Ever since I first left Iraq in 2007, I’ve been wanting to go back and contribute something to the community. Through the help of GEMSI, a few weeks ago I finally had the chance to make a dedicated trip with the intention of doing some good work in Baghdad. GEMSI is the Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative, an organization started by Bilal Ghalib when he started aspiring to bring maker culture to the Middle East. This trip was intended to carry on the work GEMSI had begun in Lebanon and Iraq a few months ago.
My week-long trip to Baghdad was intended to help further establish and grow Fikra Space, the first hackerspace in Iraq. The first seed for Fikra Space was initially planted in April 2012 and further developed in October 2012 when Bilal Ghalib and Susu Attar visited Baghdad for a few days with the intention of hosting a temporary hackerspace. Much to everyone’s delight, the initial community of hackers who attended Bilal’s meetings and events didn’t stop gathering after he left. The pop-up hackerspace came to grow into Fikra Space as a core group of members started meeting regularly. They were receiving a great deal of local support despite the struggles of its members to explain to most people the idea of a hackerspace and what it means to be a hacker.
I got to witness that firsthand during the first day of my stay when we (myself and two of Fikra Space’s active members, Elly and Mujtaba) were waiting to meet the associate president of the University of Technology in Baghdad to request his approval to use the auditorium of the university for an event Firka Space was hoping to host. As we waited outside his office, his son, who was also a college student, started a conversation with us and asked what we do. I began explaining that we are from Fikra Space, Baghdad’s hackerspace, then I paused and asked if he knew the meaning of a hackerspace.
“Oh yes, yes, of course” he replied. ”I’ve been a hacker myself for a few years now, and if you ask me for anyone’s Facebook’s password, I can get it for you right away. I even have all my dad’s passwords!”
He boasted about his “hacking” endeavors for few minutes, then I interrupted him explaining that we had a different definition for the word “hacker”. It was risky to disagree with him since he was the son of the person whose approval we needed, but he didn’t seem to care much about my explanation, and when his dad was ready to meet with us, he walked into his dad’s office and introduced us as his fellow “hackers”. The associate president asked us what we do, so I explained that I had come to Baghdad to help with a project we are working on, at which point he interrupted and began his interrogative questions about where I came from and whether I held a Canadian passport, or if I had residency in a foreign country, and who pays for my studies abroad along with a few other questions that were completely unrelated to our conversation.
Once that was done, I began explaining the idea of a hackerspace and Fikra Space. He then interrupted again asking why we call ourselves Fikra Space, and not IdeaSpace (“fikra” means “idea” in Arabic) suggesting that it made no sense to combine Arabic and English words in the name of the space. But perhaps that was the most unsupportive thing he said during our meeting, as he eventually agreed to forward our request to the president (it turns out that the president’s approval is required to book the auditorium of the university, what?!). About an hour later, he came back with this other guy, the head of security or something like that who was also in a suit and a tie of course, who started explaining that the auditorium of the university cannot be booked without an approval from the Ministry of Higher Education (and I thought it was ridiculous that the president of the university needs to approve such requests)!
He then asked us if we were an organization or an association, and we responded saying that we considered ourselves to be neither. With a confused look on his face, he asked “how can that be?” as if any group of people had to be one or the other in order to exist! He pulled out a document from the ministry that mandated that external organizations or associations are not allowed to host any events on campus without approval of the ministry. The associate president quietly disagreed with the head of security, suggesting that this was for events that had a political focus and defended us saying that we were a group of motivated students who were more interested in science and technology. The guy was unrelenting though, and dismissed us saying that our event would need to be approved by the ministry first. We left the office feeling disappointed, but decided not to give up and, instead try to approach another university in Baghdad.
This whole thing happened on my first day in Baghdad, demonstrating the potential challenges we might face when explaining the idea of a hackerspace to some people, and so I expected that I would need to be more prepared for challenges of this kind. But much to my surprise, the rest of the week was filled with incidents and stories that showed overwhelming support and enthusiasm for the idea. We were holding a workshop almost every day, and some of these workshops were announced very last minute, but every one of them received a lot of attention and many people were signing up and showing interest. For one of the workshops we planned, there were around 40 people who signed up in about one day, but the place we were using could only accommodate 20 people, so we had to split the the list of attendees and schedule half of them for another date.
