First time in Baghdad

It was once the jewel of the Muslim empire and epicenter of knowledge
in the Eastern world. Now it is best known for corrupt governance,
bombings, and dust storms. It was also my parents’ home. After
visiting once in 1991 as a child the few memories I have of Iraq
seemed to be shouting matches as my parents yelled over the phone
making overseas calls. Names of Uncles I had never met were mentioned
and a phone was handed to me and I was left to nervously fend for
myself with my weak Iraqi slang and an Uncle who apparently knew all
about me while I knew nothing of him. The country was an impenetrable
black box to me that would spit out another refugee somewhere in the
world every few years or so.

Sixteen years later the first wall between Iraq and me was broken. In
2007 my nuclear family had traveled to Syria and for the first time I
met family members who still lived in Baghdad. I knew them now. My
uncles and cousins grew flesh and blood. I could feel their prickly
faces as we greeted with the traditional Iraqi 4 sided cheek kiss.
They could graciously give me their dishdashas as gifts. Names finally
had faces, but those faces were deep, sunken and afraid. 2007 was a
bad year of sectarian war in Iraq, which is why the Damascas district
of Harasta was flooded with Iraqis. The sound of construction
continued through the night to keep up with the massive (ab)use of the
“tourist” visas. I saw something in the Iraqis in Syria that I hadn’t
seen before; something that scared me. I saw hopelessness. It was then
I settled on a long-term project to return to the country and share
something that I had just discovered around the same time: the future
doesn’t come prepared — we make the future. The do-it-yourself
attitude that was growing in America was being combined with the
culture of sharing that you find in hackerspaces, at
and in open source technology. This atmosphere made anything possible.
You want to build a vertical generator without any spinning parts?
Sure! How about a walking quadraped robot with a sofa? Do you want to
quit your job, write zines and sell them in the crafting circle? Sure!
Start a business! Write a novel! Organize a benefit concert! Sure –
sure – sure! “Make your own future” was the message. It was a message
of hope – it was the message that I wanted to share in the Middle
East, and especially in Iraq.

In 2011 the opportunity to work on sharing this beautiful message in
the Middle East presented itself to me, so I quit my robotics job and
took it (sorry Andrew). A few friends and I started a tiny
organization called GEMSI – The Global Entrepreneurship and Maker
Space Initiative. We funded ourselves through Kickstarter and our
first project was a three-Day Maker Space hosted at Maker Faire
. We were hoping to let people experience the feeling of the
Maker Movement first-hand. We collaborated with Emeka and the team
from MFA, Cairo Hackerspace, along with many amazing egyptians from
all over the country. We had a successful first attempt at sharing the
message of “Yes you can!” It was a great start, but Iraq was still an
impenetrable fortress to me.

It took till 2012 and a chance encounter with friends in Cambridge, MA
for me to find my first avenue back into Iraq. Via my friends, I met
someone who’s friend was affiliated with TEDxBaghdad. A few steps
removed, sure, but when I heard about TEDxBaghdad I knew I had found
my way in. I knew TEDx and the types of programs they hosted; I knew
they were hopeful, inspired, and shared a vision for a brighter
tomorrow. I started communicating with Emeka from MFA, who also works
with TED, and he put me in touch with Yahay. After my first skype call
with Yahay I knew I was going. Someone else had done it – someone
broke that barrier, did amazing work in the country, and survived. It
wasn’t the death trap my family was telling me it was. There was a new
narrative being woven and I knew what I needed to do. I booked my
flights before I even finalized any workshops. I needed to meet the
TEDxBaghdad team.

Later, I called my parents and told them I was going to Baghdad and
they said, “Shinu?! Inta Makhabal?!” That probably means exactly what
you think it does. Needless to say, they had their concerns, but I was
going regardless. Now that the tickets were bought, we started
planning. Yahay put me in touch with Abdal Ghany, one of the Iraqi
organizers living in Baghdad. He coordinated everything. It was
amazing. These guys kick some serious planning butt! Ghany basically
told me, “Show up and give your workshop. We’ll take care of the
rest.” This was a welcome change from the hours of facebooking,
planning, and coordination I usually have to go through to schedule
events. It really seemed like this was possible. I was going to give
an Arduino and 3D printing workshop in Baghdad and I was really

I sent an email to Sparkfun and Makezine asking them for open source
electronics donations since I knew bringing my electronics box through
the airport wouldn’t be a good idea. They sent me a nice goodie-bag of
beautifully packaged Maker products. These two organizations have
given me a tremendous amount of help throughout the years, for which I
am extremely thankful. I packed a suitcase filled with 2 3D printers,
25 Arduinos, an assortment of other open source hardware and sensors
and headed out looking a bit like a bomb development lab. Yeesh!
Somehow I made it through China, Saudi, and Turkey without any serious
interrogation. Mostly just really quizzical looks from my unzipped bag
up back to me… “You’re a teacher?” they ask. “Yes,” I say, “yes I

