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We Are Iran
By Nasrin Alavi
Soft Skull PressCopyright © 2005 Nasrin Alavi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Virtual Community
In September 2001 Hossein Derakhshan, a young Iranian journalist who had recently moved to Canada, set up one of the very first weblogs in Farsi, his native language. (For the uninitiated, a weblog or blog is a kind of diary or journal posted on the Internet.) In response to a request from a reader, Hossein created a simple how-to-blog guide in Farsi. With the modest aim of giving other Iranians a voice, he set free an entire community.
Today Farsi is the fourth most frequently used language for keeping online journals. There are more Iranian blogs than there are Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese or Russian. According to the 2004 NITLE Blog Census, there are more than 64,000 blogs written in Farsi. A phenomenal figure, given that in neighboring countries such as Iraq there are fewer than 50 known bloggers.
Blogging in Iran has grown so fast because it meets the needs no longer met by the print media; it provides a safe space in which people may write freely on a wide variety of topics, from the most serious and urgent to the most frivolous. Some prominent writers use their blogs to bypass strict state censorship and to publish their work on-line; established journalists can post uncensored reports ontheir blogs; expatriate Iranians worldwide use their blogs to communicate with those back home; ordinary citizens record their thoughts and deeds in daily journals; and student groups and NGOs utilize their blogs as a means of co-ordinating their activities.
17 November 2004
I keep a weblog so that I can breathe in this suffocating air ... In a society where one is taken to history's abattoir for the mere crime of thinking, I write so as not to be lost in my despair ... so that I feel that I am somewhere where my calls for justice can be uttered ... I write a weblog so that I can shout, cry and laugh, and do the things that they have taken away from me in Iran today ...
The worst that could happen to a blogger in the West is that they might be looked upon as self-absorbed 'cyber-geeks' or 'anoraks', but in Iran - a country that Reporters sans Frontières called 'the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East' - honest self-expression carries a heavy price. In the last six years as many as 100 print publications, including 41 daily newspapers, have been closed by Iran's hardline judiciary.
In April 2003 Iran became the first government to take direct action against bloggers. Sina Motallebi, a journalist behind a popular weblog, was imprisoned. His arrest was just the beginning and many more bloggers and on-line journalists have been arrested since. As Reporters sans Frontières put it: 'In a country where the independent press has to fight for its survival on a daily basis, on-line publications and weblogs are the last media to fall into the authorities' clutches.' They add that through arrests and intimidation, 'the Iranian authorities are now trying to spread terror among on-line journalists' (16 October 2004).
Intimidation such as the arrest of Sina Motallebi's elderly father or the accusations of adultery against on-line journalist Fershteh Ghazi. According to Reporters Without Borders, five other imprisoned web journalists, 'Javad Gholam Tamayomi, Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafihzadeh, Hanif Mazroi and Rozbeh Mir Ebrahimi are expected to be accused of having sex with her. Some of them are said to have been forced to sign confessions. Such accusations by the authorities are common against political prisoners in Iran' (29 October 2004). Adultery is a crime punishable by stoning.
In October 2004, while several Internet journalists and bloggers were held in undisclosed locations awaiting trial, Ayatollah Shahrudi the head of the judiciary, announced new laws expressly covering 'cyber crimes': anyone 'propagating against the regime, acting against national security, disturbing the public mind and insulting religious sanctities through computer systems or telecommunications would be punished'. This announcement was accompanied by a number of articles in state propaganda newspapers such the Keyhan daily, which 'exposed' the Iranian blogosphere as a 'network led by the CIA conspiring to overthrow the regime'.
The crackdowns suggest that the regime is determined to curtail freedom of speech in cyberspace. Yet faced with a judiciary prepared to stone someone to death to silence them, an increasing number of blogs are now written anonymously. Additionally, many political Internet sites have gone underground, making them even more radical and critical.
Yet despite the very real risks, there are some bloggers who still write under their own names. Bijan Safsari was editor-in-chief and publisher of several independent pro-democracy newspapers - all of them shut down by the regime. Each time one of his newspapers was closed down, it quickly resurfaced under a new name. Eventually, this game of cat and mouse got Bijan thrown into jail and now that there are no other venues where he can write or publish, he keeps a blog.
