Online diarists from the Arab world are contributing in a meaningful way to a medium that has forever changed public debate.
Blogosphere of influence
The internet has thrown up a lot of ugly coinages since it emerged 20 years ago, but for sheer gruesomeness, few can rival the colloquial name for online diaries, the "blog". "Blogosphere", admittedly, runs it a tight race and its other derivatives - blogger", "vlog" (a blog on video) and so forth - aren't much better. Yet the thing itself is a marvel: a literary form and public medium unrivalled in history for flexibility and ease of access. User-friendly writing platforms such as Wordpress and Blogspot have made pundits out of everyone with an internet connection and two thoughts to rub together, a fact that has changed the shape of news media, political discourse, academic research and a good deal else. The rise of the blogger was a watershed moment in the internet age. And yet... "blog".
Lucky Arabic speakers, then, who get all the medium's reverberating power and not too much of its naffness. Online diaries are known in Arabic by the rather graceful word moudawanat, and you can expect to hear a lot more about them as the moudawanosphere continues its rapid expansion. A recent study undertaken by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University identified 35,000 Arabic-language blogs, plus several thousand more in a mixture of Arabic and other languages. Bloggers from across the Arabic-speaking world offer anecdotal evidence for the explosion in blogging's popularity over the past few years. "When I started five years ago we were like a bunch of 10 or 15 people blogging from Saudi Arabia about Saudi Arabia," one interviewee told me. "Today we have more than 10,000 Saudi blogs, so it's quite different now."
Who are the Arabic bloggers? According to the Berkman report Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent, they are mainly male, mainly young and mainly Egyptian or Saudi. Moreover, to judge from the paper, the biggest surprise for the researchers was that the Arabic blogosphere doesn't really see itself as a Pan-Arabic phenomenon at all. "Those that write about politics tend to focus on issues within their own country," it claims. "Domestic news is more popular than international news..." It notes, however, that the situation in Gaza is a major topic of interest across the Arab world. And there was one discovery that must have reassured its American readers: to appearances, the bloggers aren't, for the most part, terrorists. "Across the map," the authors explain, "Arab bloggers are overwhelmingly critical of violent extremists... We consider this a positive finding". Alas, the flies in the ointment for potential terror targets include the plausible thought that those with violent inclinations might prefer not to announce themselves on Livejournal, and the old quibble about who qualifies as a terrorist as opposed to a freedom fighter. As the report suggests: "This complex issue merits additional research."
In lieu of violent radicalism, it turns out that the Arabic blogosphere resonates to quite homely concerns. Personal, diary-like entries are typical. Religion is a popular topic across the region, but again, generally in a personal, autobiographical spirit. Poetry, art and literature are discussed; pop culture isn't so much. Like many bloggers in the Arab world, Ahmed al Omran is young, male and Saudi. Unlike most of them, however, he writes about politics. Al Omran produces the popular English-language journal Saudi Jeans (saudijeans.org), which offers progressive views on Saudi politics. "My focus is Saudi Arabia," he explains. "I might occasionally write about regional issues or stuff like that, but my main focus is Saudi Arabia and I try to maintain that focus... Even if I have the goal of reforming the region or the Middle East as a whole in mind, I think it's best to start with your own country first. Then you can move forward from there. Charity begins at home, right?"
The blog is outspoken on the role of Saudi's religious police, gender issues, ecological problems and a good deal else. "I've got people who are very impressed and like what I'm doing," al Omran says, "and people who find it damaging to the kingdom." Saudi's blogosphere is less regulated than its traditional media - "we have more space," as al Omran puts it, "to play with the red lines" - but the red lines are present nonetheless. Last year, Fouad al Farhan, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent bloggers, was arrested over his writing. Not that al Omran is deterred. "Reforming this country and changing it to be a better place is a noble goal," he says. "It's worth taking a risk for."
The UAE's approach to regulation is much softer than that of Saudi Arabia. One is unlikely to be yanked off the street for posting an off-message opinion, for instance. "Basically the worst that can happen," says one UAE blogger (screen name: "Emirati"), "is that Etisalat decides to block you." Emirati writes the feisty comment blog An Emirati's Thoughts (aethoughts.blogspot.com). Despite his pugnacious style and rabble-rousing self-identification as "the sheikh of controversy", Etisalat has so far left him in peace. He seems almost disappointed. "I am sceptical regarding the power of bloggers," he tells me. "There hasn't been an acknowledgement where a blogger has got arrested somewhere, you know, like in Bahrain or Egypt." The stance of the government towards the UAE's blogging community is, he says, "like the elephant and the antelope in the jungle... They're just ignoring each other, drinking from the water hole, you know?" For Emirati, the archetypal UAE blogger is someone well educated but poorly connected - someone who lacks the power to "get things done in the wasta way", in other words. For such a person, keeping a blog supplies the opportunity to "vent", as well as the "hope that it will carry influence in some kind of way".
In truth, Emirati's writing is less seditious than it is robustly critical: it displays a sort of impatient patriotism, one moment bemoaning the non-existence of a UAE motoring industry, the next questioning the feasibility of Abu Dhabi's 30-year development plan. It is also, unusually if the Berkman report is to be believed, quite global in focus. One essay reproaches the Muslim world for its lack of interest in the plight of Russia's Chechens. Another speculates on the possible consequences of a second Iranian revolution. In the end, the mood is that of a lively conversation that has adjourned from coffee shop to internet - and perhaps, for certain minority-interest topics, the web beats the cafe as a place to hash out one's thoughts. "You have lots of ideas," Emirati says wistfully, "but eventually there are only a certain amount of people who are interested in your ideas. So blogging gives you a wide audience, especially in the UAE."
