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March 22-28, 2006

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Salam Pax

The Report From Baghdad: Salam Pax, the 'Baghdad Blogger,' says he is 'baffled and amused' by the reception to his work.

The Blog of War

SJSU becomes the first university to embrace blogging in a literary series when Salam Pax arrives March 23. Meet the Baghdad Blogger.

By Vrinda Normand


THE blogging phenomenon is no longer the sole property of web junkies—now it's pushing into university classes and literary circles, as well. Professors who once assigned Ernest Hemingway as an example of the classic war novel are now directing their students to follow the Iraq War via the refreshingly bare, unassuming online diary of one man: Salam Pax, otherwise known as the "Baghdad Blogger."

The 32-year-old Iraqi architect attracted an international following when he started posting informal reports in 2002 about the coming war, the bombs that rattled Baghdad and the American occupation. Though the traffic on his website caused server shutdowns, the outspoken and openly gay Pax continued to type, nervously evading Iraqi authorities monitoring the Internet.

His vivid accounts, laced with snarky comments and humor, gave the outside world a peek into the mind of an ordinary person dealing with the fallout of war.

"What is bringing on this rant," he wrote once, "is the question that has been bugging me for days now: how could 'Support democracy in Iraq' come to mean 'Bomb the hell out of Iraq?' Nobody minded an undemocratic Iraq for a very long time. Now people have decided to bomb us to democracy? Well, thank you! How thoughtful."

San Jose State University students are poring over passages like this, thanks to creative writing professor Mitch Berman. "Salam is presenting himself as himself at all times," Berman says, "I think his blog is the most outstanding writing anywhere on Iraq."

As the director of SJSU's Center for Literary Arts, Berman is featuring Pax in a literary series this month (the first for any blogger at an American university). On Thursday, March 23, Pax will appear at the King Library in downtown San Jose at noon and the San Jose City Council chambers at 7:30pm. He spoke to Metro from London about blogging, the war and what it's like to be "the Iraqi."

METRO: The Western world has obviously become fascinated with your account of the Iraq war. What do Iraqis think? What kind of reaction do you get at home?

SALAM PAX: Not much of a reaction, really. Very few Iraqis in Iraq know about the blog and Salam Pax, which is just as good. Who I am and the views I express will not go down nicely with many Iraqis today. I really can't see a heretic homosexual making headlines in Iraq or the Arab world, unless it is news about my arrest.

What will you be talking about in San Jose?

I have to admit I am not really sure. I have not done this sort of thing before, and I'd much rather be hiding behind a computer screen than having to give speeches. That is exactly the thing I did not want to be doing, and look at me now, it feels as if my profession has become "The Iraqi." I think people would be interested in some sort of a progress report from the ground by someone who has no other agenda than living peacefully in his country. I guess whoever will come will get some of that.

Is there a downside to being famous as 'the Iraqi'? Do you feel tokenized or trivialized by this perception?

The problem with becoming the token Iraqi is that you have to make generalizations based on your point of view. People ask you questions and when you answer it is like "the Iraqis say." That is not the case at all. It is me who thinks this or that, and now I have to constantly qualify and clarify what I say because I don't want what I say to be taken as something all Iraqis feel or believe. In the last three years it feels like I have become part of a small Iraqi minority, one that believes that religion and state should be separated and that we should try hard to keep this entity we call Iraq together and not break it up. You want to hear what Iraqis really think you need to go talk to the people on the street. I am too Westernized for their tastes and too liberal.

Do you feel caught between two worlds, writing about your native land in a nonnative tongue?

Part of the big Muslim dilemma and the trouble in the Mideast is the fact that much of the younger generation feels like it has fallen in a gap. My cultural heritage refuses to yield so that I can accommodate the changing world around me and I am stuck with a worldview that is very unsatisfying. Sometimes the weblog felt like it was there to bridge that gap. Many of us feel like we are caught between two worlds. At one point I think I decided there is little my own cultural heritage and religion can offer me and I embraced the ways of the "wicked West," but I feel guilty for abandoning who I am. So I try and do something to reconcile myself to that heritage only to be reminded of why I feel there is nothing in it for me. I am not happy with what my heritage offers me, and I will never be accepted as part of "the other" no matter how hard I try. I tell you the whole idea of a Global Village came shattering down on my head when I came to that realization. If you are from the Middle East, you don't become a "world citizen" you just lose all cultural ties and become uprooted.

This will be the first time a university literary series has invited a blogger. How do you feel about being regarded as a literary figure?

I feel really, really awkward about this. You put a label like "literary work" on something and you come with certain expectations, and I feel that I have to apologize every time this is mentioned. Whenever I get emails from students around the world telling me they have been assigned to read my book [a collection of his blog entries] in class I usually answer, "I'm really sorry you have to do that." I mean, here you have someone who really was just bored at the office and started writing in a language that is not his mother tongue, using idioms and words he picked up from movies and songs, and someone puts it on a school curriculum! I am baffled and amused by what happened to the blog, book, and to Salam Pax.

Are you saying the blogosphere has become overhyped?

I am not saying that blogs do not offer content that is worth the "literary" title. There are many amazing blogs and webjournals that make amazing reading. I started my own because of a couple of really great blogs I tried to emulate. I generally read more journals online than news blogs. They are such a fascinating window into people's lives, and when this is coupled with a gift for writing it can be as gripping as some of the best novels. What makes it even more exciting is that you have to wait until the author feels she/he is ready to give you the next installment. I think today I spend as much time reading personal blogs as I spend reading books. There is no argument that they are a new literary genre which is fresh and exciting because of its immediacy. You don't have to wait for it long to be published and world or local events that influence the writers are not time shifted but they are now.

I understand you're working with the BBC in London? What's it been like stepping over to the journalism world?

When someone suggested I do video blogs, a program on BBC2 [Newsnight] offered to give it a try, and we have been doing these for them for the last year and a half. I have to admit that the v-blogs are almost more fun than the blogs online. Just as in my own online blog I am not bound by any sort of editorial policy or TV constraints, and we played with the format. And they accepted my amateurish camera work after some initial grumbling. One of the editors who worked on a couple of the blogs used to say that when working on a Salam Pax piece you have to "embrace the wobble"—that's my shoddy camera work. I haven't really become a journalist. I have a press pass because I don't want to be thrown in prison if coalition soldiers or Iraq Army catch me filming convoys, but other than that I don't use the J-word. I wouldn't even describe myself as a freelance journalist, and I don't buy into the whole bloggers-killed-the-journalism-star argument. Apples and apple pie is what I say—related but not really the same.

Your previous career was architecture; will you ever go back to it? What do you want to accomplish as the Baghdad Blogger? Will you ultimately leave Iraq for good?

I have not left the country through all this. I do get to travel more often these days, which is nice, and it gives me a break from the madness, but there was never a moment my family and I thought we wanted to leave. This might change now with the feeling that we are on the brink of a civil war. And I guess I will take the blog as far as it goes. I do know that Salam Pax serves a particular purpose, and when that time is gone we will just put him back under the bed and I go on with my life, which hopefully will be in Baghdad and not in an enforced exile, running away from civil war.


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