Love and Dissidence Through an Electronic Veil
by Melody Zagami
WE ARE IRAN
The Persian Blogs
by Nasrin Alavi
Soft Skull Press, New York, 2005
“This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.”—Rumi, Iranian-born poet
Nine centuries after Rumi penned these words, young Iranians post blogs to express themselves in a nation where drinking liquor and wearing lipstick warrant public flogging. The modern-day “secret sky” is the worldwide web, the veils have not fallen and though Rumi was speaking of love, it is, in today’s Iran, interchangeable with freedom.
Nasrin Alavi’s book, We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs presents a clear picture of the dissent of youth in Iran. In this expressive chronicle, Iranian bloggers denounce their government, critique American films and discuss politics. They also express the disdain and injustice that is brought upon them under the guise of religion.
According to Alavi, there are 64,000 blogs in Farsi. She reviews them all and translates a collection of them in this book. Alavi recounts the historical, social and cultural context of Iran today and chooses blogs that solidify and humanize all facets of Iranian life. Alavi chooses blogs that receive the most hits, allowing the reader to taste the intellect of a majority of the population.
The Iranian blogosphere was born of a young Iranian tech journalist named Hossein Derakhshan. He wrote a how-to-blog guide in Persian, allowing his peers to use the new medium to type the words they dare not speak. Derakhshan emigrated to Canada in 2000. He is a student at the University of Toronto. He continues to speak out and support Iranian bloggers who are harassed and arrested for their work. Last year he started a podcast, Radio Hoder. Again, he taught Iranians how to use this technology to their advantage.
In a June 2004 blog, Derakhshan tells his peers that they must start to write their blogs in English in order to make noise in the Western world. In the blog, he writes:
“If a news item isn’t written or printed in English…it has never happened—and if we keep the frightening details of human rights abuses locked in our hearts we will never be able to show the realities of Iran to outsiders.”
Authorities constantly shut down politically sensitive blogs, and the Iranian bloggers don’t use their names. They call themselves: “Spirit,” “Antidepressant,” “the Hungry Philosopher,” “Godfather,” and “Earth.”
While this book is foremost an insight into Iranian lives, it is also a revelation in what this medium can be used for. If our bloggers now perform a service that the mainstream media cannot seem to, the Iranian blogs are an exercise in expression that is not allowed anywhere else in that country.
This is not to say that Iranian bloggers do not write about the frivolities of life as well,
“The Matrix Revolutions is truly a shambles….a total freefall–What were the Wachowski brothers thinking?”—firstname.lastname@example.org
What is primarily shown in this book are the secret longings of a nation of educated youth unable to stand their repression much longer. The blogs are a catharsis for their writers.
Alavi writes, “Revelling in the forbidden, many writers use their blogs to honour men and women who are loathed by the regime. The bloggers pay tribute to anti-establishment heroes…”
One of the first “heroes” Alavi writes of is Dr. Muhammed Mossadegh, whose democratically elected government was toppled in an American and British-backed coup in 1953.
According to Alavi, he is regarded today as a mighty uncorrupted and democratic force in Iranian history. The ruling clergy deem him just a secular liberal who merits no memorials or place in their history.
Mossadegh was viewed as a threat to Western interests in the Middle East. He was the only democratically elected leader of his era in the Middle East and the United States and Britain worked to overthrow him. “By bringing down a democratically elected government, the United States also empowered key radical Islamic groups in Iran.”
What started as a democratic revolution in 1978, quickly transformed into a theocracy. Alavi quotes the blog of Iranian journalist, Ibraham Nabavi:
“We had a revolution so that a regime that from 1957 to 1975 had at most killed hundreds of Iranians…could be overthrown, and we brought in a regime that would kill thousands during its first days alone”
The people of Iran are ready for reform. It is clear from the blogs that the system in place has failed and many want change. In a blog titled “The Wind Will Carry Us,” email@example.com writes:
“I deeply believe that there are no short-cuts to democracy. There are no other paths but those which Gandhi or Mandela took or Mossadegh and Bazargan tried to take. The student movement can be a catalyst for reform but only for reform and not a revolution. We should not have to pay such a high price or end up again with the destruction and extinction of the best children of this nation… Sudden overnight change would be like an earthquake destroying what shelter we have over our heads… Reform was not invented by Khatami, nor is it dependent on him….Believe me, if we again choose a revolution and violent change…the wind will carry us.”
“What would happen if you were no longer legally required to wear the veil? Just imagine if our women were free to wear whatever they wanted; if even mixed bathing on the beach were allowed …would this be culturally tolerable to Iranians?” —firstname.lastname@example.org
Required to wear veils, forced into unwanted marriages and often treated as second-class citizens, Iranian women are a major focal point in Alavi’s book. One of my early, and few, criticisms of this book was that Iranians must not all have access to the Internet. How do you know if what you’re reading is representative of the majority of Iranians? Alavi addresses this question: “Blogs have allowed some Iranian women to express themselves freely for the first time in modern history… It might be objected that the majority of female bloggers do not reflect a true cross-section of Iranian society, as not everyone has access to computers and the internet. However, thanks to the Islamic Republic’s policy of free education and its national literacy campaigns, those who enter further education tend to be from a relatively wide cross-section of society. Iranian students come from a broad variety of social and regional backgrounds and have access to the Internet.”
In a chapter entitled “Virtually Unveiled Woman,” Alavi introduces feminist Muslim activists and their blogs. Western culture teaches us to feel sympathy toward these poor women who are not free to wear blue jeans and make-up. Avari writes: “These women activists are less interested in whether or not to wear the veil and more concerned with gaining access to education, wider employment opportunities, equality at work and better health care for their families.”
“You say Father can get a second wife; but we don’t even want the familiar scent of our mum’s beds to change… You say Father is allowed to give Mum a beating once in awhile; well, when we grow up we’ll show you who needs a beating.”—Antidepressant
Read that last one, read it over and over again. And think not about what it says, but rather, that it can be written at all.
In a country where the state controls the media, Iranians also use their blogs as a means of real-time communication and a journalistic tool. Iranian students, who have been protesting on and off since 1999, post notices, news and photos to their blogs, and activists write daily reports.
According to Alavi, Iranian author and journalist Massoud Behnoud of the BBC believes that the country is experiencing an “Internet Revolution’” that,”Internet sites and weblogs by dissident Iranian youths are independently shouldering the entire mission of a public media network and resistance against the conservative clergy.”
It is clear from We Are Iran that there is one voice and it is screaming loud and clear through distant cables and underground wires, and it is only a matter of time until that voice can no longer be stifled by the click of a keyboard.
We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs is available from Soft Skull Press: http://softskull.com/detailedbook.php?isbn=1-933368-05-5
Melody Zagami is the assistant editor of TowardFreedom.com
This review originally appeared in Toward Freedom, Feb. 9 http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/739/
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, March 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution