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Arabisto: Where Arab Americans Make a Difference

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Nadia Gergis [1]Arabisto is an Arab American blog where Arab Americans make a difference. This week I speak to founder Nadia Gergis [2] who tells us about the site, why and how it started and the future it holds for them.

1. What is Arabisto? When and why was it formed?

Arabisto.com [3] is the Arab-American street. It’s probably the only place on the web where you can find a group of diverse voices who write on issues from the Arab-American perspective in a non-secular, unbiased manner. Our writers are in college, they’re getting their doctorates, they’re working professional journalists and they’re also Baby Boomers. They are American, Kasmiri, Pakistani, Arab, French, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Additionally, we also provide daily breaking news from the Middle East and surrounding region that you won’t see on mainstream news.
As for when and why it formed, last summer I went on a quest to find a Pan-Arab site that was similar to some of the mainstream blog sites, but written from an Arab or Arab-American perspective. I searched for days and couldn’t find one. Don’t get me wrong, I love Global Voices Online and other blogs like Abu Aardvark [4], Juan Cole [5]’s Informed Comment [6] and KABOBfest [7], but I wanted to find a site that contained news and blogs in one place.
I was really disappointed when I could not find what I was looking for and then my husband, whom I met in college, said why don’t you just create one. I contacted five original bloggers in August 2006 to launch the following month. People immediately said they’d love to join the community. One of the first people I approached was Courtney Radsch, who used to write for the New York Times and the Daily Star in Lebanon – she’s getting her doctorate at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. and writes at www.arab-media.blogspot.com [8]. She was so articulate, she just got it – you know when you’re reading something and you know this person gets it? Well, when she said yes to Arabisto.com, I thought great we’re on a roll here. She is currently writing her dissertation on the Arab media's influence on foreign policy and National Public Radio just picked up one of her last blogs on Arabisto.com. It’s a heavy subject matter but she makes it easy for the reader to understand the complexities of the Arab media – not many people are able to do that.

2. How many writers and contributors do you have and where do they come from?

We’re a group of 26 bloggers, all from very diverse backgrounds, who are either from the Arab world or surrounding regions or have an interest in the Middle East and its neighbors. Some of our bloggers include our very own Arab-American Seinfeld – well known comedian Dean Obeidallah who lives in New York and organizes the New York Arab American Comedy Festival, the author of Web of DeceitBarry Lando lives in France, Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz who was the secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches for the Middle East lives in Florida, Texas-based Naeem Randhawa directed American Ramadan, and Rima Abdelkader is a New York-based correspondent who previously worked as a journalist with the United Nations and with Bridges TV.
Ideally, we’d like to have one blogger from every Arab state, either based here or there. Extending outreach to some of those bloggers is difficult because they are hesitant to join an Arab-American blog or many of them wish to remain anonymous because of political issues in their countries.

3. What do they write about? What are the most outstanding moments in the life of Arabisto?

We write about everything from honor killings, police brutality against women in the Arab world, the changing face of democracy in the Middle East and surrounding region, politics, world leaders – nothing is off limits and all of the bloggers have complete autonomy concerning the subject matter they want to write about.
Because of the current civil war in Iraq, a lot of our blogs focus on the humanitarian strife there. Of course, we also focus on the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation. Mohammed Mar'i, who is also a correspondent for the Arab News, lives and works out of Ramallah so he gives readers a good perspective of what’s really happening on the ground there.
As for outstanding moments, several of our bloggers have had their posts reprinted, with permission, in mainstream magazines and newspapers. I think that’s what makes us all proud, when a mainstream publication realizes the quality of writers and want to replicate that by reprinting our blogs in their publications – that speaks volumes about our writers.
Getting noticed by Global Voices was quite a nice great surprise as well!

4. How do Arab-Americans perceive you? Have you become their number one stop when surfing blogs? Is this a goal? If it is, when do you think you will realize it?

That’s a really good question. I get emails from people loving us and I also get emails about what we can do better on the site. More and more I am getting requests from other traditional Arab-American publications to link to them, I guess that’s a good sign because they’d only ask to be linked to you because they know you’ve got tons of traffic coming to your site. It hasn’t been easy, we first started with anywhere from 200 to 300 visits on the site daily, now we see anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 US and international visitors a day.
At first, I think many traditional Arab-American publications thought we were either a flash in the pan or a maybe even a threat to their advertising. When I look back now, it’s kind of ironic that Arab-American publications didn’t give us any press when we first started. The Arab News in Saudi Arabia did a story on us, but not one single Arab-American newspaper or magazine did. Several Arab blogs did, thankfully, which helped spread the word about Arabisto.com. I think this is similar to what’s going on in the mainstream editorial world – these traditional publications fear us because they don’t understand us.
Of course, we’d love to see the day when Arabisto.com becomes a household name not only for Arab-Americans but all Americans who want an alternative source for all news Middle Eastern. I am positive that in another year, we’ll have about 5,000 visitors a day. I’d say when we get about 10,000 visitors a day, that’s when we can really say we’ve grown beyond our goal of being an “Arab-American” publication.

