Nasrin Alavi is an Iranian author whose new book about Iranian bloggers, We Are Iran, is being noticed in the West. -- On Tuesday, she appeared on NPR's "Open Source." -- On Friday, her volume was reviewed in the Financial Times of London. -- It is not surprising that her book is receiving attention, since her message, like Azar Nafisi's in Reading Lolita in Tehran, is one that comforts Western elites. -- "The clamor for change and the details about activism are so strong that you are left convinced that the small band of clerics cannot possibly hold on to power," is how reviewer Kamin Mohammadi paraphrases it. -- This is what the West likes to hear, and this is the end toward which the U.S. national security state has dedicated itself, so we can rest assured that we will be hearing it again and again. -- It is true, no doubt, that the "reality" of Iran is very different from the country's "image in the West." -- Of what country could this not be said, however? -- To appreciate the perspective of the Financial Times's reviewer, it would have been helpful to know that she is, like Azar Nafisi, from an élite family that fled the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 -- in Kamin Mohammadi's case, a family of khans that once ruled the southern Persian Gulf province of Busheir and which fled to London after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. -- Kamin Mohammadi does conclude by noting, though: "[O]ne blogger [who has read We Are Iran] points out: 'We are not Iran. Iran is full of those who support Ahmadi-Nejad and voted for him.'" ...
ONLINE, OFF MESSAGE
By Kamin Mohammadi
Financial Times (UK)
December 16, 2005
[Review of We Are Iran by Nasrin Alavi, Portobello Books, £12.99, 365 pages.]
The discrepancy between Iran's image in the west and the reality of the country is so great that after every visit to Iran, I am shocked on returning to London to see archive footage of protesters burning the U.S. flag and chanting women veiled in voluminous black chadors. The reality that I see in Iran is so far from this -- and the issues that the Iranian populace struggle with daily are so much more complex than these simplistic images -- that I often feel defeated by the difficulty of trying to fill in the gaps for my friends in the West.
Iran is an ancient country that took a swift and brutal turn away from the rest of the world when it ousted the last Shah in the Islamic revolution of 1979. Even now, 26 years later, the Western world rarely gets a glimpse behind the veil that Iran has drawn over itself.
Inaccurate representations are frustrating to those who have a better understanding of the intricate reality of this contrary country. Ever since being named on Bush's "axis of evil" list, it has become a more serious matter. With the election of the little known hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad as president in June, and his subsequent controversial pronouncements, bridging this gap in understanding has become a matter of urgency.
Nasrin Alavi's dense book, We Are Iran, addresses this gap. A collection of Iranian blogs translated from the Persian, the book is divided into themes in which direct quotes from assorted weblogs make up part of the text, with additional discussion of the topics and background provided by Alavi.
For the uninitiated, a weblog (or blog) is an online diary or journal. Of an estimated two million blogs in cyberspace, some 64,000 are in Persian, making it the fourth most popular language for bloggers.
The first Iranian blog was posted in November 2001 by Hossein Derakhshan, a young Iranian journalist who had recently moved to Canada. At the request of a reader he posted instructions in Persian on how to build a weblog. Alavi's book translates some of these blogs, and for the first time ordinary Iranian voices can be heard outside Iran.
The phenomenal popularity of blogging in Iran is easily explained. Reformist newspapers have nearly all been shut down and many editors jailed; Reporters Sans Frontières has called Iran "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East." Cyberspace has become the retreat of many journalists and is now the medium used for publishing transcripts of trials, speeches, and other events not recorded in the state-controlled media. In 2003, Iran became the first government to take direct action against bloggers and this has continued with mass filtering and arrests made earlier this year -- one journalist was sentenced to 14 years. [NOTE: This is certainly incorrect. China has been policing Internet activities since the mid-1990s, and China is not alone. --R.T.] But Iranian bloggers have carried on, many anonymously. One blogger explains why: "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 . . ."
