Zeyad is a 27-year-old dentist. He works for a government clinic with broken dental chairs and no anesthetics. At home, when gunfire rattles his neighborhood, Zeyad's family cowers in one room murmuring prayers while he types away on his computer.
Zeyad is a blogger.
Blogging was rare in former president Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the now-famous "Salman Pax" an important exception. Today, however, blogging is providing many ordinary Iraqis with a voice -- a chance to vent and reflect on the changes reshaping their country.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
For the outside world, the generally anonymous Internet postings offer raw insider views and insights in which sorrow and joy, hope and despair, fear and defiance coexist as the violence of the insurgency and now sectarian divisions swirl around Iraqis.
"The West should listen to the opinions of the simple Iraqi people. They only hear from analysts and politicians," said Zeyad, who agreed to discuss his blogging only if his family name wasn't revealed for security reasons. "This is a good window into the world."
Zeyad penned his first entry in his Healing Iraq blog in October 2003 about Iraq's new currency, calling it "wonderful and so symbolic" that the distribution of the new dinar coincided with the anniversary of a referendum that re-elected Saddam. He has gone on to chronicle his thoughts on all aspects of life in the new Iraq.
A self-described agnostic born into a Sunni Muslim family, Zeyad reacted angrily in 2003 when the then interior minister announced that people found eating in public during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan would be detained for three days and fined.
"I wanted to kill someone after reading all that," Zeyad wrote. "Free country my ass."
In later postings, he seethed at the growing influence of Muslim clerics, saying it made him fear for the future of freedom in Iraq.
"I want to be able to buy my vodka without having to look left and right. I want to be able to walk with my girlfriend in the street while holding hands together without people glaring at me. Is this TOO MUCH to ask?" he wrote. "Do I have to immigrate and leave my country for wanting to do all that?"
But there were moments of pride and exhilaration, too.
One came when Iraqis voted for an interim legislature in January last year, their first democratic election in decades.
"Hold your head up high. Remember that you are Iraqi," Zeyad wrote that day.
"My mother was in tears watching the scenes from all over the country," he added. "Iraqis had voted for peace and for a better future, despite the surrounding madness. I sincerely hope this small step would be the start of much bolder ones."
More recently, his blog has tackled grimmer subjects: explosions, assassinations, street fighting -- common themes in many Iraqi blogs.
"Please don't ask me whether I believe Iraq is on the verge of civil war," Zeyad wrote. "All I see is that both sides are engaged in tit-for-tat lynchings and summary executions."
Zeyad said health ministry officials deem the trip to his clinic on the outskirts of Baghdad too risky. That is why the chairs have not been fixed and the anesthetics were not provided.
"We don't work," he said.
Still, Zeyad knows that under Saddam's regime, he could not have dreamed of having a blog, let alone publicly criticizing the government.
Like Zeyad, who moved with his family to Britain when he was one year old and returned to Iraq at seven, most Iraqi bloggers seem relatively young and well-educated -- and they write in English.
While they often mull over the same events, their opinions vary, often along sectarian lines.
Take a March 26 raid by US and special Iraqi forces on a mosque compound in northern Baghdad in which at least 16 people were killed.
Zeyad wrote simply that US soldiers clashed with Shiite Muslim militiamen who resisted the search, but another blogger who uses the pen name Hammorabi took a sharply different view.
"American forces' crime against the worshippers," screamed a headline in Hammorabi's blog. "The killing of the worshippers in al-Moustafa mosque by the American forces should be investigated and those who are responsible for it should be punished."
Some bloggers scorn the "men in black," a gibe at Shiite militiamen accused by many Sunnis of targeting them. Others lash out at "terrorists," an apparent reference to Sunni insurgents frequently attacking Shiites.
The third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq also evoked divergent emotions among bloggers.
While lamenting the violence in Iraq, a blogger who uses the pseudonym "The Mesopotamian" praised the war that ousted Saddam.
"The blood and sacrifices by the American soldiers and people will never be forgotten," The Mesopotamian wrote. "It was right, it was just and it was ordained by God that a murderer and tyrant should be overthrown."
Not really, argued a woman blogger who calls herself Riverbend. The war "marked the end of Iraq's independence," she said.
"I don't think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today," Riverbend wrote.
Riverbend's writings brought international attention to Iraqi blogging. Some of her blog entries were published in a book that is available in the US and Britain and that won her a Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.
Her Web musings, often critical but also sprinkled with humor, have drawn mixed reviews, with some readers questioning whether she really is an Iraqi woman.
She has not been deterred, offering up her dismay at the hardships of daily life.
"The thing most worrisome about the situation now is that discrimination based on sect has become so commonplace," Riverbend wrote.
"The typical Iraqi dream has become to find some safe haven abroad," she wrote.
Some entries from Iraqi blogs, as postedby the writers in English:
"Please don't ask me whether I believe Iraq is on the verge of civil war yet or not. I have never experienced a civil war before, only regular ones. All I see is that both sides are engaged in tit-for-tat lynchings and summary executions. I see governmental forces openly taking sides or stepping aside. I see an occupation force that is clueless about what is going on in the country. I see politicians that distrust each other and continue to flame the situation for their own personal interests. I see Islamic clerics delivering fiery sermons against each other, then smile and hug each other at the end of the day in staged PR stunts."
March 24, Healing Iraq blog: healingiraq.blogspot.com.
"I would like to say to all our friends in the West and America in particular, this: have no fear; the battle is far from being lost. The land of Sumeria, Akad, Babylon, Ur, Nimrod and Ashur will never die. The land where the Old Testament was written and the Aramaic of Jesus Christ was spoken cannot become extinct. The capital of Harun al-Rashid and the Arabian nights cannot die."
March 17, The Mesopotamian: messopotamian.blogspot.com.
"After 3 years; is Iraq better or worse? There is no easy way to answer this question. The existed situation is much worse than in 2003. However this should not be taken as that Iraq is better under the previous dictator regime. Iraq and the region is certainly better without one of the most tyrant regimes in the area but the existed leaders of the different parties and groups showed no difference from the other dictators in their mentality. They are responsible directly for the delay of formation of government based on the December election!"
March 20, Hammorabi: hammorabi.blogspot.com.
"It has been three years since the beginning of the war that marked the end of Iraq's independence. Three years of occupation and bloodshed. Spring should be about renewal and rebirth. For Iraqis, spring has been about reliving painful memories and preparing for future disasters. ... I don't think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today. The last few weeks have been ridden with tension. I'm so tired of it all -- we're all tired."
March 18, Baghdad Burning: riverbendblog.blogspot.com.
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