18 February 2004
There are those such as [Muhammad-Ali] Abtahi [the Iranian Parliamentary ex- Vice President] who have called our virtual community too political and have said that we should use weblogs for their intended use ... that is to say, for clichéd daily diaries ... So what if we use our blogs in ways not intended for or defined during the distant conception of this medium?
At a time when our society is deprived of its rightful free means of communication, and our newspapers are being closed down one by one - with writers and journalists crowding the corners of our jails ... the only realm that can safeguard and shoulder the responsibility of free speech is the blogosphere.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org http://bijan-safsari.com/
According to data from the World Bank (2001), Iran has more personal computers per 1,000 people than the regional average. Estimates of the number of on-line users range from four million to seven million and growing. However, experts maintain that these figures do not reflect the current reality, because every month thousands more Iranians buy computers and go on-line. The number of Iranians on-line is likely to more than double again in the next five years, in a country where two-thirds of the population are under 30 and many are already technologically savvy.
Interestingly - even ironically - thanks to the education policies of the Islamic Republic, those who enter further education tend to be from a wide cross-section of Iranian society; and many of these students throughout Iran, all of them from very different social and regional backgrounds, have access to the Internet at their place of study.
Has everyone noticed the spooky absence of graffiti in our public toilets since the arrival of weblogs? Remember the toilets at university we used to call our 'Freedom Columns'?
Email: email@example.com http://python.persianblog.com
1 May 2003
My blog is an opportunity for me to be heard ... a free microphone that doesn't need speakers ... a blank page ...
Sometimes I stretch out on this page in the nude ... now and again I hide behind it. Occasionally I dance on it ... Once in a while I tear it up ... and from time to time I draw a picture of my childhood on it ... I think ... I live ... I blog ... therefore I ... exist.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org http://deltangestan.com/
12 January 2004
This is a personal note of gratitude to Hossein Derakhshan, the 'Godfather' of Iranian blogs, who opened up the world to a society ... proving that even a 30-year-old Iranian, with merely the aid of a notebook and a connection to the Internet, can make a difference ... So much so that according to a Guardian newspaper report [18 December 2003] he is deemed one of the top 15 international figures 'whose weblogs have caused the biggest stir both in and outside the blogsphere'.
Within only a two-year period his tireless efforts have led to tens of thousands of Farsi blogs ... a phenomenon that I believe will eventually influence our awareness, our personas and our lives ...
Email: email@example.com http://shortcut.persianblog.com
In recent decades analysts, academics and journalists have had little or no real access to Iran. So they have at times relied unduly on partial inquiry and the images presented by State propaganda. Dan De Luce, the Guardian's correspondent in Iran for more than a year, was expelled from the country by the Iranian government in May 2004. As he puts it: 'Stifling the flow of information means that the nuances of Iranian society are often obscured to the outside world. Any foreigner who visits Iran is struck by the gap between the reality of Iranian society and the image cultivated by the regime.' (Guardian, 24 May 2004)
Yet through the anonymity that blogs can provide, those who once lacked voices are at last speaking up and discussing issues that have never been aired in any other media in the Islamic world.
30 October 2003
Islam is compatible with democracy
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ksajadi.com/fblog/
Iran's burgeoning on-line communities have been able to evade the cultural and political restraints regarding speech, appearance and relations between the sexes; restraints which are strictly enforced in public. As researchers such as Babak Rahimi have revealed, websites and blogs have made it possible for young Iranians to express themselves freely and anonymously - especially young women. The Internet, 'as an advancing new means of communication, has played an important role in the ongoing struggle for democracy in Iran', says Rahimi, and 'has opened a new virtual space for political dissent'.
Voting Against 'God's Representative on Earth'
In recent years the Iranian people have demonstrated their desire for change by overwhelmingly voting for those parliamentary candidates who promise democracy. The Islamic hardliners have a single campaign theme: the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution will receive a fatal blow if the reformers are victorious.
In the 1997 election campaign Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the Speaker of Parliament, enjoyed the implicit endorsement of the Supreme Leader, who is deemed by the ruling clergy to be 'God's representative on earth'. Nearly 80 per cent of eligible voters participate and a massive 70 per cent of them voted for the little-known cleric Muhammad Khatami, giving his reform agenda enormous backing, while at the same time voting against Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, ignoring the endorsement of God's representative on earth.
