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The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

“In Gaza, we are subject to news but cannot see TVs.”

That's how Ayesha Saldanha titles her round-up of Palestinian bloggers today on Global Voices (who also have fascinating and necessary round ups from Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, as well as round-ups focused on reactions to the Gaza bombings from Chile and Taiwan). Tel Aviv-based blogger Lisa Goldman is using her access to technology to gather voices, events and stories from the "other side," documenting protest marches in Israel, calling friends in Gaza and reporting their stories, and linking to blogs and video from across the web. Saldanha's moving pull-quote attests to two ways in which the internet can offer a space for alternative voices: first of all, it allows those who "cannot see TVs" (and are not often invited to speak on them) to see the news, and moreover to make it; second of all, it builds global community, where those who can see the TVs a) get an alternative perspective that may balance media bias; b) can offer support to those blogging (in various ways, for example Saldanha is posting SMS messages from her friend Hasan in Rafah who has no internet access); and c) can shift perspective from seeing certain populations or individuals as "subject to news" to seeing them as agents, and as full members of the human community.

Blogs, of course, extend what literature has been doing for millennia -- through narratives that touch on commonalities (whether it's the sense that "we're all bloggers -- I could be blogging from Rafah, what would that be like?" or details of daily life lived differently) that can encourage us to walk in another's shoes. Social networking, again like literature, can also be used as propaganda -- bloggers are alternately (cynically) impressed by and outraged at the Israeli government's use of Twitter to hold press conferences and dominate news cycles. Whatever the reaction, it's an example of governments recognising the power of the medium: Anthony Lowenstein of The Blogging Revolution has a great story today about the Iraqi Revolutionary Guards Corp setting up 10, 000 blogs to counter the perceived liberalism of the Iraqi blogosphere.

It's a truism but here goes: the internet moves faster than literature. That's its advantage -- for example, this Gaza care package campaign organised through Facebook -- and its disadvantage, as misinformation spreads wildly and the source with the fastest broadband (or any power and phone lines at all) wins. History has always been written by the victors, but now the victors can write it from their mobile phones in the midst of the battle, shaping global response as well as posterity. So blogs that emerge from communities that have less access to technology (and to power in both the political and electrical senses) stand as an important bulwark against the complete eradication of their side of the story. Sites like Global Voices and toot perform a critical function in gathering these voices into a shout, focused and centralised.

In doing so, they act like old-fashioned publishers, selecting and honing the voices that surround us. Novels and poetry, too, are an important bulwark, a record of diverse voices. Some would argue that they are more accessible (to writers) and influential (to readers) than the internet, as a poem can be passed from hand to hand, and mouth to mouth, a novel smuggled out in sections if it has to be. Books are seen as custoded, collected, polished: a longer-lasting, more penetrating, and more effective representation of a situation, narrative, identity, image. And yet the gatekeepers are many, not least the gatekeeper of translation which means that many voices who are celebrated in their own linguistic culture don't reach ears beyond it. For English-language readers, that makes the value of books such as I Saw Ramallah, The Butterfly's Burden, and the novels of Elias Khoury invaluable, along with the promotion and support offered by PEN's Writers in Translation programme and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.

I Saw Ramallah, with its announcement of witnessing as direct action and reclaiming the narrative voice, directly addresses the panic and powerlessness captured in Saldanha's quotation from Professor Said Abdelwahed, as reported in the Moments in Gaza blog. But its author Mourid Barghouti has also recently joined Facebook, posting poems old and new (in Arabic) as well as more diary-like entries that amplify his poetry's connection to, and influence on, his readers.

Digital technology offers dizzying possibilities to move from subject to storyteller, for those who can access them. The waves of rage, love, hate, anguish, activism and emotion pouring forth in the blogosphere can't, and don't aim to, replace poetry, but they uphold the spirit of art: "KEEP MAKING THINGS WITH WHATEVER YOU HAVE."

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