Teresa Pepe, Blogging from Egypt: Digital Literature, 2005-2016 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Teresa Pepe (TP): I started this research in 2008, when I met a number of young women and men in Cairo who were blogging in Arabic. I was a blogger myself at that time, and I was so fascinated by the fact that whereas for me this was merely a hobby, for them this activity was a very serious one, to the point that they would dedicate hours to reading, researching and writing online, and to the point that they would describe their occupation as “blogger” (mudawwin). Blogging had emerged in 2004 mostly as a tool for political activity, to coordinate the activities of the newly emerged Kifaya grassroots movement. For this reason, academic research had primarily focused on blogging using a political and public sphere perspective, often leaving behind what was actually written on these blogs. However, by 2008, the community had expanded from a few hundreds to forty thousand members: while some were still preoccupied with politics, the majority of Egyptian bloggers at this time were using blog as a means of self-expression and literary creativity, experimenting with the anonymity and interactivity provided by the medium. When I accessed this online community, I discovered beautifully written text, full of imagination, humor, social criticism, and written in a style that significantly departed from the one used in print Arabic literature. It was clear to me that these texts deserved to be studied as literature, while at the same time they were changing the way Arabic literature is written.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
TP: The book is organized as a journey that takes the readers through an exploration of the blogging literary movement in Egypt. It explores young Egyptians’ blogs as forms of autofiction. The research is based on a sample of forty personal blogs written and distributed online between 2005 and 2016, which is before and after the events of the 2011 revolution and the “Arab Spring”. Among this corpus, six blogs are presented as case studies and analyzed more closely in the book, namely: Wassiʿ Khayalak (Widen Your Imagination) by Ahmed Naji; Ma Bada Li (What Seemed to Me) by Amr Ezzat; Tanatif Maʿat (Ma3t’s Bits and Pieces) by Mona Seif; Yawmiyyat Imraʾa Mithliyya (Diary of a Gay Woman) by the writer who uses the pseudonym ‘Emraamethlya’; Al-Kanaba al-Hamra (The Red Sofa) by Bilal Husni; and Yawmiyyat ʿAnis (Diary of a Spinster) by Abeer Soliman.
Borrowing methods and theories from print and digital literature, sociolinguistics, media studies and anthropology, the study investigates choices of authorship, titles, narrative strategies, linguistic and stylistic varieties, and recurrent themes in the texts. The literary investigation of the blogs is carried out on the backdrop of the qualitative interviews made with the blog authors. The book examines the bloggers’ reasons for blogging, the effect of fictional self-construction on their daily life, and how blogging helped them to depict their internal world (their emotions and bodies) and to deal with the constraints of the outside reality, including their families and social groups, traditional religious authorities and the spheres of politics and professional life.
In addition, the book discusses the relation between the blogs under examination and the events of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt. It describes how the revolution was “imagined” before 2011 and how it was then experienced by the bloggers. Finally, it discusses how blogs have evolved in the last years after 2011 and what is left of the blog in Arabic literary production. Here, I show how blogging continues to impact Arabic print literature, in terms of young authors’ access to the literary field, their experimentation with language and genre, and the importance of the visual. The novel Istikhdam al-Haya (Using Life, 2014) by Ahmed Naji, mentioned before, and Youssef Rakha’s novel Bawlu (Paulo, 2016), are recalled here to discuss the link between the blog, the dystopic novel, and new literary styles in Egypt.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
TP: This book is based on the doctoral dissertation that I completed in 2014 at the University of Oslo. The book focuses on the same sample of primary sources, but it differs from the dissertation in significant ways. First of all, it addresses a longer time-frame, as it follows the blogging community and its literary production from 2005 until 2016, while the dissertation stops in 2011. Secondly, the book addresses some issues that I did not have time to explore in my PhD research: one is the question of language, and the stylistic choices made by bloggers; the other is the impact of blogging on recent print literary production.
J: What were the challenges for writing this book?
TP: The first challenge derives from the extensive amount of texts present on the Internet. Navigating through the blogosphere and choosing blogs that might be classed as "representative" was a huge task. The sample I eventually came up with cannot claim to be fully representative. Yet, I have tried to give it at least a certain degree of representation by applying some precise criteria for the selection of the sources.
Another challenge lies in the language in which Egyptian blogs are written. Since the texts are not edited and are written by non-professional authors, they include typographical errors and unclear sentence structures. In the book, I have inserted the Arabic text as it appeared on the blog, because I wanted the reader to get direct access to these sources and familiarize themselves with this style.
