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I know the feeling
I'm a novice in chat, but love... I have been there before

Dr. Nix
July 2, 2001
The Iranian

For almost a month I was certain that I was in love. This coming from a happily married man in his 50s with two kids may sound strange, although not rare. The really strange thing about this love was that I had not seen, nor spoken to, my new love. How then did I fall in love with her? Elementary: I met her in an Internet chatroom.

Before I entered an Internet chatroom just a month ago, I used to laugh at the idea that any matter of substance can be discussed in such a room, let alone falling in love over there. Having seen my teen-aged kids engaged in chatting on our home computer, I thought they are what they are, kids. What could they possibly be discussing in a chatroom?

Then I saw that banner ad in an Iranian website about their new graphical chat room. Just out of curiosity I decided to give it a try. Soon I noticed that chat has its peculiarities, compared to other means of communication. The main thing being the anonymity one enjoys there. You can choose with what name (real or pseudonym) to appear before others. This gives you a freedom you usually don't get in real life encounters.

Just because of the freedom you get from this anonymity, sentiments seem to develop and be expressed in an amazing speed over the Internet. You can say things you usually are not supposed to say to others. In a chat room you are ready to give in to love. You are there to enjoy your anonymity and the freedom it gives you to express your feelings in a free and uninhibited way. So, in a chatroom people seem to fall in and out of love in an instant.

In graphical chat, besides a name, or a pseudonym, you can choose an appearance for yourself. Usually called Avatar (from Sanskrit, meaning an incarnation), this graphical appearance could be a cartoon-like icon, or a picture. You can move your avatar from one part of the background image (chosen by the Web master of your chatroom) to another.

Your choice of avatar can give others some clue as to what kind of person they are talking to. And of course this can be misleading if you use it with deceptive intentions. Girls can pose as boys, and vice versa, to tease, or deceive. Your comments appear in "bubbles" as in comic strips. Unlike text-based chat, in graphical chat it is possible for two persons to go to a corner and talk to each other, disregarding what others are saying. There is also the "whisper" option that conceals your talk from others and you and your party can enjoy a private chat.

Another unique characteristic of chat is that your interactions are devoid of any physical clues. Unlike face-to-face conversation, or tele-conferences for that matter, you don't see your party. You don't know how she/he looks like. You don't see facial expressions or body language. And unlike a telephone conversation, you don't hear their voice. You can't notice emotions in the remarks, unless they type smilies like : - ) , or resort to the more common abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out load).

The kind of people who come to Iranian chatrooms and spend an hour or two there varies. But it seems safe to say that all of them suffer from some form of loneliness and isolation. In Iranian chatrooms these are either people from Iran in their teens or early twenties, bored by their surrounding environment and looking to take advantage of this new media to evade the social constraints in Iran and find new friends, hopefully a new girlfriend or boyfriend.

They usually start their chat with straight and crude questions like "Esmet chiye?" (What is your name), "Chand saaleteh?" (How old are you?), and "Az kojaa michati?" (Where are you chatting from?) There are also plenty of Iranians abroad looking to socialize with other people of their native culture. These usually have problems with integration in their host countries, or are longing to keep their contact with the language and culture of Iran.

Then there are those who come only for sex. In my short experience with chat, I witnessed a range from simple sexual flirtation to a "complete" sexual act involving the use of porno images as avatars and explicit language.

For many, these qualities and possibilities have a special appeal and they spend more and more time in mingling with others in this cyber world. The term Internet Addict has been used to describe those who can't let go with this urge and stay glued to their computer screen, chatting away their life.

* * *

My explorations of this phenomenon was not finished when I met Azita in the chatroom. She always chose tasteful avatars for herself. Very active, going from one part of the screen to another, speaking to everyone in the room, she was equally at ease with pricklish teens or mellow grownups. She seemed educated and intellectual, very rapid at typing her witty remarks. She switched instantly between colloquial Persian and fluent Hoch Deutsch, or Parisian French, depending to whom she was talking. She got your jokes and responded quickly with outstanding sense of humor.

There was this pleasant feminine quality in her responses. The wit and intelligence apparent in her remarks, the contrast that this intelligence had with the usual crap you see in chatroom discussions, drew my attention. After a while I only looked at her remarks, and disregarded what others were saying.

She seemed to be interested in me too. Whenever we were in the room, we spent most of our time together. It was satisfying that every time I entered the room, she would stop chatting with others and come directly to me. This was known to other regular participants in the room. Every time my avatar appeared in the room, others would say something like "Nix oomad... Azita bodo..." (Nix is here... Run to him, Azita).

