Happy Bloggers of Syria

The manner with which the Internet is now connecting a growing number of Syrians with information about the world and each other is practically too good to be true — at least if you’re willing to steer clear of writing about politics in your blog.

Just ask young bloggers in Damascus. I had the chance to meet with several of them while researching an article on Syria, which ran first in the February issue of Reason Magazine.

Like many young women growing up and living in the Middle East today, 27-year-old Sara Takieddin says she’s become a “more devout” Muslim as she’s grown older. This is reflected nowhere better than in the blog Sara started a few years ago documenting her “transformation from being non-religious to being devotedly religious,” right up to the point last year when she started wearing a veil.

Sara’s blog, http://stellar101.blogspot.com, initially attracted a handful of visitors posting questions about why she became so religious. Intrigued by the communication with strangers, Sara says she took pleasure in posting personal answers about her transformation.

Then things took a dramatic turn.

Kevin Sites, an international journalist for Yahoo whose articles about parts of the world he calls “The Hot Zone” are featured prominently by Yahoo, made a visit to Syria and mentioned the name of Sara’s blog in one of his articles. Literally overnight http:stellar101.blogspot.com received a deluge of new visitors from around the globe and Sara turned from modest personal blogger into international advice-giver on the subject of Islam.

“People started asking me about jihad, then people would ask everything, such as about the Afghan guy who turned Christian, why does it say this in the Quran, why does it say that in the Quran. Whoever asks, I answer,” says Sara.

While Kevin Sites’ reference also brought on a number of messages from “fanatic Americans and Israelis cussing out Arabs and Syrians,” Sara says the experience was overwhelmingly positive. As a professional audio-engineer and musician, she often posts original compositions of music on her blog, and was thrilled when a musician from a Christian Church in Wisconsin contacted her blog asking permission to recreate a piece of her music for a church service.

Sara says she saw this as an example of the internet’s potential in bringing together people of different worlds. “It was exciting because I felt I had achieved something huge in bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims,” she says.

A similar experience was had by Ghalia, another Syrian blogger, who asked that her last name not be used. A 24-year-old elementary school teacher in Damascus, Ghalia’s blog, http://cocktail4.blogspot.com, went from about 70 visitors on January 30, 2006, to more than 7,000 the next day following Kevin Sites’ reference to it on Yahoo. The exposure was thrilling and satisfying for Ghalia, who says she sought to create a blog focusing on Syrian history, beauty and architecture, “because I wanted to introduce my country to the world.”

What happened to these two women shows how leading global Web sites can instantly amplify the connectivity of those who previously had little opportunity to interact with people from different continents. The excitement resonated through the Damascene blogger community, resulting in the creation of more blogs. Ghalia notes that in early-2005, when her blog first went online, “there were just 15 Syrian blogs. Now there are 143.”

The experiences of Sara and Ghalia represent a positive side of the Internet story in Syria. But it is a side defined by the fact that they, like the vast majority of Syrian bloggers, take careful measures to ensure their blogs and other online activities steer clear of anything overtly political.

Guy Taylor is WPR International News Editor.