One of the workshops we held was briefly attended by a man from a local NGO. He wanted to see what Fikra Space was about, and before leaving, he expressed his happiness for seeing projects like this happening in Iraq. He told us that we have his full support, and that he is willing to do anything for Fikra Space to ensure its success. He invited us to the headquarters of his organization, and offered to have Fikra Space use their space for hosting events. The next day we visited their headquarters, and he talked about restructuring it to fit the needs of Fikra Space, asking us what we would need to keep Fikra Space running and successful and promising that he would provide it.
One of the challenges faced by the members of Fikra Space was finding a place that could accommodate their meetings, events and activities. An interim solution was offered by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which is based in one of Baghdad’s secured areas. The folks at IWPR were really supportive of Fikra Space and have been sharing their space, including all supplies, subscriptions, services and furniture that came with it. It was pretty amazing how understanding and accommodating they were, especially during our screenprinting workshop when we broke their big laser printer after trying to use it for printing on transparent paper, which took hours of searching around Baghdad’s industrial district to find (it turns out the transparent paper we bought wasn’t really for printing, even though we explicitly explained to the person who sold it to us what we needed it for).
What really amazed me was one night near the end of the week, after having spent the entire week running workshops at IWPR, when I got a call from Seyed Imad, one of the folks at IWPR, asking me if everything was okay. I answered that things were good and asked about the reason behind his concerns. He explained that he noticed that we weren’t hosting anything for the following day, so he wanted to check if things were okay and whether there was a problem or a challenge that he could help with. It was quite heartwarming to know that the work done by Fikra Space was being closely followed by the folks at IWPR and that they were showing interest and support every step of the way. The fact that this phone call happened a day after we had broken their printer made it even more remarkable to be getting such unconditional support.
There were other incidents and stories that were also quite uplifting and promising. One of the attendees of our Arduino workshop was this outspoken young man who identified himself as a philosopher. He caught my attention as soon as he walked into the room when I noticed his long ponytail and instantly admired his courage in challenging social norms. I later came to learn that he’d only come to the workshop to hang out with people he could relate to and to learn more about Fikra Space, as he had very little interest in electronics even though his first degree was in computer engineering. Another event was attended by a young man who told his story about winning a talent competition for performing a musical piece using a piano app on his iPhone, and offered to host a workshop about how to play the Iraqi National Anthem on a smartphone piano. This was pretty brilliant since we have long hoped to host a musical event, but were always discouraged by the fact that very few people in Baghdad own musical instruments.
One of my goals for this trip was to also reach out to the community outside of the walls and boundaries of where most Fikra Space events were happening. After some brainstorming, we decided to conduct an activity for elementary school kids that would involve using littleBits, which are basically the lego of electronics and one of the things that were donated to us. We approached one of the private schools that fosters orphaned children, and they agreed to let us work with a group of their students. The students were all little boys in the 3rd grade. We played with the littleBits for about an hour, and by the time we were leaving, the students asked if they would get to keep the kits to play with later. We hadn’t prepared to leave the kits at the school since we were hoping to organize more of these activities, but we promised to bring them back some kits that can stay at the school.
Before leaving Baghdad, I wanted to have at least one meeting to discuss and define the mission, structure, and future directions for Fikra Space. So on my last night in the city, we met at Everyday Cafe and talked for a few hours. One of the conversations from that meeting clearly demonstrated to me the importance and meaning Fikra Space holds in Baghdad. In an activity to help us articulate the mission of Fikra Space, people started talking about why they joined the space and what value they get out of it. Some of the responses echoed a common expression about how Fikra Space provided a community of people who are able to relate to each other and who share a passion for making and innovation. In a one-on-one conversation, one of the active members of Fikra Space shared with me how he felt lost before starting to be involved with the space, and now feels a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment as he spends most of his days at or hanging out with people from Fikra Space. Another member told us during that meeting how he has long hoped for a community of makers that he can connect and collaborate with, and has finally found that community within Fikra Space. It was during that meeting that it was demonstrated to me that Fikra Space is not just a physical space in one of Baghdad’s neighborhoods, but is most importantly a community of people who support each other to make amazing things.
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