The citizen dentist who became a frontline blogger
Monday May 8, 2006
For those who wonder about the value of citizens’ media to journalism, I submit this tale: When the Iraq war was ending – or so some thought – I wrote on my blog that I hoped the internet and the Iraqis’ newfound freedom of speech would enable an explosion of citizens’ media there. We had seen such a blossoming in Iran, thanks in great measure to one man, Hossein Derakhshan, who told his world how to blog in Persian at Hoder.com. Before and during the Iraq invasion, we heard from the brave blogger Salam Pax. So now I wanted to hear many new Iraqi voices and perspectives: a thousand Salam Paxes. I fretted that this would require government help, industry effort and money.
But out of nowhere, I got email from a 24-year-old dentist in Baghdad named Zeyad. He was ready to blog. “I want to be part of it, I want to participate, to contribute, to do anything for my country and the world,” he said. “What do western readers need to know? What should I focus on? You talked me into this so you are obligated in helping me! I assure you that many will follow my steps because that is why I’m doing this. Our voice will be heard at last.”
I pointed him to Blogger.com, a free service, and immediately, he was blogging at HealingIraq.com, getting attention from around the world with his fresh voice and vantage point from Baghdad. I sent him a cheap digital camera which he used to cover a large antiterrorism demonstration in December 2003 – a clear warning of what was to follow that was ignored by American forces and media – and those images were published in an American magazine. Zeyad continued to write about his life in Iraq as he also explained the political scene emerging there. And he made good on his promise to get other people blogging.
But, of course, the war had not ended. And through Zeyad’s blog, we saw the dark clouds rising. Many other bloggers, Iraqi and American, stayed their courses to the point of dogmatism. Not Zeyad. He revealed his hopes that turned to disappointments and then to despair.
He reported that his cousin had been drowned by American soldiers and pressed the story until it was investigated and the army admitted responsibility. Zeyad gave us an honest perspective from Iraqi eyes that we could not get from western reporters imprisoned in their Green Zone or from the two-sentence quotes and five-second soundbites the brave journalists who did venture out managed to catch. In writing about a simple bus ride at the Guardian’s Comment is Free – about his mortal fear focused on a strange man who placed a strange package in front of him – Zeyad communicated with understated drama the terror of his daily life: “I couldn’t help but gaze into his shifty, pale brown eyes that seemed to quickly scan everything, but not settle anywhere. He didn’t even return my interest, which I took as a deeply troubling sign. Every few seconds, he would glance at the sack a bit surreptitiously and away again …”
Early on, I told Zeyad that he was a natural journalist and that he should throw aside his dental drill and devote himself to his keyboard. He demurred. But I was not alone. Zeyad soon wrote for the Washington Post and NYTimes.com. American networks came after him to comment, report, and even film for them. The Wall Street Journal profiled him and chronicled the transformation of his view of the war.
Zeyad now concedes that he may not be a great dentist. But he most certainly is a talented journalist. More than that, he is a courageous war correspondent. And so Zeyad changed his mind. He is coming to the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where I will teach this fall. When we each blogged about raising money to make this trip possible, scores of his readers contributed thousands of dollars on his blog.
So witness the power of the humble tools of citizens’ media. A citizen dentist used them to become a journalist. He used them to give the world a unique and human perspective on a story where too much is unreported. He gained an appreciative and supportive audience around the world. He helped give birth to a new medium. And journalism is all the better for it.