More from Kevin Sites as he comes to the end of his week in Syria...
In the midst of ancient ruins and modern political drama, Syrian bloggers beat out the rhythms of their own lives.
DAMASCUS -- He has glasses and the kind of baby face that relatives probably like to pinch. But beneath the mild exterior of this Syrian mobile phone operator there is some righteous, youthful anger.
He expresses that anger in a blog.
"I write about everything I'm pissed off about, the things that make me angry: extremism, poverty, religion," he says with an incongruous smile.
That's a broad beat for a 20 year old, but Majd (we decide the conversation will be more open with first names only) has a lot to say.
"I've got lots of energy inside," he says at a pizza restaurant, where he and two other bloggers decided to meet with me. "I'm very affected by everything around me. When I was young, everything was discussed at our home."
His parents were intellectuals and communist party members, he says, and they encouraged him and his sister to question things.
Majd hasn't needed much more encouragement than that. His blog, called Hawa (http://hawa3.blogspot.com), Arabic for "air," is written in Arabic as well as some English.
And even though he and the other two bloggers, Ghalia and Sara, have made great efforts to emphasize to me they are not political, Majd's blog has already garnered the blogger's badge of honor: enough notoriety to prompt authorities to block access to it. For Majd, this happened at work.
"My blog got banned at the office," he says, after he posted "Calm Tsunami," a fable of sorts.
Calm Tsunami, Majd explains, is a story about a man and a woman in a relationship. But there's trouble. The woman wants the man to put up a picture of her in his house, but the man says it's unnecessary because her picture is in his heart. The man, Majd says, is the Syrian people, the woman, a government that feels loyalty must be displayed by obvious outward acts, like flying the flag.
While it seems a rather tame tale, Majd takes pains to make sure I don't misconstrue his intentions.
"I like to make social critiques," he says, "but I have to play with the words."
Just as Majd does not wish his blog to be seen as political, nor does he want politics to be the focus of my article about him and other Syrian bloggers. He and Ghalia both say that they are less concerned about government retribution than seeing yet another article in the Western media demonizing all of Syria because of the current political climate over Lebanon and other issues.
In fact, misconceptions about Syria are why 23-year-old Ghalia, with a newly-minted diploma in English literature, says she started her blog, Cocktail (http://cocktail4.tk) in the first place.
"My cousins are Iraqis who live in America," she says, "but they always looked down on my country."
She says she began explaining Syria to them by introducing them to historical Syrian figures, which she eventually turned into her blog. "I want to introduce people to Syria," she says. "I love my country and want to share the things I love."
Sometimes it's a hard sell.
"There was a British guy that said he was afraid to link to my blog because he thought I could be a terrorist," she says. "But after reading it for a few months I think he decided I was a nice person."
Like Majd, she's not afraid of a little social commentary, which she says she usually makes with pictures rather than words -- like a photograph she posted of the newly opened Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in downtown Damascus, with a hungry child peering inside at diners.
Ghalia writes her entire blog in English, posting four or five times a month. She usually gets only around 15 visitors, which she says is sometimes disappointing.
Regardless, she says blogging has changed her life, helping her see beyond her affluent neighborhood, a suburb of Damascus called Malkie. "I thought all of Syria was like Malkie," she says, "but when I started blogging, I got to know my own country. I got out and saw things and was shocked by the poverty."
For Sara, a 27-year-old audio engineer, her blog (http://stellar101.blogspot.com) is about sharing her personal journey -- like spending five years at Boston's Northeastern University, but not being able to graduate, she says, because of a post-9/11 U.S. policy restricting student visas.
"I felt like I wanted to connect with other people," she says. "I write what comes to mind. I'm not really trying to do anything specific."
She says she seldom comments on things that can't be changed, in her view, like politics. But she'll write about religion and women's issues, such as the notion in Arabic culture, she says, that women can't take care of themselves.
With her blog, she tries to blend "her Western mind [open and proactive] with her Eastern heart [generous and family oriented]."
Blogging isn't cheap or easy in Syria. If you can find a provider, a home broadband connection can cost as much as $80 a month with modem rental and service fees. That's close to the average monthly income of a Syrian with some post-secondary school education.
Internet cafes have sprung up around the country, but the most dependable and accessible are those in the capital's affluent areas.
Majd says he has a dialup connection at home, which limps along at about 48 kilobytes per second. Still, he spends about three hours a day on his computer outside of work, thinking, writing, sending out dispatches from the hot zone in his head to anyone who will listen.
I ask the bloggers if they consider themselves citizen journalists.
"I'm not a journalist," says Majd. "I'm not working for specific community goals and I'm not in service to anyone. But I do want people to be affected by what I write. I want ideas to be clarified."
"You're reporting about results of actions," Ghalia says to me, of my work. "We're living it. That's what we write."
"But what about censorship?" I ask. "Do you feel you can write whatever you want?"
"I don't feel any censorship," Ghalia says, "only self-censorship sometimes. I think I want to write things, but then I think they might get me into trouble."
"I'd be a liar if I said I'm not afraid sometimes," says Majd. "And my parents are afraid I might be harmed."
As soon as he says this, Majd is again uncomfortable that what I write will turn out to be not about the expressions of Syrian bloggers in all their degrees and complexities, but a diatribe about what is wrong with Syria.
I try to assure him that they, the bloggers, are the focus of my piece -- but that includes the challenges to their expression as well as the successes of it.
At the end of our meeting, Ghalia gives me a two-page letter from another Syrian blogger named Elie, currently studying anthropology in Canada.
In the letter, Elie asks me to keep an open mind in my travels through Syria and eloquently describes the nation's evolution toward becoming a more open society, while at the same time battling to maintain its sense of cultural identity:
Due to globalization, Syria is more open than ever. Indeed it is good for Syria, but it demands us to be prudent (there is a price to pay)... The problem is that exchange is one sided. Syria senses acculturation as a raging force.
We need you to show the world that we are here. Our message must not be kept hidden, it must not be marginalized, it must also not be omitted because of politics.
In fact, we as bloggers do the same as you, we try informing about our reality and how we emotionally deal with it. We try to show, through daily exertion, that Syria has thoughts, has pride, has strength, has spirit...
I want to tell Elie that he doesn't need me to tell the world anything -- that he, like many other bloggers, can speak for themselves, which he just did. And that is ultimately the point of it all.
OTHER SYRIAN BLOGS TO CHECK OUT:
-Across Syria (http://acrosssyria.blogspot.com/)
-A Heretic's Blog (http://amarji.blogspot.com/)
-Syria News Wire (http://saroujah.blogspot.com/)
-Our Man in Damascus (http://baldnomad.blogspot.com/)