From Long Island to Lebanon: Arabs blog in America
Issue 1, Spring 2007
A protest against Israel's attacks on Lebanon in New York. Photograph by Kim Badawi.
The date is August 6, 2006. Just an ordinary Sunday afternoon in Massachusetts. Nothing remarkable about the apartment either; picture the room of a typical engineering student. Stuff everywhere, chaos reigns. But in the mind of this room’s inhabitant, a blogger known to his online readers by the pen-name ‘Jij,’ connections are being made in time and space. For Jij, the violence being meted out on his country Lebanon on this lazy Sunday afternoon is all too real. So real he is gripped by thoughts of family far away:
“My room is a mess. I am sitting in the middle of a war zone. Every inch of the floor is covered with books, papers, clothes, empty bottles of water, electric wires, CDs, trash and cardboard boxes. It feels like my room is slowly moving to Beirut while I sit in it…I found some old photos behind my desk. One of them is a black and white picture of my parents. On the back it says ‘Aleppo 1976.’ They were so young. They were my age.”
Jij, or Jihad Ibrahim as he is more commonly known, was not alone as an Arab in America writing about the Israel-Hizbulla War online (for blogging in Lebanon see also Sune Haugbolle). When Israel first began dropping bombs on Lebanon following the abduction of two soldiers by Hizbullah, Arabs in America turned not just to the coverage of Al Jazeera, LBC, and Al Arabiya, but also increasingly to the Internet (for mainstream media-blogging interaction, see Will Ward). Isolated from the events taking place overseas—not to mention from their loved ones caught up in the month-long war—Arab ex-pats wanted to feel as though they too had a voice to be reckoned with. So, people in America and elsewhere went online to vent their frustrations, anxieties and criticisms of events. The online response to the war shows once again how the Internet is being used to generate loose Diaspora communities that cross national boundaries.
Blogging the War
Responding to Western reporting of the conflict which many Arabs considered vague and biased, Arab-American bloggers felt a responsibility to encourage balanced dialogue during the Israel-Hizbullah War of July and August 2006. This meant not only seeking out previously rarely-heard voices from the Arab World, but also playing some role in shaping narratives of the war. For many bloggers, this marked a rare shift to political discussion.
“I only wrote politics during the war, because I really did not feel like writing about anything else,” admits Jihad Ibrahim, host of Salam Cinema. That was the case for everyone online, I think. I felt compelled to write a lot because I felt there was an asymmetry in the way things were presented online.”“There was nothing else on my mind.
Ibrahim exhibits the struggle for those living in the Diaspora to combine an affinity for Western pop culture with a deep concern for contemporary political issues in his homeland, Lebanon. On his homepage in late November, “Jij” posted a tribute to the late Hollywood director Robert Altman followed immediately by a long analysis of the assassination of Lebanese Christian leader, Pierre Gemayel. “The country’s divisions are very deep and are not going away. Let’s hope nobody else dies in the meantime,” he wrote on November 23, 2006. The post shows the subtle ways in which Arab-American bloggers negotiate their dualistic identities.
Bypassing Censorship in the Arab World
If blogs can function as a means for Arab-Americans to communicate directly with people in the Arab World, they may be particularly valuable to Arabs suffering from censorship and persecution due to their online activities. Often, those who discuss politics in North America do not feel the same pressures felt by bloggers in the Middle Eastern countries—that is, as long as they are outside the region. Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was wrapping up a visit to Tehran last year when authorities detained him at the airport. His blog, http://hoder.com/weblog/, which is dedicated to discussions relating to Iranian politics, technology and pop culture, addresses a number of subjects considered taboo in Iran. His website even offers tips for setting up personal blogs and getting around censorship tools.
Citing a violation of Iran’s integrity, authorities interrogated Derakhshan, then forced him to sign an apology for his blogging activities before permitting him to leave. He says his experience in Iran has only reinforced his desire to continue blogging. “[The Iranian government] wrongly sees me as a threat,” says Derakhshan. “They think I am trying to topple the regime, but I’m not.”
A number of regimes in the Middle East are infamous for cracking down on bloggers to cap the spread of online dissidence. However, given that there is greater room for free expression in America, Arab-Americans usually feel at liberty to criticize Arab governments without fearing the same retribution. Moroccan-American journalist and blogger, Issandr El-Amrani concedes to this: “I blog under my own name partly because the blog is linked to my journalistic writing and partly because I have more freedom to do so as a US citizen,” he says.
According to Nancy Beth Jackson, a journalist and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York, Arab regimes are still trying to come to grips with the way technology is changing the dynamics of opposition. “It is easier [for governments] to control the message in a newspaper than online,” she explains. “Governments controlling the press can also control the message. Try that with Google!”
With that in mind, to what extent is blogging by Arab-Americans linked to opposition movements within Arab countries? In fact, blogs more commonly touch on personal stories or pop culture than politics. Most act primarily as a means of communication between friends. As the majority of bloggers are young (a study conducted last year by Perseus, an online research group, found that 58 percent of bloggers worldwide are between the ages of 13 and 19; 36 percent are in their 20’s), blogs are fertile ground for social exploration and interaction. Many Arab-Americans who were previously isolated from young people in the Middle East find themselves more aware than ever before about the issues and interests of their peers overseas. So Arab-American blogs are more likely to be socially rather than politically threatening to Arab regimes.
Nevetheless, the best-read blogs are likely to adopt political causes. “The best blogs, in my opinion, are quite focused and issue-driven and can act as a platform for activism or to bring attention to a particular issue,” notes El-Amrani. “They also often help tear down false representations that people have of certain countries or cultures.”
In some sense then, even blogs which are not strictly political can have some political impact by changing readers’ opinions.
Blogging to the Homelands
For the most part, Arab-American bloggers believe their online writing is more than just a hobby; it is a way of life. Many say they seek to provide a service both to people in Diaspora communities seeking discussion about their ‘homelands’ or looking to engage in debate beyond the confines of the mainstream media.
 Salam Cinema, http://salamcinema.blogspot.com/2006/08/day-26.html
 The term “Arab-American” is used loosely throughout this study as the analysis focuses on those people of both Arab and Iranian descent as well as expatriates from the Middle East. The bloggers interviewed for this piece all live in either the United States or Canada; some of them are immigrants; others are first generation. Both Muslim and Christian bloggers were interviewed for this study.
 Angry Arab News Service: http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2006/12/nothing-annoys-me-about-march-14th.html
 Lebanese Bloggers: http://arabblogandpoliticalcommunication.blogspot.com/