arab blogosphere remains anonymous. Just this past year, several bloggers were jailed in Egypt, including Abdel Karim Sulaiman Amer, who was arrested in November and charged with “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims,” and “defaming the President of the Republic.” Earlier last year, another Egyptian blogger, Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was arrested and given three consecutive fifteen-day detentions in prison, largely for his blogging activity. Other countries, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, don’t arrest bloggers, but they aggressively block blogs they find subversive.

The Committee to Protect Bloggers, a now defunct U.S. organization that monitored bloggers who found themselves in danger, kept track of the various forms of intimidation and suppression. Curt Hopkins, who was the group’s director, says there are three basic methods that countries employ to suppress bloggers: technical filtering, the law, and direct intimidation. Though it is fairly easy to track down bloggers using IP addresses, bloggers have an easier time evading the authorities than do journalists working for a newspaper. “When it comes to shutting down a publication, it’s pretty easy,” says Hopkins. “You just send some goons with baseball bats and suddenly you don’t have a publication. It’s that simple. Also it’s easier to find people because they are in the offices when you come to arrest them. And though it’s true that if you have enough money and time, you can find almost anyone, you’ve got to remember that most governments don’t have enough money and enough time.” Abdulhamid, the Syrian blogger who continued to update his blog every day, even while the state police were interrogating him, also noticed such limitations. “During my interrogation, I saw that, one, most security apparatus really don’t have access to the Internet; two, they don’t know how to use that technology very well to begin with, even if they did have access.” Still, enough bloggers have either been arrested or, as in Abdulhamid’s case, had their lives threatened, for the fear to be well founded.

Last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah was a defining moment for the Arab blogosphere, when all the elements of the online world that had been building for the previous two or three years suddenly were put to the test in what became widely known as “the most-blogged war.” In such a crisis, when entrenchment and nationalistic devotion tend to trump openness and self-criticism, the Arab blogs could easily have lost their unique flavor. But they didn’t. And the blogosphere only strengthened one of its more interesting liberalizing functions: acting as a frequency of communication between Arabs and Israelis.

For the first time, the phenomenon gained some attention in the West. How could it not? There was something revolutionary in the notion of an Israeli woman huddling in a bomb shelter in Haifa instant-messaging a Lebanese man whose family was planning its escape to Damascus, even while Katyusha rockets and bombers flew overhead. “While two countries were at war, people were live-blogging it and talking about it in real time with each other,” says Michael J. Totten, a prominent American blogger who has edited a book of blog posts from the war and traveled widely in the Middle East. “There has never been anything like that in the American blogosphere, nor in any two countries that I’m aware of in the world ever.” Totten had lived in Beirut and knew what it meant for the two sides to be talking in this way. “It was encouraging for me to see this,” he said. “Because on the Lebanese side the standard line is that Israel is the enemy, full stop. And it is actually illegal for any Lebanese citizens to have any contact whatsoever with an Israeli citizen. It is treason. But most of the people in the Lebanese blogosphere were having none of it.”

The blogs did what they do best. First, you had full descriptions from individuals of their experience under the bombardment, both physical and psychological: an Israeli blogger named Gavriel, for one, tried to give a face to the Israeli army then moving north into Lebanon. “We know these soldiers,” he wrote. “They’re all of our kids — for some of us literally so. We’ve known them since they were little. They’ve grown up in front of us, we’ve watched how they were raised. We’ve watched them shoot hoops, and play games in the street. We’ve bought cotton candy from their neighborhood stands . . . . They’re not killers but defenders, the best we’ve got.” Or there was Lebanese Lady, writing, “What I feel now, as a citizen, and what everyone feels is disappointment, anger, anxiety, frustration. We’re scared and locked up at home. War came in a day. War in one day. All the books I’ve read about war, the daily news on Afghanistan and Iraq, how we were saying ‘how terrible the situation was in Gaza’ — and now I’m living it.”

In addition to this outpouring of real-time testimony, you could read actual discussions, and often heated arguments, taking place in the comments sections of certain blogs, in which Lebanese and Israelis engaged each other at the deepest levels about the politics of the conflict, their fears, and sometime even their hopes for the days after. Those provided an important outlet for many people, even when the rhetoric was belligerent. At least we’re talking, bloggers frequently pointed out. One site, lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com, created in February 2005, became one of the main destinations for such conversations, and during the month-long duration of the fighting, received a quarter of a million page views.

Lisa Goldman, an Israeli blogger who grew up in Canada, has far-reaching contacts in the Arab blogosphere and has been, for many Arab bloggers, their first link with an Israeli. She worried that in the darker moments those lines of communication would be cut. And to some degree, she admits, they were. Friendships were ruptured. But for the most part, the connections stayed intact. “I pictured a very small core of people huddling together surrounded by this massive, massive sea of hate — everyone just yelling at each other and pulling out the same old narratives and arguments and refusing to see past them,” she said. “The only solace, I think, was that at the end of the day, if you really look at what happened, even with war flaring around us, it was impossible for the bloggers from both sides who were talking to really wage a battle against someone you had a genuine relationship with.”

The blogger known as Egyptian Sandmonkey, the twenty-five-year-old son of a prominent member of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, is on the phone from Cairo and laughing. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a poor Jew,” he says. “What? Poor Jews? How did that happen? I thought that at your bar mitzvah you got full membership and the manual for how to rule the world. And then they give you your shares in the media. I keep telling my friends, if the Jews really control the media, they are some of the most self-hating Jews I’ve ever met in my life.”

