Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Notes from the Underground: Iranians and Israelis connect online

About a month ago, I published this article in Hebrew about the links between the Israeli and the Iranian blogospheres. The Canadian-Israeli blogger Lisa Goldman who was interviewed for the article translated the piece into English and put it on her blog today. Meanwhile Arash Kamanajir, the Iranian Blogger which I interviewed for my piece has issued his own Persian version of the piece and published it in his blog, and the German Daniel Rotters have posted his German version of the article in ex oriente, So this has become a sort of multinational joint peace-blogging operation.

I post Lisa's English Version of the article here.


On 25 December 2007, at the University of Tel Aviv, the Netvision Institute held its third conference on the struggle to maintain freedom of information on the Internet. The main topic was Iran: the attitude toward the Internet in Iran, Iranian hackers and also our Persian neighbour’s rapidly expanding blogosphere.

The conference did not go unnoticed in Iran. Five days later, on December 30, the Iranian news site Khedmat, which is considered close to former president Khatami, published an item under the headline, “Zionists Express Interest in the Subject of the Internet in Iran.”

“‘The Internet in Iran and its various facets’ was the subject of a conference that took place at Tel Aviv University in Occupied Palestine,” reported Khedmat. “The conference participants discussed the role of the Internet in contemporary society, and Internet struggles. Iranian blogs, rap music and the role of the Internet in creating other types of music that imitate Western culture were amongst the subjects that interested the Zionists.”

The article further reported that a committee of “Zionist experts” criticized Iran’s limited access to some internet sites.

Israel is a concept that does not exist

The Israeli media has been paying attention to the lively Iranian blogosphere for several years now. Amongst other things, the visit to Israel of Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (Hebrew link) was mentioned in several international media outlets. From the perspective of the Israeli reader, Iranian bloggers are a comforting alternative source of information about another Iran - one that is friendlier and less aggressive to Israel. Over the years, articles about the Iranian blogosphere portrayed it as a different voice from a society that was usually shown in the Israeli media as closed and extremist.

Recently, the Iranian blogosphere has been the subject of academic studies in Israel. In the talk she gave at the Netvision conference, for example, Dr. Liora Handelman-Bavor said that, eight years after the launch of the first Persian language blog, “The [Iranian] regime’s attempts to suppress the blogosphere have largely failed.” Dr. Handelman-Bavor claimed that the Iranian blogosphere was intimately connected with alternative culture, the graffiti phenomenon and street art.

And now, based on the item in Khedmat, it seems that the Iranian media is aware of Israel’s interest in the Persian blogosphere.

But according to Arash Kamangir, an Iranian blogger who lives in Canada, few Iranian bloggers are aware of the interest they have aroused in Israel. “You probably know that the term ‘Israel’ does not exist in the official language of the regime of Iran. Even in my passport I am banned from traveling to ‘Occupied Palestine,’” he wrote in response to the questions I sent by email. “The average Iranian blogger is very anxious about being known as a person ‘who has connections with Israeli guys.’ A very interesting example happened a short while ago, and I believe it describes the whole situation.”

When Ahmadinejad moved to WordPress

As a means of illustrating the extent to which Iranian bloggers must be careful to avoid contact with Israelis, Kamangir offered an amusing-yet-sad anecdote about an incident that occurred last summer. This incident also shows how ordinary people who are citizens of enemy states find themselves making contact - albeit of a hesitant, groping kind.

“A friend of mine writes a blog about technology,” recounts Kamangir. “And a very helpful plugin for this system is called FireStats and is designed by an Israeli blogger. When my friend started using FireStats he was so fascinated by the functionalities that he wrote a post about it, in Persian of course. The next day he found out that he is getting hits from a Hebrew page. It turns out that the Israeli guys are also amazed that an Iranian person is using their code. So, they write a Hebrew post which reads, in English, ‘The formula to peace with Iran.’”

Omri, the Israeli blogger who discovered the post by Kamangir’s friend with the technology blog, wrote an amusing post that describes an imaginary conversation between Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Iran, in which the latter warn the president against attacking Israel because, “FireStats is developed in Givatayim, so if we destroy Gush Dan [Greater Tel Aviv] there won’t be any more versions!”

One of the Israeli readers surfed over to the Iranian’s blog and left a comment - in Hebrew. This apparently freaked the Iranian blogger out a bit. He deleted the comment and went over to the Israeli blog, where he left a comment asking for an explanation of what had been written about him. And that is how a discussion in awkward English was initiated between Iranian and Israeli bloggers. But a Utopian dialogue that unites “enemy” bloggers in an amusing exchange about politics and WordPress can be taken only so far.

“I wrote a piece titled ‘Iran-Israel Peace through a Wordpress Plugin,” recounts Arash. “Because of the sensitivity of the issue I sent an email to my friend asking for his permission before I would publish the post. The answer was very short: ‘Arash, you know this can be dangerous.’”"

So Iranian bloggers cannot write openly about Israeli bloggers?

“When Iranian bloggers have to censor themselves when it comes to sharing the mutual passion for scripts and other nerdy stuff with Israeli fellows, I guess showing any attention to ‘the Israeli interest in the Iranian blogosphere’ is out of context.”

So why are you not more cautious about entering into contact with Israeli bloggers?

