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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Salam Pax situation gets weirder

We now know that Salam Pax worked for a time as an interpreter for New York Times and Slate journalist Peter Maass. Maass had absolutely no idea of his interpreter’s secret identity until he returned to the US, found out some more about Salam Pax, and eventually realised that Salam Pax had been blogging about his experiences with Maass (although he hadn’t revealed Maass’ identity either – presumably to protect his own). We thus had a situation where Maass and Pax were working together, and both were writing for large global audiences, but one of them was unaware of who the other was and what he was doing. There were no doubt people in the west who were reading both Maass and Pax, and had no idea that the two people were talking about the same things – quite literally – from different points of view. Plus we have the fact that the blog and the blogger are a much more interesting story than anything in the New York Times. (It’s probably possible to relate this to Dave Winer’s bet in Wired that the blogosphere would be more authoritative than the New York Times by 2007, but I am not sure quite how. I don’t think anyone thought things would unfold like this).

When Maass first met Salam, Salam was reading a copy of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Dick was the master writer about issues of identity. His books are full of questions about who is who, and who is real, and what is real. Although Dick wrote most of his books in the 1960s and 1970s, the issues raised in them have steadily become more relevant and fascinating to people as the decades have gone by, and the world has come to seem more like the world he envisaged. Hollywood has been influenced more and more by Dick’s work, both in terms of direct adaptations like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, as well as by works obviously Dick influenced, such as The Matrix, Dark City and Vanilla Sky. The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate world in which America has lost World War Two, and America is partitioned into a Pacific Zone ruled by Japan and an Atlantic Zone ruled by Germany. And it is about occupying powers becoming fascinated with the question of the authenticity of the culture of the country they occupy . By being seen to read it, Salam Pax almost seems to be making some kind of deeply ironic statement about his situation.

And that seems to me the odd contradiction. Pax seems largely unaware of the extent that he is famous in the outside world (or at least claims to be unaware) and yet at the same time he is reading and referring to cultural items that are about the kind of awareness and interconnectedness that he is denying. The question is to what extent he is doing this deliberately, and to what extent this is simply a consequence of the zeitgeist of the age. As I discussed a few weeks ago, Pax previously compared the situation in Baghdad to something out of a William Gibson novel, unaware that Gibson himself, on his blog, had already compared Pax to a character out of one of his novels. Then of course we had Gibson commenting about Pax commenting about…

And that is the extraordinary thing about all this. Salam Pax is the most Gibsonian and Dickian figure to ever actually exist, I think. The writings of Gibson and Dick are about the muddiness, murkiness and complexity of the modern world, and the patterns that arise from that muddiness and murkiness. As Maass observes, Iraq is very muddy and murky, and Salam Pax himself appears to be a pattern coming through this, as well as a suberb chonicler of it. And through his actions, Salam Pax seems to be making a peculiar commentary on himself. And yet to make that commentary one thinks he would have to understand more than he actually does, and indeed understand more than it seems possible that anyone in Iraq could understand. From his writing it is easy to tell that Salam is very smart, but is he that smart? This is why I am finding the Salam Pax saga to be such an extraordinary story.

(This is also why I am finding the “Salam is a tool of the Ba’athists” theory steadily less likely. The more detailed and intricate the story gets, the less I simply can believe they could have the imagination to dream something like this up).

11 comments to The Salam Pax situation gets weirder

  • Couldn’t Salam have just been reading the book because he was enjoying it? Only a suggestion.

  • T. Hartin

    Why is Salam still hiding? Who is he hiding from?

    And come on, the guy has internet access. Of course he knows how famous he has gotten.

    I seriously doubt that Salam was an intelligence op. Most people are still avoiding the implications of the likelihood that he was himself a Baathist or at a minimum a significant beneficiary of the Baathist regime. All those privileges that he enjoyed most likely came soaked in blood.

    Finally, I don’t think Salam is a great writer or chronicler of what is going on in Baghdad. If he was writing from New York, he wouldn’t get page-hit one, so it isn’t his writing or deep intellectual powers that fascinates people. He gets mileage because he is the only blogger out of Baghdad, for the moment.