Developing a complex picture of Jews, and of Israelis (the distinction between the two is not often made in the Arab world), is no easy task in Egypt. Even for someone like Sandmonkey, who comes from what he calls an “upper middle-class family,” and was educated largely outside his birth country, the distorted perceptions run deep. “The Egyptians know nothing about the Israelis,” he says. “We don’t know anything about Israeli society. We don’t know anything about their culture. And part of that has been our government trying to keep us away from the information. An Israeli can come into Egypt very easily. For an Egyptian to go to Israel, it’s really, really hard to do. You have to go through a large bureaucratic process. And the point is to keep us in the dark. Don’t humanize the people. It’s easier to vilify the Jews in Israel.”

Maybe the most dramatic way in which this blogosphere is affecting the Arab world is by breaking down that ultimate taboo. Even in a place like Lebanon, with a large portion of the population striving to create a liberal, modern society, Israel is the last barrier. That is rooted in Lebanon’s history, including recent history. Yet there is so much investment in seeing Israel as the source of all its problems that it has become a mindless reflex for many.

There are, of course, plenty of bloggers who use the Internet as a way to disseminate more hate and misunderstanding, many of whom also gained attention last summer during the war. One case, infamous among Arab and Israeli bloggers, is Perpetual Refugee, a Lebanese businessman who had occasion to visit Israel a few times, socialized with Israelis (even sharing a bottle of wine with Lisa Goldman), and subsequently wrote friendly posts about making peace. As soon as the war came, he made what was described as a “360-degree turn,” becoming virulently hateful about Jews, about how Israel “massacred innocent souls to fulfill its biblical destiny.” But Perpetual Refugee was something of a high-profile anomaly among the English-language bloggers.

“I always say there are two kinds of arguments,” says Sandmonkey. “There are the arguments in which you hope to find the truth and the arguments in which you want to defend an established truth.” It’s the first type of argument that seems to be prevailing. Take this post by Charles Malik (also a pseudonym), a Lebanese blogger, who found himself exploring the Israeli blogosphere last April, by chance on Holocaust Remembrance Day. He asks questions that would seem almost blasphemous considering the climate in the Middle East:

Think about what Israelis deal with on a daily basis: frequent suicide bombs, support for such attacks by the popularly elected Palestinian government, threats of annihilation from a country arming itself with nuclear weapons, constant words of hate from the Arabic speaking world, and remembrances of the Holocaust . . . . Not knowing about “them” is the worst crime we can commit. It invalidates them as humans, as if they don’t even matter. They are Stalin’s faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil bloodsuckers whom it is righteous to kill. Our papers definitely need to start covering more than major political events in Israel. We should remember their tragedies.

If the Arab bloggers tend to be those who have been exposed to the West, many of the Israelis interacting with them are recent immigrants like Lisa Goldman, who arrived six years ago, and Lirun Rabinowitz, who has been living in Israel for a year and a half. Rabinowitz shares his blog with a Lebanese woman and was recently invited to be a co-author on the United Arab Emirates community blog and, even more surprisingly, on an annual Ramadan blog, in which various bloggers write about how the Muslim holiday is celebrated in their countries. Recently, on the UAE blog, he was accused in the comments section of being needlessly provocative for putting the words “Tel Aviv” after his name at the end of his posts. To his surprise, a number of Arab readers rushed to his defense in the comments section.

Rabinowitz says that perusing the Arab blogosphere has deepened his understanding of what is happening inside Arab society. “When I go to them, I see what are they worrying about, what are they wondering, how they are feeling, what level of analysis they are putting on things, how keen they are to see my side, and when they are only prepared to see their own. Is there room for bridging? And I learn a lot about what their knee-jerk reaction looks like, what their analysis looks like, what their fears look like.” And to him, that added layer of knowledge is a rebuke to the other forces in Israeli society that he feels are trying to define the “enemy” for him. “You want to tell me that these people are stupid? Well, they’re not,” says Rabinowitz. “You want to tell me that these people want to live in a dictatorship? Well, they don’t. You want to tell me that they can’t be Muslim and tolerant and friendly at the same time? Well, it’s wrong. You want to tell me that they hate me just because they’re Muslim and I’m Jewish? Well that’s wrong, too. And they prove that to me every day. And I get this amazing opportunity to dispel every demonic myth and every stupid stereotype that I could have ever thought of, and that’s amazingly liberating.”

Is this hopeful? Yes, as long as one keeps in mind, once again, what a small segment of the population, both Arab and Israeli, is sitting in front of glowing screens and reaching out to the “other.” The bloggers will say, universally, that revolutions almost always start with a tiny elite. But we are a long way from this revolution’s doorstep. Instead, this blogosphere feels more like a small community of open-minded young people who have discovered pathways that were previously closed.

Still, seeds do grow. The grass-roots student wing of the civil rights movement, born at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1960, in what evolved into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC), was made up of young people, privileged enough to be attending college but not content with the pace of integration in America. They made themselves into a vanguard, tearing holes in walls so that others could then pass through after them. Someone had to take the first step, and who better than they — young, educated, and sensitive to the restrictions that were going to be placed on their personal and communal advancement.

The young insider-outsiders of the Middle East, blogging openly about their frustrations with the Arab world, about its persistent prejudices and limitations, as a way of liberalizing their societies, are doing what the front line of any social movement does — they say the unspeakable, they form the bonds that were previously unthinkable, they stand in the places that they are not supposed to stand. The Arab world will reform only when mindsets begin to change and a culture of dissent burgeons where it has never been allowed to exist openly before. If there is a way to kick-start this process, it is surely in the post of a twentysomething blogger wondering out loud why things can’t be more open, more transparent — more different.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.