Over the phone my correspondent from Iran was hilarious: “Have you heard about Gooz?”
I paused. In Farsi Gooz means fart, the noisy one (the smelly one has another name): “Um … what about it?”
He: “The Iranian search engine for Iranian internet is called YOOZ. It is a load of crap. We call it: GOOZ. Got it?”
Internet Halal is the Iranian local area network; a layer for limiting, filtering and basically “sanitising” the World Wide Web for the users. Google or any other search engines devised in the West are considered demonic.
Before connecting to the Iranian websites from Europe, the informed internet users double-check their firewalls, proxy servers, VPNs and various encodings, making sure that spyware will not land on their hard disks, courtesy of the Iranian Filtering Services, the formal institution in charge of Internet Halal and the application of Islamic values on it.
We wanted to test the yooz[dot]ir. So our internet expert was called in and the PC was shielded behind layers of defensive software, just in case.
Whatever we searched, we read the official lines of the ayatollahs and we met censorship. Conveniently, links referred to Farsi sites and to heaps of engineered data: lies with a dash of truth.
We searched “Khamenei” and came up with millions of Iranian links … Of course, after visiting a few pages, Yooz was out of breath and froze. We were prevented from clicking on all the links to every sentence that the rascal had ever said. We appreciated the design of the “images” for Khamenei: clean, stately, reproducing the slogans worshipping him. There were no satire cartoons or Photoshopped pictures by the critics.
Next we searched USA and Israel. What would you expect? Buying tickets for a play on NY-Broadway? Finding a cosy restaurant in Jerusalem?
USA produced some 88.5 million links (a knockout!). Once we passed all the links to phrases uttered by the ayatollahs, we found a large number of images related to riots and killings in the USA.
Israel had a modest rate of 26 million links. All articles on wicked Zionism, cartoon competitions on holocaust denial, etc., were dutifully listed.
We tried the image query for “Mohammad Reza Pahlavi”, the late king of Iran overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. We have never counted the result of this query on Google, but there are enough pictures to keep one occupied for weeks. In Yooz, there were just a couple of dozen.
We changed track from politically noted words to touristic keywords. The Iranian Kurdistan seemed perfect: beautiful scenery, friendly people, and historical sites. We got all the governmental links and no tourist information. A repeated link to the Head Office of Kurdistan Prisons described the charms of the prison grounds, reported on joyful events and published inmates’ protection programmes and the Supreme Leader letter granting a pardon to prisoners.
That gave us an idea: searching links to the journalist Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter arrested in Tehran with the vaguest charges many months ago. We ended up following a couple of links to the Washington Post website, and many unrelated links to the Iranian websites. We did not learn much, did we?
We tried the words “tulip – Laleh”, the flower. The highest ranking link was a sentence by the Supreme guide in which this flower was part of the wording.
Once more we changed track, this time a total U-turn: we searched for two of the highest ranking keywords in Western search engines in Farsi: Sex سکس, bitch جنده. Key-phrases with these two nouns are much favoured by Iranian (male) internet users, inside or outside Iran.
Sex links provided by Yooz took us to websites with starchy descriptions of family duties or bitter diatribes by the ayatollahs against the West’s rotten sex-behaviour. According to them anyone living in the West is a sex maniac.
In Yooz, we then typed: جنده meaning bitch. Observe the graph: you have a جـ to the right. Yooz changed it to خـ , so the results showed all links related to خنده, meaning laughter. Hundreds of links to inane, grubby joke pages that many in Iran take for wit and satire.
At this point we gave up on Yooz. It is going to be a runt, a mock search engine, serving to show what the Islamic dictatorship of Iran will allow its citizens to read. How would it be received by the public? Yes … a handful of Iranians break free from Internet Halal. But it needs technical knowledge well above the average. The majority of Iranian internet users are limited – and satisfied – as to what Internet Halal will let them to see and read.
In Iran, citizens are barred from information, from freedom of expression. If one is robbed by the Islamist dogmatism of the liberty of speaking one’s mind, what is left of freedom? From cradle to grave, we are under the social influences of our environment. Breaking free from traditions needs a clear mind, vision, and curiosity; highly exceptional qualities all barred from Iranian culture and social practices today.
In Iran no matter what the number of smartphones, camouflaged satellite TV devices and experts on Internet Halal proxies, the bulk of generations will be educated by the media, heralds of the ayatollahs, by a taut internet, and by books written to fit Islamic censorship and propaganda. Since being different from the mainstream ideology is dangerous, self-censorship and domestic despotism are accepted as social norms and “good manners”.
Today, the number of illiterate people is down in Iran, but the number of those whose education is just about reading and understanding simple texts is high. Being just about literate but uninformed, untaught and consequently uncultured can be sillier and more puerile than being illiterate. The perfect plasticine in the hands of the ayatollahs to model a xenophobic, selfish, and materialistic urban society.