  • Why is Salam still hiding? Who is he hiding from?

    This often asked question is inexplicable to me… how can people not understand that a gay guy in a Muslim country, whose own parents do not know he is gay, would naturally want to avoid his identity being known? How is this so hard to understand?

    He is hiding firstly from his own parents, who I think he does not want to upset by being publicly outed-by-internet and secondly from the very real danger any high profile gay person would be in from Muslim bigots who may wish him harm.

    Here in the relative safety of the West, several of our Samizdatistas write under pseudonyms for different reasons, so why does it continue to raise eyebrows that a ‘closet’ gay in Iraq would want to do the same? He wants to ‘tell his story’ by blogging but does not want to turn his life into something out of Jerry Springer. Can you really blame him for that?

  • Clio

    Here’s the real question: at which American university did Salam Pax get his advanced degree in postmodern literary theory? I vote for my own alma mater, Duke University, in the 1990s, with Stanley Fish as his advisor. Let’s publish that damn Master’s Thesis so we can all complete this utterly absurd circle.

    I feel like I’m staring into the cream of wheat box (do you have this in Britain? Nasty stuff) where the man holds the box, with the picture of a man, holding a box…

    Last question for discussion: will Hollywood option his life or some Euro-auteur? Please Salam, save us all by contacting Kiroastami in Tehran, the only director who can do you justice.

  • S. Weasel

    How is this so hard to understand?

    Well, as I used to post to some on the more come-the-revolution boards…if you’re genuinely concerned about being watched, then you’ve already said way too much, but if you want to convince me of your bona fides, you haven’t said nearly enough. If the Guardian could figure out who he is, it seems to me the jig will be up for him sooner or later, anyway.

    Actually, I’ve never much doubted Salam’s genuineness (though he does write amazingly idiomatic American english), but I’m not much of a fan, either. It’s interesting to get a bit of Baghdad trivia about pop music and the price of bread, but that’s about it.

  • The Blogosphere will exceed the New Yourk times in credibility by 2007?

    That prediction was off by four years.

  • Salam Pax -The Movie!

    I just hope to hell it does not get made in Hollywoood or Salam Pax will be be played by Mark Wahlberg and ends up falling in love with an American army nurse played by Sandra Bullock rather than one played by Rupert Everett

  • I’m not sure that Salam would know quite how famous he is, because he’s repeatedly complained about how expensive internet access is, so I doubt he’s been doing much casual web surfing lately. That said, he must have some idea from having met a Guardian journalist and having had server overload problems some months ago….

  • T. Hartin

    S. Weasel pretty much sums it up for me on both counts.

    If you feel a compulsion to blog, fine, blog away, but don’t put things out on the internet that you are trying to keep a secret from your parents. If you want to keep your identity a secret because you are gay, then you shouldn’t start a freakin’ blog in which you disclose that you are gay, for crying out loud.

    Besides, homosexuality is not necessarily stigmatized in Arab countries. The Afghans are down with it, Allah knows, as are the Saudis. In both these highly conservative Muslim and Arab countries, rent-boys are considered to be quite blase and are publicly indulged in by anyone who can get one, or so I gather. I don’t know the situation in Iraq, but I wouldn’t assume that being gay is necessarily stigmatized there, especially with the Baathists gone.

    The burr under my saddle is the uncritical way that so many people have taken Salam under their wing. Under the circumstances, I find it quite likely that he owes his admittedly and obviously privileged existence in Baghdad to the Baathists. I wouldn’t lionize a Nazi, and I won’t lionize Baathists, even if they are fashionably gay and have a blog.

  • button

    Hardin: You’re forgetting about Celine.

    There were also aspects describing his wandering around the burning ruins of Baghdad that reminded me of Camus’ The Plague (which was a metaphor for the Nazi Occupation of France).

    We all bring this kind of baggage to our reading of his text. Difference things resonate at different moments and perhaps even provide some context. But that’s very personal and contributes to the formation of very personal meaning.