The final challenge has to do with the fact that this study analyzes a very recent cultural phenomenon. On top of this, the political situation in Egypt has changed drastically since I started this research. I started in October 2010 when “something was in the air”, but nobody was expecting a “revolution” to take place. I carried out fieldwork in Egypt immediately after the 25 January revolution (February–May 2011), and in the following year (December 2011–May 2012) At that time, many of my informants were often busy with political activities, interviews, or were simply stuck to their mobiles or laptops to check what was going on and to share news and updates. When I returned to Cairo in 2015, for one year, I found several of my informants struggling with political despair. The revolution seemed like a far-off dream that had been replaced by a much crueler nightmarish reality.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
TP: I hope this book will be read by undergraduates, graduates, and scholars in different disciplines with an interest in Arabic literature and culture. As the book offers a wide range of texts in Arabic retrieved from the Internet (and translated by me into English), I hope it will also be read by specialist and students in Arabic sociolinguistics, and open up new venues for research on how Arabic language transforms on the Internet. In addition, I hope the book will appeal to anthropologists and social scientists with an interest in Arab societies and youth cultures. On a methodological level, I hope the book will inspire future scholars to integrate more closely philological approaches like textual analysis within anthropological research, conducted through interviews and participant observation, and vice versa; I hope it will inspire future literary scholars to enrich their textual analysis with an observation of the literary field in which authors and texts are situated.
Finally, even though the book focuses on a certain genre and on one Arabic cultural region, I hope the wider scope of the book will appeal to a readership beyond Middle Eastern studies, particularly among those interested in digital humanities, life-writing and technologies of the self. The autofictionality of the Internet is a timely topic that needs further exploration. Blogging from Egypt explores the original features that autofiction develops on the Internet in the Arabic-speaking realm, but develops a theory and methodology of "digital autofiction" that could be applied to subsequent studies of digital texts written from different geographic areas.
Most of all, I hope the book will be translated into Arabic and will be read by the bloggers who participated to this study. Their artistic talent needs to be recognized on a local and global level, and I hope Blogging from Egypt will contribute to that.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
TP: I am currently working on a project dealing with future fictions, ecology and climate change. Several bloggers have turned to dystopian novelistic writing, after experimenting with blogging. I am researching the political implications of this dystopia, and its relation to environmental questions in the Arab world. This work is part of a wider research network that I have built at the University of Oslo, interested in comparing this phenomenon across the Middle East and South Asia.
Besides this, I am preoccupied with the history of media in the Arab World and its impact on literature and culture. Together with my colleague Barbara Winckler, I have set up a research forum on “Media Transitions in Arabic Societies,” where we work with a number of colleagues interested in analyzing the impact of digital technologies on Arabic literature and cultures by comparing it to previous media transitions, such as the invention of writing in the ninth century, and the implementation of print technologies in the nineteenth century.
Excerpt from the Book
From the Introduction: Egyptian Blogs between Fiction and Autobiography (pp. 1-4)
The adoption of the Internet has favoured the proliferation of new forms of autobiographical writing and literary creativity all over the world. Blogs, in particular, are used by Internet users worldwide as a means of recording and sharing their writing. The popularity attained by the blogging phenomenon and the original features of blog texts have attracted the interest of international scholars. More specifically, a specific kind of blog defined as the ‘personal blog’, which consists of ‘a blog written by an individual and focusing on his or her personal life’, has spurred significant debate. Most academics agree that personal blogs should be considered as forms of diaries, thus inserting them into the category of biographical writing (in effect, history). It is true that the personal blog shares a number of features with the diaristic genre, as its content is mainly autobiographical and it consists of dated entries, arranged chronologically in reverse order.
However, besides recording one’s life, personal blogs allow users to play with their identity, to reveal aspects of their personality while inventing new ones. Take for example, the blog Gay Girl in Damascus, which in June 2012 spurred on so much controversy worldwide. This personal blog was purportedly written by ‘Amina Abdalla Arraf Omar’, who claimed to be a lesbian Syrian-American living in Damascus, in the midst of the political uprising instigated a few months before. Her story left readers worldwide in suspense when a post appeared on her blog, claiming to be from her cousin, announcing that Amina had been kidnapped by three armed men. International human rights organisations, journalists and even the American embassy took active steps for her release. The Facebook page rallying to the cause to ‘Free Amina’ gathered 15,000 people from all around the world. When it turned out that ‘Amina’ was actually Tom MacMaster, a forty-year-old American living in Edinburgh, and that the blog was fictional, everybody accused him of ‘lying’. The above incident points to the fact that blogs are usually read as factual accounts, but at the same time the form gives their authors the opportunity to play with identities, to reveal aspects of one’s personality, while at the same time inventing new ones. It shows that blogs are symptomatic of how the Internet questions many of the assumptions we make about texts, and therefore their generic conventions need to be studied in greater depth.
