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AFTER THE WAR

Iraq's Internet Mystery Man Steps Into the Light

Salam Pax, the Web diarist who rose to fame with dispatches from Baghdad, turns out to be a journalist's translator.

June 04, 2003|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

One of the greatest mysteries of the war in Iraq has been solved. No, not weapons of mass destruction. Salam Pax.

He's real.

The hip and irreverent Iraqi, whose poignant online tirades skewered Saddam Hussein and George Bush in equal measure, riveted thousands of Internet users before and during the war. His Web diary, or "blog" -- a daily missive perched on the knife's edge between anxiety and hope -- was an overnight sensation.

But in his thousands of words depicting daily life in Baghdad, Salam Pax -- the second word is "peace" in Arabic and Latin -- never revealed his real name or enough personal details to prove that he was more than the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax.

It turns out that the 29-year-old gay architect -- who became the digital voice of Iraqis torn between the grimness of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and fear of U.S. bombs -- worked as a translator for freelance journalist and author Peter Maass.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Internet mystery man -- An article in Section A on Wednesday about the revelation of the identity of the author of a popular Web diary of life in Baghdad before and during the U.S.-led war stated that the second part of his partial pseudonym, Salam Pax, means "peace" in Latin and Arabic. In fact, the first part of the name is the Arabic word for that term, and the second is the Latin word for it.

Maass verified Salam's existence in a column posted Tuesday on Slate, the online magazine.

It was the culmination of a kind of coming-out process over the last few weeks. In a message posted May 7, Salam noted that he had interviewed to be a translator for the New York Times. On May 8, he confessed that "I sold my soul to the devil. I talked to Rory from the [British] Guardian" newspaper. The paper announced Friday that it had secured Salam as a columnist.

So far neither the Guardian nor Maass has revealed Salam's last name -- the Salam part is real -- or other precise identifying information, for fear that he might be attacked because of his outspoken views on Iraq, the U.S., gay life and other subjects.

Salam worked for Maass in May, but until he returned to New York last week, Maass had heard only passing references to the famous blog. He knew nothing about the sense of dread felt by Salam's readers when the blogger lost his Internet access for several weeks during the height of the conflict. Despite daily contact with Maass, Salam never said anything about it.

When Maass returned to New York last week and read Salam's postings, it gradually dawned on him who his translator was.

"Working alongside -- no, employing -- a star of the World Wide Web and being blissfully unaware of it is a lesson about the murkiness of today's Iraq, a netherland of obscurity in which you cannot know who was a Baathist and who was not, or whether the man in the middle of the street with a gun is going to shoot you," Maass wrote on Slate.

Salam's fans greeted the news with relief -- not just that Salam was safe, but that they had not been duped.

"Call it closure," said Paul Boutin, a freelance technology journalist and former computer network manager who traced Salam's e-mail and Web addresses through the Internet's house of mirrors just before the war started. Boutin concluded that while Salam was probably real, he could not prove it.

"Finally, somebody I believe and also somebody everyone else will believe" has credibly verified Salam's existence, he said.

Salam's blog, http://dearraed.blogspot.com, gained a wide audience because it was personal, sharply ironic and unique -- the only known blog originating inside Iraq. For Internet sophisticates, he was easy to identify with -- an urbane partygoer who divided his time between his friends, his online community and survival. The real Salam is a multilingual, middle-class cosmopolitan, Maass said.

"He's a lot like us but he's not us," Maass said in an interview. "Salam sees what's happening around him -- the tragedy or the absurdity ... and he communicates it in a human voice that most journalists don't have."

In turns ironic, angry and funny, the loose theme of his blog, entitled "Where is Raed," involves searching for a friend who lived in both Amman, Jordan, and in Baghdad.

"Raed, are you really going to stay in jordan and miss all the action?? Don't get married come here and let's get bombed," he wrote last fall.

Maass now realizes that Salam dropped a few clues that he was the mystery blogger, such as frequent visits to Internet cafes and complaints about the cost of uploading data. But only after Maass returned to the U.S. and began to peruse "Where is Raed" did the truth dawn on him.

Salam "mentioned an afternoon he spent at the Hamra Hotel pool, reading a borrowed copy of The New Yorker. I laughed out loud," Maass wrote on Slate. "He then mentioned an escapade in which he helped deliver 24 pizzas to American soldiers. I howled. Salam Pax, the most famous and most mysterious blogger in the world, was my interpreter. The New Yorker he had been reading -- mine. Poolside at the Hamra -- with me. The 24 pizzas -- we had taken them to a unit of 82nd Airborne soldiers I was writing about."

Salam, whose biweekly column for the Guardian begins today, got the final word on Maass' revelation in his blog posting Tuesday: "I was wondering when will he find out and if he will be angry because I didn't tell him. I think he isn't. He uses words like 'chubby' and 'cherubic' to describe me. ewww."

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