BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Despite the scores of scribes shuffling through Iraq before the war and the hundreds that arrived with the troops, there was precious little written on the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Into the breach came Salam Pax, peace in both Arabic and Latin, the mysterious blogger of Baghdad. His observations, supposedly sent to his peripatetic friend Raed were sometimes wry, sometimes bitter, often funny and always frank. Thousands of people around the world relied in the missives of Salam Pax. As war loomed, traffic to his blog blew out servers on two continents. After the bombing started in late March, he disappeared, re-emerging only last month. But in the meantime, the world wondered was he safe? Was he a spy? Was he even real? Peter Maass who was reporting from Baghdad at the time wasn't much interested, but he got interested later as he wrote this week in Slate. Peter, welcome to the show.
PETER MAASS: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you wrote in Slate that while you were in Iraq you had no idea what a phenomenon Salam Pax was becoming around the world! In fact when some friends suggested that you track him down, what was your first thought?
PETER MAASS: Yeah, I mean you know one of the things is you know, well you kind of just have your interpreter do, you know, jobs or track down people or things that you don't have time for yourself and, you know, I thought well you know - fine - I could ask Salam to do it but--you know - we've got more important things to do than that, so-- [LAUGHTER] which of course would have been really interesting if I had-- say, hey - Salam - do you know anything about this, this Salam Pax blogger thing and I, I -- it would have been interesting to kind of see how he would have responded to that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about this interpreter of yours.
PETER MAASS:I was put on to him by a colleague of mine, and I tracked him down in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, and I saw him sitting there and he was reading Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, [LAUGHTER] which--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A great book.
PETER MAASS:Oh! Fantastic book and, and particularly --to be reading it in Baghdad, you know, because it's kind of a book about alternate universes in a way, and you know Baghdad itself being, being the world's greatest alternate universe right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We should probably say that The Man in the High Castle is about what the world would be like if the axis powers -- Germany and Japan -- won the Second World War.
PETER MAASS: Exactly. I really knew [LAUGHS] when I, when I saw him there, without even exchanging a word that-- I wanted him to work for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did you first suspect that your interpreter was the notorious blogger?
PETER MAASS:Well it wasn't until I got back to New York and I was reading a friend's blog, and there was a link on it to an interview with Salam Pax, and I thought ah! - oh - and I read these things where Salam Pax is talking about working for an NGO that I knew and the woman who ran it I knew; she was staying in my hotel - and I think oh, that's interesting - and then he mentioned hanging out with foreign journalists and I'm thinking oh, I'm a foreign journ-- I was a foreign correspondent there -so we traveled in the same circles. And, and then he mentioned that he-- had lived in Vienna and studied as an architect, and I thought well this is amazing because [LAUGHTER] I know a guy [LAUGHS]-- I know a guy very well who worked for a civic - that NGO - and who, you know, hung out with foreign journalists and was a trained architect in Vienna. And so I clicked over to his blog, and-- you know he mentioned sitting by the Hamra Hotel pool which is the hotel that I was at, reading the -- a borrowed copy of the New Yorker and I kind of laughed, cause I thought no, this can't possibly be true. And then he mentioned delivering 24 pizzas to American soldiers and I just -- I almost fell out of my chair laughing, because-- you know my-- [LAUGHTER] Salam, my interpreter, and myself had gone to this unit that I'd been writing about and--delivered 24 pizzas to them -- so I knew at that moment Salam, my interpreter was-- Salam Pax -- famous internet blogger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Were you struck the way that everybody else was with the freshness and the, the precision with which he described what was going on around him?
PETER MAASS: His writing style is great! I mean it's not easy to write in a way that is smart and engaging and funny at the same time -- I mean there's the appropriate level of respect for the tragedies going on around him; the really incisive, just one-line observations that you know cut to the heart of things -- and then enough humor and, and really sharp humor to make it very lively and, and entertaining to read.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When the war was raging there were about - I don't know - 800 journalists embedded with the military and in and around Iraq and-- and yet one of the few really evocative sources of news about what was happening to ordinary Iraqis was coming from this anonymous blogger! You likened him to Anne Frank!
PETER MAASS: Yeah, well a, a friend of mine actually criticized me for likening him to Anne Frank because she thought that was somewhat disrespectful. But he certainly was the diarist voice of this war, and one that was you know very well listened to. And I think one of the reasons why was the shortcomings of the way that foreign journalists cover and write about foreign countries. But then also there were very particular restrictions involved in covering the war and writing about-- Iraqis and what life was like for them, so-- there was this huge gap! Salam Pax was, you know, really the only voice that rose to fill it!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Given the internet and, and given the kind of restrictions that are put on war reporters generally, do you expect -- cause I do -- that there'll probably be a Salam Pax rising out of every conflict from now on?
PETER MAASS: Well I hope there are many Salam Paxes rising out of every conflict that occurs in the future, that-- you know - it's not just one voice! I mean you know his view is really interesting and, and really does express a, a reality but there are other realities there. He's not everywhere. He doesn't necessarily associate with all layers of Iraqi society. So you need more than him, but I think also what you need in addition to that is, is people like that having an effect domestically. I mean his greatest effect -impact - was outside of Iraq - amongst, you know, web readers in America and, and elsewhere, but obviously in Iraq his impact was very limited because there were very few people there who could read his blogs. So-- you kind of hope that next time around perhaps that bloggers of this sort not only make people outside of their country aware of what's going on but also perhaps do the same inside their own borders, and you can perhaps look to countries like China, also Iran for environments in which that might be possible because internet access is, is pretty good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay! Thank you very much!
PETER MAASS: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Maass is contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. [MUSIC]