Nationalism or religious fundamentalism. Sectarianism or secularism. Unified sovereignty or Balkanization. Occupation or resistance. A future Iraq or no Iraq at all?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The age of Iraqi bloggers, come and gone?

As the media bullets flew in the 18 months preceding the US invasion of Iraq, connected Iraqis who were both web-savvy as well as proficient in foreign languages took to the internet to give a rare, albeit belated, look at life in the embargoed country.

In 2002, a blogger by the name of Salam Pax started to earn notoriety as he searched for his chum Raed, in the now defunct Where is Raed blog. Western media jumped all over the blog - and the blogger - as the novelty of it all (a young Iraqi beyond the watchful eye of the Baathist minder speaking freely) provided fodder for a glimpse into what the enemy sounds like.

Or looks like.

There was nothing and no one like Salam Pax at the time - the name of the blog a play on the words peace in Arabic and Latin.

But Salam's fame du jour would only grow into its finite maturity as shock and awe brought Iraq to its knees. Writings became ones of desperation and angst as Baghdad slowly unraveled under a horrific barrage of firepower.

From Salam, the origin of all Iraqi bloggers, came Raed's, Riverbend's Baghdad Burning, Iraq The Model's (ITM) and Zeyad's Healing Iraq, all fruits of an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.

From the outset, it was evident that Iraqi bloggers did not speak with one voice. Articulate, enthralling, and sometimes riveting, Salam, Raed, Riverbend and Zeyad provided a potpourri of differing reactions to the invasion and occupation of their city Baghdad.

From the outset as well, these bloggers started to divert the American - and indeed global - discourse on Iraq.

While US embeds would claim a newsbit from Baghdad, the aforementioned bloggers would take darts to a dartboard and tear apart the US media construct.

All of a sudden, US media monopoly on Iraq was broken (for an English-speaking audience; Al Jazeera would have a profound impact on Arabic audiences, but more on that later).

These Iraqis, all of them blogging from within the war-ravaged country, formed the core of Iraqi bloggers.

But the fissures began to grow. ITM, a blog by two brothers who would eventually be rewarded for their writings with a visit to the White House to meet with US President George Bush, began to extol the virtues of the invasion.

They stressed the advantages of being invaded and administered by Paul L. Bremer. As the US public ever so slowly started to turn against the war by 2004, thanks in large part to the writings of Riverbend's Baghdad Burning, the ITM blog began to approach that of mainstream right-wing US talk radio.

Careful appreciation of GOP platforms and aims in Iraq isolated ITM from other Iraqi bloggers which now numbered in the dozens.

Nor did the visit to meet Bush did not sit well with other Iraqi bloggers. As a result, ITM became more of an forum for a US audience more interested in hearing that the Iraqi campaign was going well rather than hearing stories of Iraqis being killed at checkpoints.

But the reality on the ground would override much of the fairy tale renderings on their blog.

By 2004, Salam was less interested in blogging and strayed into documentary film-making. His blog lost its steam. Healing Iraq, Zeyad's writings, which had formerly whitewashed the US invasion, slowly began to become darker in its vision. By 2007, Zeyad would become severely embittered, perhaps disillusioned with the democratic model gone wrong.

His blog, however, remains an excellent news source portraying some of the extremely dire conditions Iraqis in and outside the country face and is usually a first stop for journalists wishing to learn more than the usual Green Zone fanfare.

Raed moved to the US and his blog as well turned into a rant, focusing on issues non-Iraqi, which seemed to weaken his forte. When Raed worked with Mowaffaq Al Roubbaie, a principal architect of the Iraq war, many Iraqis rejected him and questioned his previous anti-war, anti-US position. That he blogged criticism of the US while living in California did not sit well with US readers either.

Out of the first patch of bloggers only Riverbend's Baghdad Burning survived the deluge that was to destroy Iraq in the period 2003-2005.

The fame, and popularity, of said blogs inspired nearly three hundred other Iraqi blogs. However, none have yet come close to match the veracity, tenacity, and dissimilitude of the giants, if we may be so bold.

Several of the new blogs appeared little more than vehicles of opportunism, with some of their authors seeking apprenticeship abroad, usually in the US.

And none of the blogs matched the serious political acumen of Riverbend, Zeyad, Salam, Raed and ITM.

Several of the new blogs tried to become new Riverbends. A slew of women tried their hands at earning the popularity of "Girl Blog from Iraq" but failed miserably. Neither their language proficiency (lack thereof) or their political naivete helped.

This list includes several "flowery" blogs by high school bloggers who wrote of cats, flowers and other rainbow-inspired themes while explosions and kidnappings sent 6 million Iraqis fleeing beyond the country's borders.

Others focused on writing of their personal lives, their dance classes, their hopes to get pregnant, make friends, kill the boredom, and so on. These included the oddly titled Neurotic Iraqi Wife, Ihath, Konfused Kid, and others.

The subject was not Iraq per se but stories of personal gain and triviality. As a result, the focus was lost and with it the urgency to tap into these blogs as valuable news resources. They are not considered serious efforts.

While Zeyad and Riverbend continued to receive tens of thousands of emails and comments on their blogs, the new bloggers could barely manage in the few dozen.

For a while, it seemed that the popularity of Iraqi bloggers had waned. Such blogs as 24 Steps to Liberty, An Arab Woman Blues, Truth About Iraqis, Baghdad Dweller, Treasure of Baghdad, Star of Mosul, Eye Raki, Morbid Smile, Where Date Palms Grow, and a handful of others tried to carry on the torch of serious reporting of events in Iraq, even though most of them were writing from elsewhere.

But unfortunately, these blogs were infested by non-Iraqis trying to aggravate the issues and blog owners. A group of commentators who all seemed to frequent a non-Iraqi blog about Iraq prowled through the above and tried to disrupt the message the Iraqis attempted to deliver.

Eventually, some of these blog owners ended up trying to explain the Iraqi perspective - and deflecting accusations of terrorism - to their readers.

Consequently, the ship carrying their messages ran aground and were beached. Their blogs have become tired forums of mudslinging between those who stand against the Iraq war and those who continue to support it.

The facts, unfortunately, are lost in the melee.

It has been nearly five years since the invasion of Iraq and in this time we have concluded that only one blogger has distinguished their role and cemented their contribution to the discourse on Iraq:


Beyond the publishing of two highly acclaimed books derived from her blogs and the various international literary awards and merits she has won, her style, demeanor, and characterization of events in Iraq could be considered to have diverted the course of the war itself.

In no other case has the adage the pen is mightier than the sword been more apt.

Yahoo, which reviewed Riverbend's blog, seems to think so as well. From their review:

The pseudonymous "Riverbend" has written with great eloquence, passion, and cogency about her experience during the occupation, so much so that her posts have been aggregated in two books. While we try to quantify the tragedy in Iraq with reported numbers symbolizing the dead, wounded, and displaced, this one first-hand account cuts to the truth of the situation on the ground more than any news reports or histories ever could.
More from the review.

Riverbend finally left Iraq in the summer of 2007 and posted a very poignant reminder of what Iraqi families feeling the country must endure, both physically and psychologically.

For further reading on Iraqi bloggers:

Av Iraqi rounds up Iraqi bloggers

Asterism's weekly summary