City Blogging in Beirut

Part of the pleasure of starting this blog has been building closer contact with my existing students as I develop posts around some of their research and hearing back from former students who tip me about media developments in their part of the world. A little while ago, I got e-mail from a former undergraduate student Rania Khalaf. She had been a student in my Introduction to Media Studies class years ago and was reminded of the class by recent developments involving digital media in her native country of Lebanon. In this case, I wanted to share with you the story in her own words and through the images being produced by artists in the Middle East but circulated around the world.

Here's what she wrote to me:

I have been thinking a lot about that class lately and was thinking you'd find the blogging about the Lebanese-Israeli war, especially by the art community, to be an interesting phenomenon... Now, the blogs are seeping onto the walls of cities.

Here's what happening:

First, the usual first Web blogging is happening by people on both sides of the conflict. Well - since I'm Lebanese and my family's all there ... I'm a pretty stressed out - so I've mainly been following the blogs from/about lebanon. And now, as Paul Keller puts it, they're moving into the 'urban fabric' and becoming 'city blogs' .

A couple of these blogs that I like best are chronicling the war, not the politics of it but the day-to-day of it, using sketches. Maybe a few song lyrics. Maybe a few paragraphs of text. A song here and there, and one song using the falling bombs for bass.

Here are the two blogs I've been mostly checking out



There's even one that uses annotated pics of Arabic Superman comics .


Having grown up in the middle east and through one civil war, well .. let's just say political analysis of that region turns into wacky conspiracy theories and goes back thousands of years into a blame game that wastes precious time (and in turn, precious lives) .. making it so very sick that sometimes it makes me laugh a little filling the room with a nasty cynicisim .. So I tend to veer to the blogs that are about the human condition , about common sense, about staying alive and moving forward. Me, I'm still holding out for eternal peace and love and all that cheese.

Lately, some of the sketches started appearing on the streets of Amsterdam. Then, in New York, I (heart) Beirut stickers started appearing as 'love from new york to beirut' . Both have started to slowly creep their way throughout the cities of the world. I wonder whether people will notice.

And here are Mazen's pictures - on the walls of Amsterdam (city blogging).


Here are I heart Beirut stickers in NYC:


I thought you'd find this interesting from the digital community point of view, forgetting for a moment the bombs and the whats and wheres and whodroppedthefirstones.

For those who would like to know more about the role that digital media is playing in this current conflict, I would recommend checking out Morph, the blog of the Media Center, which has been having an ongoing discussion about blogging in the middle east written from people living and working across the region. Here, for example, is a discussion of blogs from an Iranian perspective:

The very first thing that I do every morning is to check my emails. It is always a great pleasure to see that people have posted comments on my blog. Even forgetting those who try to show their extreme hatred toward the Iranian regime, I am not used to reading comments like "stop offending my dear president". Many times I think everybody agrees with me; that the Iranian administration is naive and that the political atmosphere in Iran is so corrupt and inefficient. Sometimes when I find an interesting point about Iran I wonder if I should post it in my blog. I think, everybody knows this and everybody agrees with me. The problem is who this everybody is....

t seems that the world is divided into two very distinct islands. In one island intellectual people read our blogs and post nice comments. Some even blame us for being too nice to the regime. On the other island there are people whom applause when Ahmadinejad talks about "defeating the nation's enemies". Obviously, this is nothing new. People have always been separated over many issues, one of them politics. But I am afraid there is no bridge between the two islands, even if we think there is one. Internet, blog, comment, to some of us these are the great sounds of change and democracy. Freelance reporters, transparency, question. I am sorry folks we are living in our closed circle....

What I am trying to show is that basically the power of blogs is limited because of obvious barriers. I should be very optimistic to assume that an Iranian teenager in a small town will quit the national television, the only source of entertainment, and look for my interpretation of the events. I am more and more convinced that the fancy world of blogging, and arranging hunger-strikes, has no meaningful connection to the real world. People are not willing to change their perspective because Lisa tries to show them a nice picture from a "cruel Zionist Israeli". Nor they care if Mansour Osanlo is in prison because he has spoken out for a non-political demand; to have better working conditions. I am not blaming anyone. If I had to wake up seven at the morning to go to work everyday and then pass the last week of each month with virtually no money left I do not think I could afford writing in my good-looking blog. This is how I see all this. We are a community of internet freaks sharing a common positive sense for attractive words such as democracy and freedom. We talk to each other and have fun. This is fine. We are hanging out, blaming this government and that religious identity. This is all fine. But, folks, please do not make it bigger that it actually is.

And here is how Gloria Pan responded to Arash Kamanger's post:

But Arash, there are people who blog and people who read blogs. Yes, the writers are a small circle, their core audiences a larger though still select circle. But beyond that, who can say? If you look at the readership of some of the really active (not necessarily big) blogs, it's very clear that many commenters are not regulars, who just happened to come across a discussion or interesting post. My point, I guess, is that while we can't determine how widespread Internet usage and involvement is, what we can definitely see is a change in the overall public discourse. Is it freer? Are more people getting used to speaking out? Are more people getting used to hearing alternative views -- maybe not directly from the Internet, but from the cousin of the guy down the street who happens to be studying computer science? All this is definitely happening and happening faster all the time. But the question still remains: Will it be for good or evil? The new ideas out there can be from either side. I'm an optimist, and I believe that ultimately, the good ideas will prevail.

I find myself wondering whether the street media practices that Rania Khalaf described in her e-mail to me might represent a response to Kamanger's concerns -- a kind of bridge between the digital world and the people in the streets who have little access to digital media. Khalaf was not the first person living in the west to share with me the remarkable cartoons being produced in Beirut. Indeed, these artists have been able to use the web to get their impressions of the war into global circulation and their images -- whether created from scratch or appropriated -- leave vivid impressions of what it feels like to live in a wartorn country. They speak to the heart. I am thankful that digital media allows us to hear directly from people in other parts of the world and often brings us part of the story we are not receiving through the news media.

Yet, reproducing them and getting them out beyond the digital sphere seems like an important act. I am reminded, for example, of the ways that immigrant workers in turn of the century New York used to pay one member of their community to read to them while they worked -- allowing a broader number to benefit from the literacy skills of a few and maintain a connection to print culture. I am also reminded of the early days of internet fandom when people would print out all of the posts on a discussion list and share them with people who weren't online.

Here's how the man who posted the cartoons on walls and lamp posts in Amsterdam explained his thinking:

What are drawings if not posters-in-waiting that can easily been printed out and stuck against the walls of the city? clearly one only has to print them out, copy them a couple of times, get wallpaper-glue and head out into the night (ok, first wait some 10 hours for night). so i spend some of sunday night sticking a4 sized mini-posters all over the walls of my neighborhood (the pijp) in amsterdam....

yesterday evening i did a second round (around Leidseplein in the center), and i am planning to continue for the next couple of nights. hopefully these relatively small posters will catch some eyeballs and make more people think and start expressing their outrage.

Apart from the obvious advantage of making me feel like i am doing something about the situation, i also like this little action on a symbolic level. it feels like translating a blog (something normally contained to the internets) into something that is part of the urban fabric. i like the idea of images leaking from my screen into the streets of amsterdam and would probably be even more beautiful if people in other cities started doing the same...

We might think of these practices as a low tech form of grassroots convergence -- people taking up the responsibility to transmit information, stories, and images from one medium to another and in the process, broaden their circulation. If, as was suggested above, our differing access to media technologies means that we inhabit different worlds even when we share the same physical spaces -- then the answer surely must start by using appropriate media to bridge between those media sectors.