5. What have you done to bridge the gap in the perception of Americans of Arabs, their heritage, religions and cultures?

Most people automatically think Arabs are Muslims from the Middle East. Well, not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are from the Middle East – and the term Arab has sort of morphed into a generic term used to describe anyone from that region. Additionally, some Arabs don’t think of themselves as Arabs, they like to be called Lebanese or Syrians because they have so much pride in their country’s heritage. What we do on the site is show that people from the Middle East and surrounding regions are moderates who are open-minded. For example, one blogger from Morocco Christine Benlafquih wears the niqab, which if you live in the Middle East is very normal. You don’t even think twice about it there but here it’s a different story. Her writings show that women who wear the niqab are normal, have very strong opinions and are not afraid to say what they think – contrary to what people may perceive about those that wear the niqab.
Over time, I think we’ve shown the public that we here for them and write on issues that are important to them. We’re pundits but we also provide serious commentary on issues that matter to all Arab-Americans, no matter what age group you’re in. We’re a public forum of alternative voices who aren’t afraid to tackle topics that don’t reach the mainstream media. We’ve gained the trust and credibility of our readers, which is a hard thing to do so we thank them for letting us into their daily lives.
Last month, Rima Abdelkader wrote a great piece on Doritos and how their products could possibly contain pork enzymes in their cheese seasonings. In another piece, she wrote about how the show “24” portrays Arabs on the show. As much as we all love Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I highly doubt you’ll see them tackling some of the touchy subject matter we tackle on the site.

6. How is online citizen journalism shaping up the Arab-American dialogue? Do you feel you are reaching out to everyday Americans or are you just discussing issues amongst yourselves?

At the end of every month I send our monthly statistics to our bloggers. I am still surprised when I see some of the countries that frequent the site. Just this past week, we had 225 pageviews from Sweden, 72 from the Russian Federation and 146 from China. But the majority of our visits come from the US and Canada followed by the UK, France, Spain and Japan so it feels really good that we’re reaching beyond Arab-Americans and readers in the Middle East. I’ve always been very transparent about our visits and pageviews since we launched, so the bloggers and I have been able to watch us go from almost no visitors and pageviews to where we are now. In May, we’re tracking 23,636 visitors in the US — and overall worldwide including the US we’ve got 54,314 visitors, according to our statistics tracker.
We’re working on making our comments section more user friendly so that there will be more dialogue between users and bloggers – that’s one of the biggest complaints we’ve had, our commenting system needing to be changed. Hopefully when that changes – there will be more dialogue with the bloggers and users.
Another issue I think we’re running into is people from the Middle East are somewhat paranoid about giving their opinions, so they may have something to say about one of our blogs, but they’ll refrain from leaving comments because culturally it’s not what they are used to – being vocal about politics and other issues.

7. The Internet has made the world a virtual global village. Are you just targeting an Arab-American audience or the Arab and American public at large?

Before Arabisto.com came along, you had one choice for news from the Middle East – AlJazeera.com. I have the utmost respect for AlJazeera.com, but I felt why not add personality to that? Why not add a touch of pop culture to that? Why not add topics and commentary that younger Arab-Americans can appreciate? How about getting the more Arab-American voices in blogs? Let's connect with readers and give them an opportunity to comment. Send us your letters and we’ll personally respond to you. That’s what we do on the site. So as we grow, we’re seeing that our readers come from all parts of the world. We recently got a letter of support from an Irish-American organization so I think we’ve won over the Arab-American community and we’re slowly finding fans outside that base – which is really a testament to our bloggers and their writings.

8. Do you get any feedback from readers?

Yes, sometimes people write asking for advice and sometimes they just want to vent about how it feels to be an Arab-American post 9/11, which as we all know, has been very difficult. I encourage all our readers to write us through the Web site or at media@arabisto.com. It might take me a day or two to get back to you, but I will.

9. Do you get any funding or support or is it a volunteer-run site?

We do get a nominal amount of support from advertisers, but all the bloggers write on a voluntary basis. I was responsible for start-up costs and now the monthly costs to maintain it.

10. What are your hopes and plans for the future as far as Arabisto is concerned?

My hope is that one day Arabisto.com will become as mainstream like other blog sites like The Daily Kos, Breitbart.com [9] and The HuffingtonPost.com.
I guess one of our goals, to get noticed by Global Voices, has been fulfilled — today in fact! We’re all very humbled and grateful for that. We hope that we can change some of the views that people have about Arabs and Arab-Americans with Arabisto.com. Like Mahatma Gandhi said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”