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Remembering Ali Shaath: A Beautiful Mind

[Ali Shaath. Image by Marwa Seoudi.] [Ali Shaath. Image by Marwa Seoudi.]

1984 might have Orwellian connotations to many, but for me, it was the year when my life took a completely different and dramatic turn.

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s remembers the buzz around those new mysterious machines called “computers.” From sci-fi movies and magazine features to “experts” talking on the two miserable Egyptian state television channels we were stuck with, the “future of mankind” seemed to rest on that electronic device. Very few of us knew anything about that enigmatic device.

I distinctly recall my father speaking with enthusiasm about that new invention. Books, brochures, and magazines that he used to bring home from work all dealt with this new technological revolution called "personal computing." Those colossal electronic machines, which had to be housed in massive air-conditioned halls, had shrunk to the size of a box that you can place on a desk in just a couple of decades.

It did not take long for my father to convince the seven-year-old me to get on a bus in the summer of 1984 that took me away from home to the first "Arab CompuCamp" to "study computers," as he put it.

It was a life-changing experience. I spent roughly a month with dozens of Arab children, mainly from Palestine, doing what kids do best—play. We ran, swam, played chess, competed in different sports, sang, and danced. But most importantly, twice a day we attended classes about computer programming. We would spend hours studying Logo, Basic, and Pascal—all of which are obsolete today. But back then, it was astounding how you could work with your brains to come up with formulas in order to move a “Logo turtle” forward or backward. Imagine children drawing geometrical designs and commanding a small robot on wheels with their voices.

This camp, and the following ones I attended annually, was also my introduction to the Palestinian cause. Living, learning, and receiving education together with Palestinian children meant never ending chats about their homeland, the Israeli occupation, and the diasporic condition in the refugee camps. I was learning in a single conversation with a Palestinian child more than what I would learn from watching films or reading books at that age.

From an early age, this experience fostered deep inside me the belief in common destiny and the bigger picture. Progress in the region meant education and scientific advancement that serves the cause of human liberation.

Those "CompuCamps" mushroomed quickly in subsequent years and were held simultaneously in different Arab countries, not just Egypt. They created a new generation of Arab youth who were drawn into technology as well as political activism—trying to come up with algorithms for social change.

Today, I hardly meet an Arab techie in his late thirties or forties who has not passed those camps during his or her childhood. Both friendships and networks were forged in the pre-internet age.

The main driving force behind those "CompuCamps" and similar projects was no one but a young Egyptian Palestinian named Ali Shaath. As a teenager, Ali organized those camps and brought thousands of Arab kids together, in one of the biggest independent education projects this region has witnessed from 1984 to 1994.

He went on later to pioneer several projects that focused on technology, education, culture, and the promotion of open source in the Arab World. Ali’s list of achievements as well as his contribution to the activist scene can fill volumes and volumes.

His devotion to education, science, and progress, led him later to revive the “CompuCamps” once again. In 2005, together with his wife veteran writer Ranwa Yehia, he inaugurated the Arab Digital Expression Camps. In 2009, they established the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF) that has been providing a unique venue for the support of independent technology-related projects dealing with the free flow of information, art, music, poetry, science, and children's education.

Ali passed away from a heart attack on the night of 4 December 2013 at the age of forty-six. Many do not know his name because he preferred working in silence and modesty.

His heart stopped beating, yet his beautiful mind remains alive with us in the projects he founded and the dreams he inspired for scientific progress.

 

He was remembered and honored today at the Egyptian Press Syndicate. 

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