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French Version

Formatting Iran's hard drive via the Internet

Nasrin Alavi's 'We are Iran: The Persian Blogs' offers a glimpse into a potential cyber-revolution


It's no secret that humankind is awaiting its first blogger-orchestrated revolution. The prospect of an invisible network of activists using futuristic technology to organize themselves and alert the world in a struggle to overthrow an evil regime has such legendary resonance as to seem practically inevitable.

You can almost see the dark-of-night cable footage: thousands of youth streaming out of side streets in eerie, poignant silence, converging on a public square, glowing laptops held aloft, mouths symbolically taped shut.

The only question is where the blog-olution will go down. (Some would argue that a politically renegade Internet-driven social movement, if not specifically a bloggers' revolution, is already afoot, and goes by the name "Al-Qaeda.") Among nation-states the top two contenders for hosting a historic Blog Spring appear to be China - which in recent months has been jailing bloggers with increasing zeal, reportedly aided by the freedom-hating collaborationists at the sinisterly named Yahoo! - and Iran, which starts to look like the odds-on favorite when you consider the convergence there of a population sharply skewed to politically engaged, computer-literate youth on the one hand and a pushy, more-feared-than-loved theocratic regime on the other.

For a window into the thriving Iranian blog scene, or for a primer on the recent history of Iranian activism, one could do no better - assuming one doesn't read Farsi and can't, therefore, simply hop online - than to give pseudonymous author Nasrin Alavi's new book "We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs" a cover-to-cover read.

While not quite treating the coming Iranian blog d'etat as a fait accompli, "We Are Iran" weaves translated blog excerpts into a reformist historical narrative to not-so-subtly suggest that, well, it's probably going to happen.

The statistics from the Islamic Republic are striking as statistics go. Around 70 percent of the population of 69 million is under 30 years of age. A 2004 tally, ancient by the technological standard, turned up more than 64,000 Persian-language blogs. (A blog, for the uninitiated, is a form of online diary. Let's say the word comes from the archaic French verb bloguer: to probingly yet gently osculate a mirrored surface).

By all accounts the "Children of the Revolution" have in the last 10 years registered a broad impact on Iranian politics and society - by electing reformist politicians, pressing the boundaries of anti-establishment speech, challenging "morality" rules relating to dress and the separation of the sexes and embracing Western culture. Which is not exactly the story of Iran that has been making the news lately, one year into the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with all its colorful nuclear brinksmanship and quaint Holocaust denials.

The word on the Web is that Iran's young reformists mainly sat the last election out, motivated in part by calls for a boycott of the vote led by Akbar Ganji, the journalist and prominent free-speech activist who was recently released from prison and who is profiled nicely in "We Are Iran."

One problem with publishing a book full of material off the Internet is that it tends to become obsolete quickly. The latest blog excerpts in Alavi's book are from July 2005, for example, days after Ahmadinejad's win. It would be nice to hear what the bloggers have to say about all that has happened since then.

That is not to imply that "We Are Iran" has a limited shelf-life. Much more than a recapitulation of Internet ephemera, the book is a well-organized inquiry into political and cultural trends whose significance transcends the daily headlines.

In smoothly building chapters, Alavi surveys the reach of Iran's "virtual community" and outlines its preoccupations. The author recaps 20th-century Iranian history to reveal a surprisingly robust tradition of progressive politics. She describes in detail the struggle of Iranian women to attain certain rights (the right to ride a bike, the right to pick out their own outfits) that seem at least as god-given as the national right to enrich uranium.

"We Are Iran" furthermore documents the bloggers' work in reporting such big news as the December 2003 Bam earthquake, in which 30,000 people died. Throughout, the book tells the stories of bloggers and journalists who have been incarcerated for their cyber-speech.

All of this material is held together by a brisk narration that only occasionally takes on the tone of a textbook. On balance, the author does a laudable job of wrestling particularly unwieldy fodder into a digest that is actually pleasing to read.

The cumulative result is the sense that something really is happening here, and when Alavi quotes veteran Iranian journalist and author Masoud Behnoud, talking about the dozens of newspapers and other print publications the clerical regime has closed down in the past six years, his audacious words have the ring of truth: "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."

Still, in any book that assembles what are ultimately strangers' diary entries, false notes are bound to creep in, and "We Are Iran" is no exception. One May 2003 entry, from "By Our Voice," was clearly ghostwritten by the Lincoln Group itself: "And if only those Muslim idiots in our neighboring countries knew about our failed experiment with an Islamic government they would come to their senses too."

Other entries admit the campiness that arises wherever earnest youth is left unattended with a pen, such as a January 2004 post by "roozgar" addressed to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei: "Your Holiness, Have you ever fallen in love? Have you ever gazed into the crimson of wine, when you can still feel the spot where she kissed you on your eyelids? Have you ever danced?" Yeah, right: What's your sign, frowny? Voulez bloguer?

The romance of blogs, and by extension of blog-books, comes from their promise of tapping straight into the zeitgeist by making an end-run around the walls of rhetoric and enforced silence in which autocratic power encases itself.

"We Are Iran" is gratifying, in part, because it so effusively rewards the liberal fantasy that just behind those walls is a budding community of Rousseau-quoting, ramparts-rallying, stick-it-to-the-man masses. To its credit, "We Are Iran" attempts to keep the fantasy in perspective.

"Only time will tell if Iranian blogs are merely a place for the beleaguered to let off steam," Alavi writes, "or a modern-day Gutenberg press that would usher in the age of Democracy."

In this context it's more than a little ironic that the Gutenberg press was used to mass-produce holy books. Whatever - let the hard-copy hacks sort out the minutiae. Bloggers have some serious fomenting to attend to.

Nasrin Alavi's "We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs" is published by Soft Skull Press

Beirut,06 13 2006
The Daily Star
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