Besides the record of the blogger’s daily life, personal blogs include short stories, film reviews, comments about music, book reviews, song videos, and calls for meetings, social events and political demonstrations; therefore, the fictional is blended with the outside reality and the extra-literary world, the personal is strongly fused with the public, and the personal and the political are not discernible. Therefore, reducing the personal blog to no more than online diaries or domestic ranting, we are effectively casting aside un-theorized an entire mode of blogging that has a significant literary potential, while personal blogs might fruitfully be approached as an emergent literary form. So far, the question of how blogging may be studied as a literary form remains to be investigated. This book takes up this challenge by focusing on the Egyptian blogosphere as a case for analysis.
Indeed, since 2005, blogging has emerged as a noteworthy phenomenon in Egypt. In January 2002, the Egyptian government invested largely in IT infrastructure while keeping the Internet relatively uncensored. As a result, the number of users – that was estimated at 220,000 in 1999 – increased to 5.2 million by September 2006. In particular, the introduction of Web 2.0 technology and blogging tools to write in Arabic in 2005 encouraged many young Egyptians to use blogs as a space for self-expression and literary experimentation, rendering the subgenre of personal blogs particularly prominent. In a period of political and social turmoil, and of state and self-censorship in both traditional media and society, blogs appeared to many Egyptian young people as the best tool for self-expression and self-discovery. The availability of personal spaces, unedited and relatively uncensored, encouraged amateur and more skilled writers to pursue their literary ambitions and to try their hand at writing in the form of a new, uncategorised genre. The anonymity of the medium allowed young people, and particularly women, to talk about themselves in a way they were not allowed to, both in traditional media (for religious and political reasons, but also because of the difficulty of entering the cultural field) and in public (because of social pressures), to express criticism and frustration about daily life without losing social credibility. The interactive nature of blogs made it possible to connect people with similar interests and values, and to receive immediate feedback and advice on their writing. In addition, the possibility of combining writing with hyperlinks to other texts, audio and video elements favoured the proliferation of new styles and new aesthetics. The absence of gatekeepers on the Internet allowed bloggers to experiment with a writing style that mixes elements from the vernacular, standard Arabic, youth slang and English, in a way that finds no precedent in modern Arabic literature.
Since 2008, blogs have also left an important mark in the Arabic/Egyptian literary field. This came after more and more publishers started to search the Arabic blogosphere to find new literary voices, attracted by the original style and content of these blogs, and by the high number of followers that they had managed to gather. In particular, in 2008, three Egyptian blogs written by three women bloggers were published by Dar al-Shuruq, the biggest private Egyptian publishing house, and entered the best-seller lists of Cairo bookshops. Arab literary critics and academic scholars were divided into those who devalued the digital space as a space for amateurs and non-professional writers, and those who highlighted the original literary features of these texts. Thus, since then, terms such as ‘mudawwanāt adabiyya’ (literary blogs) and ‘adab al-mudawwana’ (blog literature) have appeared frequently in several newspapers, literary journals, academic papers and conference panels. The use of these terms evidences that blogs are looked at as a unique genre in Arabic literature. However, their specific literary features, including the reading pact on which they are based (whether they should be read as fictional/non-fictional), remain unexplored. More than ten years after its emergence, blogging has prompted a boom of literary publications written by young emergent writers that span memoirs, novels and satirical literature and that mix formal and more informal varieties of Arabic. Many of these authors have come to print publication after testing their writing in the form of blog posts, Facebook notes and tweets. Among them, names like Ahmed Naji (Aḥmad Nājī), Mohammad Rabie (Muḥammad Rabīʿ), Nael Eltoukhy (Nāʾil al-Ṭūkhī), Muhammad Aladdin (Muḥammad ʿAlāʾ ad-Dīn) and Youssef Rakha (Yūsuf Rakhā) appear now at the forefront of the Arabic and global literary scene, as their novels have appeared in multiple prints in Arabic and have been translated into several European languages. This new Egyptian writing deserves further exploration; it needs to be studied at the intersection of print and digital, as the novel is in continuous dialogue with the author’s blog and social networks profile.