Iran may be closed to the world, but the rest of the world reaches Iran through the internet and satellite channels that many homes tune into, even though it's officially illegal to own a satellite dish. There are more personal computers in Iran than the regional average and internet cafés proliferate. Iran's population is young -- 70 per cent of people are under 30 -- and well educated, with literacy rates of more than 90 per cent. Even many poorer families have a dish and access to a computer. E-mail is widely available, more easily than in some other countries in the Middle East, and Iranians use cyberspace to communicate information on protests, co- ordinate relief efforts for NGOs, post news, make banned books available, and even chat about David Beckham and Harry Potter.
Early in her book, Alavi lays out some of the contradictions in Iranian society that confound expectations fostered by those archive images. She details the cultural fixation with the West that grips the youth of Iran, to the extent that Valentine's Day has recently been wholeheartedly adopted, despite the regime's vitriolic anti-Western rhetoric. Much of Iran's population -- the children of the revolution -- don't care about their leaders' attempts to keep them from the "cultural onslaught" of the West; its repression has simply made them curious.
The voices revealed are irreverent, politically engaged, and educated, reflecting the regime's mass education policy. Where the regime fails these youngsters is in providing jobs: Iran's per capita income is 7 per cent lower than before the revolution. Just a fifth of the population hold four-fifths of national wealth -- 12 million of the 70 million population live below the poverty line.
No wonder, then, that Alavi writes with such passionate disdain for the regime, cataloguing its human rights abuses -- and she allows the blogs to color her opinions. As well as setting the historical context, chapters cover many aspects of life in modern Iran, from feelings about the Iran-Iraq war to religion, the state of the economy, love and romance, art, and cultural icons such as the singer Googoosh.
It is mostly a narrative of enraging repression, frustrating mismanagement, and brutal suppression and Alavi picks the blogs that best flesh out her assertions.
The book is strongest when it allows the blogs to speak of the paradoxes in Iranian life and character without much comment. A blog posted during the month of Moharram, when Shias mourn the 7th-century murder of Imam Hossein, sums up the Iranian ability to live with both a devout Muslim faith and an obsession with Western culture: "My favorite links for today: A website by Hossein Ansarian, commemorating the month of Moharram, Link to Yahoo for the latest pictures of the Oscar ceremony."
The chapter on women is particularly inspiring. Simple facts -- such as that the majority of university graduates are women -- again confound stereotypes. The clamor for change and the details about activism are so strong that you are left convinced that the small band of clerics cannot possibly hold on to power.
In the final chapter, Alavi tries to address the election of Ahmadi-Nejad. What becomes apparent is a hardline backlash that started with the banning of thousands of reformist candidates in the elections of 2004 and that darker days may be coming for the irrepressible people of Iran. With the regime's current attack on the blogosphere, it may even be that Alavi has charted a unique moment in Iranian history -- when Iran found its voice, uncensored.
Alavi's book is packed with information about modern Iran and few topics are left out. At times, however, I longed for her to reflect some of the fun, vitality, and grace of Iranian society and culture. Despite the disconnection between the rulers and the ruled, there are good things in Iran: grassroots effort is strong and though Alavi mentions the 8,000 NGOs that operate in Iran, she goes no further. She relies on a select number of sites and has used those with the most hits. There are just three entries from the other side of the ideological divide, though again Alavi points out that they can use the conventional press to express their views, and hardline blogs are rare. On Hossein Derakhshan's blog at the moment, Alavi's book is being enthusiastically welcomed. But one blogger points out: "We are not Iran. Iran is full of those who support Ahmadi-Nejad and voted for him."
What makes this book special is the voice of the bloggers, the ordinary people of Iran who get to have their say at last. And they are eloquent, educated, poetic, charming, witty and brave. In the midst of the struggles of everyday life and the dangers that speaking your mind can bring, they display a unique courage and sense of humour that tells us more about the spirit of modern Iran than countless images ever can.