One of the most remarkable things about the UAE's blogosphere - or at least the English-language portion of it - is how even-tempered it all is. Ali Gargash, the author of the Dubai Nights blog (dxbnight.blogspot.com) recalls the incendiary spirit in which he began his blogging career four years ago, when he was still in his teens. "When I first started I thought I'd be extremely controversial and all that. I thought that I had to blog under a secret name and everything," he says. He still uses the handle 3li, but more from force of habit than any lingering desire to conceal his identity. In fact, he is looking for a job in finance at the moment. "I never really considered that an employer would read my blog," he says. "But I always have talked about finance. If someone did take a look, I'm sure it would help my position."
Gargash concedes that the blogosphere can be a good deal looser-lipped than the press. "There are a lot of things," he says, "that won't be talked about in the newspapers, that are talked about when you sit in a coffee shop. And after he's been to the coffee shop, a local guy goes to his blog and puts it in there." Still, as informal as it may be, the blogosphere is no place for negativity in Gargash's view. "If it's destructive criticism no good can come out of that," he says. "But if you have constructive criticism, by all means talk about it and create awareness."
His view is echoed by the blogger known as BuJ al Arab. "People who are controversial always hide the point underneath," he tells me with a sigh. "Something went wrong at some point and they are expressing it in a certain way, unacceptable to people." BuJ recently took a year-long hiatus from blogging at bujassem.blogspot.com. "It got too political and I shut it down," he tells me. But the lure of online debate proved too much for him and the site is now active again. "I don't like to think of my blog as my mouthpiece for opinions or anything like that. It's a type of mechanism or medium to understand what people think," he explains. "If something happens I'll blog about it, and then I'll see what people think - if they agree, disagree, see what their opinions are."
He writes in English so as to address the largest possible audience. Indeed, he says that the UAE's Arabic-language blogosphere is generally too trivial to interest him. "It tends to be just like a personal diary, rather than the kind of interactive blog which I like," he says. "For me, if you don't get along with a person like that, there's no point reading their blog." When I ask him why the Arabic portion of the UAE's blogosphere should be any narrower in its concerns than the English, he says: "You really limit yourself if you just write in Arabic. To write exclusively in Arabic, it's either if your command of English is not that strong, or you just don't want to address people who speak English." BuJ's site may not be his mouthpiece, but he wants the world to know what he's saying all the same. It seems to be working: he estimates that his site gets 500 visits a week, a respectable figure. The only trouble is, few of them leave comments. "If you like what I'm writing and you have an opinion, you should share it," he says. "That's what blogs are all about."
Perhaps the desire to reach a wide audience is a natural concomitant of the urge to write in the first place. In the UAE, many Emirati bloggers seem to view their sites as an extension of their social lives - a sort of masked ball in which one can try out identities and opinions for size. A growing readership suggests your literary persona is working. Elsewhere in the Arab world, however, the blogosphere provides an opportunity for much more purposeful outreach.
Laila el Haddad, a former Al Jazeera journalist, has lived in the US since 2006. She's stuck there: since 2007 she has been unable to return to her home in Gaza. That makes it difficult to see her parents - though after months of trying, they have just managed to get out of Palestine to see her. But it also messes up the premise of her blog, gazamom.com, begun in 2004. "I had to find a way to adjust because I didn't want to just end my blog," she says. "So I had to think of a way to make that transition. Obviously it wouldn't be about living in Gaza, but rather Gaza living in me, if you will, and continuing to live our lives as Palestinians in exile."
Today, her blog mixes anecdotes, reflections on the Middle East, and thoughts on food and culture. When she started it, however, it provided a window on life under occupation. She recalls an episode when she and her family were detained in Cairo for 55 days before being readmitted to their country. "I began to blog more and more about our situation, being stuck there, the constant waiting and how that affected us personally," she says. "It was at that point that I realised that the personal is political for Palestinians." Once she got back to Gaza, the daily struggle to pass checkpoints or obtain groceries became grist to her writing. "A lot of Palestinian blogs attempt to be very politicised, and I guess the point of mine was to show you didn't need to exert any effort: politics was a part of everyday life for Palestinians," she says. "Occupation was very invasive, down to what kind of diapers were available for you to change your son that particular week."
El Haddad has readers all over the world. During the elections of January 2006, The Guardian asked her to post about the scenes in Gaza. She became Gaza's answer to Salam Pax, the celebrated blogger of the second Iraq war. Her journal helped publicise the Palestinian situation. That's why it's a mystery to El Haddad that very few of her countrymen have followed her example. "It seems like Palestinians use social networking forums and other chat forums more than they do blogs," she says. "The Berkman report talks about it being a more sort of local dialogue and private dialogue. It doesn't have the same effect as a blog would." But she recalls a friend of hers who was driven to stop writing by abusive commenters. "You do get a lot of vitriol," el Haddad says, "and a lot of things that people say - they will attack you personally." In the end, she says, her friend "just stopped. She said: "I can't take it any more." Presumably if one is already living under Israeli occupation, the last thing you need is a horde of internet trolls on your back. Besides, the rise of the moudawana might have done a lot to democratise journalism, but not everyone has the write stuff. El Haddad is sympathetic to this thought. "Living in Gaza and the occupied territories is an act of resistance in and of itself," she says. "If you can just survive and go about your daily life, you've done a major task right there."