The man who is, by all accounts, the oldest blogger in Iraq makes the younger people around him look aged – especially when he starts to talk about the Internet. Ibrahim al-Allaf is in his 50s, he has white hair and glasses but his tone is so enthusiastic that his audience feels as though they are in the presence of a much younger man.
Because al-Allaf believes that the Internet can change Iraq. And as a result he spends more than 16 hours a day online, reading Facebook and Twitter and on his blog, where he specialises in writing about culture, history and politics.
According to the Iraqi Network for Social Media, there are now around 900 relatively well known and well read bloggers in Iraq but Al-Allaf is still considered one of the pioneers of blogging of the movement in Iraq. And he was among around 52 bloggers who attended the country’s first conference for local bloggers in February. The conference, held in Sulaymaniyah in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, was organised by the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), a body for networking within social media founded in April 2011.
Al-Allaf’s online journey began in 2007 in his home city of Mosul. At that time there was a lot of sectarian violence in Iraq and Mosul was largely controlled by the Sunni Muslim extremist group, al-Qaeda. Despite difficult and dangerous conditions, al-Allaf continued to work as a professor of history at Mosul’s university, where he would always insist that his students knew their way around the “digital world” as he refers to it.
“A digital education is part of this era and those who do not enter the digital world will be left behind,” al-Allaf says determinedly. “Many writers my age prefer to publish their articles in print, in newspapers and magazines. They prefer to stay away from the digital world because they are not masters of appropriate online language.”
Al-Allaf did used to be published in print. He wrote for local and national publications for 40 years before starting to self-publish online.
Before 2003, and the US-led invasion of Iraq that changed the nation so radically, al-Allaf used dial-up internet. “But the cost was very high,” he says. “Now that there’s been an improvement in Internet service providers, I’ve been able to become more passionate about what the web can offer – and that’s when I finally decided to start blogging.”
According to statistics al-Allaf’s blog is visited by at least 200 people every day and al-Allaf himself also shares the articles via social media like Facebook and also sends them onward to be published on other well-read Iraqi websites.
Al-Allaf does know of one particular group that won’t read his work: his sons and grandchildren, who only use the internet occasionally and who can’t understand al-Allaf’s passion for it.
His daughter, Hiba, a civil engineer who recently died of cancer, was one of his only fans related by blood. “She was the one who helped me whenever I needed to find information on the net and she also assisted me in the translation of English texts into Arabic,” notes al-Allaf, who has two sons and two daughters as well as 11 grandchildren.
Al-Allaf has been active in encouraging local civil society organisations and action. During Iraq’s version of “Arab Spring” demonstrations, around 70 Iraqi bloggers were active in initiating meetings – most of them were younger than al-Allaf but he was one of the most active. Although not all of the demonstrators’ blogs have remained popular or even still exist, al-Allaf thinks that their replacements – other kinds of blogs dealing with culture, sport, food and other more specialized topics – are just as important.
“They’ve given young Iraqis a taste for blogging and made them more involved in other issues, and to take a step away from the never ending political crisis in this country,” he argues.
During the February blogging conference, one trend al-Allaf particularly noticed was the emergence of female bloggers – especially women blogging in the field of civil society, politics and human rights. Out of the 52 bloggers present at the conference, nine were women.
And for al-Allaf, this is exactly why he is so fond of the opportunities provided by the internet. “The world of blogging is open to everyone,” he enthuses. “It is not monopolized by men, it is for all people regardless of age and sex. It encourages the women of Iraq, some of whom are oppressed and who may not speak their minds in public, to talk openly, to express their opinions and have them heard. It allows us all to take part in the shaping of our country’s future.”