In just a few days, we grew closer. Unsolicited, she decided to tell me a bit more about herself. She was an Iranian in her 30s, with a German husband, and two kids, living in Munich, doing her doctorate studies in an unspecified subject. Despite my explicit request, she refused to send me a photo, or say anything more about herself. She said that her reason for going to chatrooms is to be in touch with her native Iranian culture.

On her suggestion we exchanged email addresses. I even gave her my personal website address, despite all the warnings you see in many chat web sites about not giving away your personal information in a chatroom. Now she knew many things about me. I even managed to compose and send her a poem of sorts about our relationship. This was not exactly a love poem, but contained some more than casual sentiments about her. She seemed to accept it with satisfaction.

She added me to her friends list in her Yahoo Messenger. So we didn't need to go to chatrooms anymore. We could now enjoy our online, immediate conversation without having to reply to usually banal questions from other chatroom participants. But then, she never gave any more information about herself: no photos, no real name, nothing.

When I was away from my computer for a week-long trip, she kept sending me affectionate emails, which I read eagerly after I was back. She would say things like "vaay be haalet age be man bi mahalli koni" (don't you dare ignore me) and I was thrilled. It seemed I was stuck with her.

In a short, while she seemed to be my dream lady, one you won't want to marry or take as your mistress, but long to have her in your life. Someone who shares your innermost feelings, is understanding of your faults, interests, and intellectual life, the "third woman" kind you see in Fellini's "8 1/2" or Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories". The ethereal lady who has all you seek in a female companion.

I'm a novice in chat, but love... I have been there before; I know the feeling... I was in love. This feeling didn't last more than a week, however. She would frequently complain about her excessive involvement in chatrooms. She was worried that chatting for hours every day harms her family life, her education, and her health. She seemed to be worried that she is becoming an Internet addict. She felt guilty and often spoke of quitting.

Then suddenly she decided to kick her habit. She also decided that we couldn't go on like this and she would shut down all communication. I thought her concerns to be normal for a married woman, but so far, we didn't have any talk that could be considered indecent. I did not look at this relationship as an affair. She was right in checking her excessive involvement in the chatrooms, but why break this pleasant relationship?

I tried to talk her out of it. I even resorted to my meager knowledge of psychoanalysis. As a result, she gave me the title of "doctor-e ghollaabi" (fake doctor). I encouraged her to seek professional advice. I was really worried about her mental well being. But she was determined to end our relationship. In our last encounter in a chatroom we said goodbye to each other, changing our smilies to : - (

So she didn't reply to my emails, didn't show up in chatrooms, and avoided me in every possible way. I still sent her emails, not sure whether she read them. There was silence from the other side. I felt desperate at this sudden parting. Nazim Hekmat, the great poet of Turkey, once said: Some know coins, some stamps, I know separations. He had no Internet connection, and didn't chat. So he missed my kind of experience of separating with my new love.

I sat back and took a reflective look at what was happening. What did I know about this Azita? Practically nothing. Earlier I thought I know that she is a doctorate student in her 30s, living abroad, married to a European, with two kids. But these were the things she told me. It all could be false. I knew her only through her remarks, and none of those contained concrete information.

In retrospect I also noted that she was not really that intellectual, missing my points many times when I recited Hafez or others. The rosy picture I have painted of her in mind seemed to fade away. Was Azita her name? Maybe not. For sure her name appeared in her Yahoo email address, but this also could be fake. You can subscribe to Yahoo with any assumed name. And last but surely not least, was she really a woman? Maybe not. All this was too spooky. I had to let her go.

When weeks later I got an email from her, informing me that she was successful in quitting the chatting habit, I was no longer the man she used to know. The thrill was gone. Despite efforts to revive the past, all our exchanges ended in a bitter mood. I was especially angry that she still refused to give any more information about herself, including a photo.

I had a hard time admitting that it was finished between us. I have always hated this defeat of passion by reason, or sensibility by sense, as Jane Austen put it. But I wondered how naive I have been to fall in love with such a dubious cyber-character. Was it the easy, anonymous access? Was it a sign of my mid-life crisis?

At last I suspected that the reason I felt so strong was that I was lonely at the time. I had been away from my family for a long time, trying to build a new home for us far away from Iran. I needed a companion. Perhaps unbeknownst to myself, I was looking for one. I thought I had found the ethereal lady in this incognito woman. I fashioned her after my desires. In fact, for almost a month I was in love with my idea of her, rather than the person she really was.

But then, isn't this true about any love, cyber or otherwise?

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