President Khatami gained the overwhelming support of the Iranian people because of the consistent message of his speeches: 'There are those ... who concede no change ... Their God is their meagre and dim perceptions, which fight all the people's demands in the name of religion ... God forbid that one day our people will feel the authorities are not meeting their real demands and that dirty hands have succeeded in disappointing them and thus alienating them. Then, no military, security or judicial power will be able to save the country.' In two subsequent presidential elections, President Khatami won 77 per cent and 70 per cent of the vote, with approximately 20 million votes cast. He succeeded everywhere, in every demographic group - he even carried Qom, the religious bastion of Iran.
But change has been totally blocked by the hardliners who keep hold the real power through the judiciary and the Guardian Council (a conservative supervisory body). They have demonstrated their formidable power by abolishing the reformist press, vetoing parliamentary and election candidates, and arresting, torturing and assassinating many liberals and student activists.
8 January 2004
You have heard the story of my generation many times. A generation that grew up with bombs, rockets, war and revolutionary slogans ... A generation that had battle-green grenade-shaped piggy banks ...
The girls of my generation will never forget their head teachers tugging hard at tiny strands of hair that somehow fell out of their veils to teach them a lesson. The boys of my generation will never forget being slapped five times in the face for wearing shirts with Western labels on them ... all of us have hundreds of similar memories ...
My generation is the damaged generation. We were constantly chastised that we were duty-bound to safeguard and uphold the sacred blood that was shed for us during a revolution and a war. Any kind of happiness was forbidden for us ...
My generation would be beaten up outside cinema queues or pizza restaurants ... punished in the public parks; kicked and punched in the centres of town by the regime's militia ... I will never forget the militia's Toyota vans and the loudspeaker announcements in Vali'Asr Square: "We will fight against all boys and girls!" - shouting those exact words!
Who can forget? For my generation talking to a member of the opposite sex (something quite ordinary for the new generation) was akin to adultery and its punishments are better left unsaid. These are just partial moments in all of our bitter lives: each and every one of us could write a book about them.
But I also remember the start of the reform movement. This same generation would distribute election pamphlets and posters for Khatami. And even for this we were reprimanded and beaten, but we stood up for him so that one day hope might come. It's unfair to say he did nothing ... we got concerts, poetry readings, carefree chats in coffee shops and tight Manteaus. But is this all that my generation wanted?
It was also during this time that student activists were thrown in prison, newspapers were shut down - and yet Khatami was silent ... it was at this time that the students of my generation were labeled hooligans and Western lackeys ... and again Khatami appeared to agree through his silence ...
Even the subsequent parliamentary elections of reformists did not bring any benefits for my generation. Under the almighty shadow of the Guardian Council, sometimes hearing the words of the enemy from the mouths of those you considered friends has been even harder to bear ...
Email: arareza@Gmail.com dentist.blogspot.com
The unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the conservative clerics and lawyers control the courts, the army, the media, political councils and the powerful Islamic foundations (bonyads) that very nearly run the economy. In February 2004 the conservatives banned more than 2,000 candidates from running in parliamentary elections, dropping any pretence at democracy and reasserting full control over the State.
13 February 2004
One of the greatest blessings of the Islamic Republic has been that we no longer hold anything sacred ...
In 1935 the monarch Reza Shah, a secular modernizer, issued an edict that declared the wearing of traditional dress (for both women and men) an offence punishable by a prison term ... As hard as Reza Shah tried, he could not have done what the ayatollahs have recently achieved ... it has gone so far that today's burgeoning youth, supposedly ruled by the 'representative of God on earth', now even deny the existence of God himself.
The Children of the Revolution
Those who lived through the Islamic Revolution almost a quarter of a century ago are now a minority. More than 70 per cent of the nation is under 30, and for this population, literacy rates for young men and women stand well over 90 per cent, even in rural areas. Notably, more than half of those graduating from university in Iran today are women.
Iran's younger generation has been completely transformed through the Islamic Republic's education policies of free education and national literacy campaigns. Paradoxically, this has created an educated and politicized youth with voting rights at 16 - and they are ready and willing to express their frustration.
Excerpted from We Are Iran by Nasrin Alavi Copyright © 2005 by Nasrin Alavi. Excerpted by permission.
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