“I live outside Iran, in Canada. There is a saying in Persian, “When you are drowning it does not matter if it’s one meter or 100 meters.”

Posts from the Underground

Estimates of the number of blogs in Iran range from 170,000 to 700,000. These are certainly impressive numbers, but Kamangir says that they are not an accurate reflection of Iranian society - particularly in the sense that the people who live in the less developed areas are unrepresented. “Most Iranian bloggers are middle class university students,” he writes. According to Kamangir, Iranian bloggers tend to be more liberal than the rest of the population.

On the other hand, Kamangir stresses the importance of differentiating between the opinions expressed by the Iranian regime and those of the ordinary people. “A friend of mine who came from Iran a few days ago was telling me that it is quite common to see Iranians criticize the regime, even using offensive words, in the public transit.”

“At the same time,” continues Kamangir, “A big portion of the Iranians have been exposed to the propaganda of the regime for decades and thus have unintentionally become ambassadors of the Islamic entity in many aspects…there is a big difference between an Iranian who is living inside Iran and the one who has had the experience of living in a free society, such as Canada.” According to Kamangir, when Iranian leave Iran they “start to question what they have been fed by the regime for a long time and start to think independently.”

“Blogs written by Iranian students abroad play a major role for these ‘new-born’ Iranians,” he writes. “Fortunately, this trend of free thinking is not limited to the Iranians who live outside the motherland. There is a huge number of blogs written by Iranians who live inside Iran and these blogs substantially question the official opinions of the regime. Interestingly, the questioning covers issues ranging from the official narration of Islam to human rights and sex.”

A different image of Israel

Although the circumstances are not yet ripe for an Iranian-Israeli blogger connection that could be a contra to the enmity of the Iranian and Israeli regimes, Kamangir writes that “…very strong links have been formed between the Iranian and the Israeli blogospheres. The strongest one, which I am aware of, is our communications with Lisa Goldman and her blog, On the Face. From time to time I translate her posts to Persian and the statistics of my blog, which I too get from FireStats, shows that a lot of my visitors follow her posts passionately. There are of course other Israeli bloggers whose blogs the Iranian bloggers follow, but Lisa has become almost an icon* for many Iranian bloggers I have talked to.”

“The Israeli blogosphere in English is a window into Israeli society for Iranians,” said Lisa Goldman in an interview for Nana10. “That is why I often translate items from Israeli blogs [in Hebrew], in order to expose a different view. Because the most interesting things written about Israel are written only in Hebrew.”

Goldman, a Canadian-born freelance journalist, spoke about some of the fascinating encounters created by the connection between the Iranian and Israeli blogospheres.

“I do receive emails from Iranians. It is as if they want us to know that they are not all as they are made to seem in the media, and I’ve had some fascinating encounters. There was someone in Tehran who used to chat with me via Messenger. He was a really intelligent, knowledgeable guy who knew excellent English. We used to chat about the situation in Iran, the elections, democracy and Israel, about which he was remarkably well informed. He even spoke a little Hebrew. But he refused to tell me his real name, and he was pretty paranoid. Each time he logged on, he was at a different computer and using a different online identity. I felt as though I were receiving messages from the Resistance. It was an amazing experience, but one day he disappeared and I haven’t heard from him since.”

How do Iranian bloggers find your blog?

“Look, I try to show a more human, complex and nuanced picture of Israeli life. They’re sort of stuck behind the Middle Eastern version of the Iron Curtain, but they’re very curious about us. They want to find out more, and it’s as if they’re extending their hands out through the Iron Curtain. The fact that I don’t write only about politics, but also about my day-to-day life in Tel Aviv, shows them a lively, modern, Levantine city that they would never see in the mainstream media.”

Fewer reasons to kill one another

So are blogs the way to create unmediated contact between Iranians and Israelis who, it sometimes seems, are led by politicians whose careers were built on a mutual agreement to issue bellicose threats against one another? When the media on one side serves the interests of the regime, and the media on the other side sells newspapers with lurid headlines about existential threats caused by Iranian nuclear warheads, perhaps the blogosphere could be an alternative source of information.

Eli Cohen, a senior research manager at Netvision, says, “The internet facilitates connections between individuals and bridges between cultures. Once you neutralize the political landmine it is possible, with the help of the internet, to create wonderful interpersonal relationships between human beings and to see that both your sorrows and your joys are very similar.”

Goldman, too, sees blogs as a tool for creating understanding between peoples. “We must find a way to get past the pre-conceived notions and one-dimensional portraits presented by the mainstream media,” she says. “They just perpetuate conflicts. I think that if you hear a human voice from the other side, that’s the beginning of the way.”

“I am not a sociologist. Neither am I a philosopher. However, I do know that when people talk they find less reasons to kill each other,” agrees Kamangir. “And this is what blogging is so generously providing us with.”


Daniel Roters said...

Hey I find this story so fascinating. I want to contibute to this great idea and support it with a german translation of your article in german language on my Blog

I mean if you give me an OK for that! Would be so great!
Have a good time!


Ido Hartogsohn said...

Sure, and give us a link when you have that translate. I read German so I will also enjoy reading your translation.


Anonymous said...

Approvingly your article helped me altogether much in my college assignment. Hats off to you post, intention look forward in the direction of more cognate articles soon as its anecdote of my choice issue to read.