Thursday, June 5, 2003

Up From Ba'athism - The autobiography of an individualist

Yesterday, the UK Guardian newspaper began publishing the ruminations of Salam Pax, the celebrated young Iraqi (real name unknown) whose personal blog from Baghdad allowed many thousands of people to have an inside view of the Iraqi capital before, after and even, for a thrilling few days, during the American assault.

Salam Pax's Dear_Raed website is said to get about 1,000 visitors a day. That may be peanuts when compared to, say, Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit, which receives an average of 55,000 visitors a day, and has tallied well over 15 million hits since it started. However, numbers don't tell the whole story: Salam has become, for better or worse, one of the more influential mediums in the west for following what goes on in Iraq.

It was inevitable and (considering that Salam Pax's opinions and observations were no worse or better than many blog postings out there) unfair that his appeal would hinge largely on acceptance of his personal identity. For months, Salam's sharp comments from Baghdad were a source of heated debate. The skeptics wondered how an obviously Westernized Iraqi could so easily post interesting material on a blog written in totalitarian Baghdad. Surely Salam didn't exist, they insisted, he was an invention of the Iraqi intelligence services or the CIA. More recently he was damned as a Ba'ath princeling. Moreover, Salam admitted to being gay, which seemed too frank for an Arab to be entirely believable.

Salam responded on his site by saying: "I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well except my own." Throughout much of the war he couldn't update his blog, fueling speculation he had been arrested. Then the Guardian found Salam and convinced him to write a weekly Baghdad blog for the paper, strongly indicating he did indeed exist. On Monday, the journalist Peter Maass added to the mystique by writing in Slate that Salam had been his interpreter, though he withheld his name.

What does one make of the Salam Pax phenomenon, at least in the context of the Arab world's tribulations? Blogger purists might lament Salam's co-optation by the Guardian (he himself humorously likened the move to "selling his soul"), but this introduction into the mainstream was a fitting climax for a supposedly liberal Arab who, while he was not shredded by the Iraqi system, apparently had no sympathy for it. And the metamorphosis came through the use of a simple form of information technology that made it possible to circumvent an autocratic regime in a very small way.

A second thing Salam Pax has done is offer the West, and particularly the United States, what it believes to be a middle class voice from the Arab world that it can understand. This is essential in a post-September 11 environment when American and Arab societies have been thrown together, both politically and culturally, in a way that is entirely new in more than a century of American-Arab relations. How representative is Salam? The question is irrelevant; he reflects a strand in Iraqi society that many Westerners simply didn't know existed, but which they feel they intimately know.

Third, Salam has become that rare thing: an Arab pop icon, one unknown in his own world (where his gayness encourages anonymity), but utterly credible abroad. Surely there is excess in bestowing on Salam the responsibility of grand Iraqi interpreter, one he might not merit and claims not to want. However, it is also hardly surprising when the former interpreters were members of a Middle East academic priesthood that has had relatively little to offer on Iraq's current predicament. Salam and his imitators have almost naturally inherited part of their role.

One might protest that Salam's significance is almost entirely a function of how he is perceived in the West. That's true. But Arab cultural autarky has invariably lined the road to perdition in the Middle East. The value of Salam Pax is that he speaks as an individual, one who has taken a chance on contacting the outside world and dealing with it on its own terms. And this has been his way of reaffirming that he is Iraqi.