Turkey was the stop before Iraq. Turkey was brilliant, sunny, lush,
and seemed to be comprised of mostly happy smiling people walking by
the sea. Coming from the deserts of Mecca, this was a welcome sight. I
let the green of Turkey wash away the dust of Saudi Arabia. The
mishmash of cultures, sounds, foods, religions gave me a great feeling
of liberation. This was a lively place and the two hackerspaces I met
up with there, Base Istanbul and Istanbul Hackerspace were fantastic
hosts. Furkan and I spent a lovely day together chatting about Maker
culture as it spreads through the Middle East and then in the end we
had a potluck BBQ with members from both hackerspaces by the rocks of
the sea. It was great to see these two Turkish hackerspaces and to be
reminded that this movement is truly global. My dream of hackerspaces
empowering people globally is really possible – and it’s great to know
that it is a dream that is shared by others. I left them full of
enthusiasm and flew directly to Baghdad.

Landing in Baghdad was strange and a bit concerning. Looking out of
the window all I could see was a brown cloud. We were landing in a
dust storm. I had heard about the turab (dust) of Iraq, but this was
the first time I saw it in person, and it would be one of the things
most often on my mind. Getting a visa for me was surprisingly easy,
except for the fact I forgot my passport on the plane and two guards
had to escort me one to each side back to the airplane to retrieve it.
But once I had my passport, I told them my laqab, which is the full
name that includes ancestry. Showed them a copy of my dad’s passport
and my Iraqi birth certificate and I was in. I was hoping for a nice
stamp, perhaps with some Iraqi relic on it. But they took my passport
and wrote in it: “Originally Iraqi”, so there it goes, it’s official.

Ahmed, my cousin, was not at the airport when I took my paper work and
headed out to the lobby. The airport was sparsely populated and
heavily regulated. I barely managed to snap a picture before a guard
came up to me and had me delete them from my phone. In the lobby I met
a man just released from a Swiss prison. The Swiss had given him the
option to be sent back home to Iraq, or be jailed. He chose to leave
and come back to Iraq. This becomes a theme later as I see more and
more people, all of whom desire to leave the country to become
refugees elsewhere. It seems that when hope runs out for the country
you live in, the only option is to find a new one. This story is one
of a million various stories of struggling to find a new life. Each
varies in its details, but all have survival at their core.

Ahmed arrives 30 minutes late, apologizing. He’s wearing jeans and a
polo. His hair seemed freshly cut and his face was serious. We had
never met before. The only thing I knew of him was that he thought I
was reckless for coming. He had been spending hours on Skype with me
attempting to convince me that coming would be a bad idea: “You have
no idea how bad the bugs are. Just wait till you see the dust storms.
The heat will kill you… etc” But once I saw him in person it all
changed. I didn’t think I’d grow to like Ahmed, but I grew to
appreciate his ways and he became like a brother to me before I left.

He took me to Mansour, a neighborhood in Baghdad, telling me stories
about Iraq as we travelled. This is the neighborhood where the house
my dad designed and family built stands. On the ride home we had our
car checked for bombs at least 4 times by what Iraqi’s call Saytarat,
which is the equivalent of a checkpoint and, to me, seemed a total
nuciance. They were the reason he was late. What would normally be a
20 minute drive can become three hours long because every car is
checked for bombs. They are everywhere; throughout the city, on every
road. We passed the guard who watches over my family’s neighborhood,
and he takes his hand off his machine gun to wave at Ahmed, and I
begin to recognize that weapons, car inspections and burned out cars
are normal here, so they don’t think to comment on it – like an empty
lot in Detroit, or the homeless in San Francisco. We got to my family
home with no time to rest. I had to leave to meet up with Abdul Ghany
and the crew at a Cafe in an hour and then conduct the workshop in
two. Ahmed comes with me – he doesn’t trust people we’d never met
before and won’t let me out of his sight. I trust first till proven
otherwise, he has learned to do the opposite. It’s a telling sign of
how different our lives are on a day-to-day basis.

As soon as I met the TEDxBaghdad crew, I felt at ease. MNA, Abdul
Ghany and the entire crew were thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring
people. I was really happy to have intersected with them and they
helped me in more ways than I could count. We first met up at
Everyday, a local Mansour café. Everyday cafe was hyper airconditioned
and everyone seemed to think it was hotter than it was. The crew was
awesome, they were really a great first introduction to the excited
young people of Baghdad and they certainly have the famed Iraqi
hospitality. But here’s a tip: do not order a fajita in Baghdad ;D.
MNA pulled out their iPads and started showing me video production
work he was doing for TEDx. Abdul Ghany comes a little late and we
have head out to the workshop.

The workshop was held in a two story office building surrounded by
palm trees. Looking out the the tinted back window we could see the
muddy river run past, winding and dark. Slowly the TEDx people started
trickling in. Then I started to get nervous. The checkpoints didn’t
bother me, the tanks in the streets were not an issue, but here were
these people coming to learn something from me. What could I share
that would really matter to them when they had so much to deal with
daily? What could I share that could be relevant to people who see
bombings as I experience lightning storms? I have been to other places
in the world to share this kind of information, and some of those
places have had political problems and ongoing revolutions. But Iraq
was the first country I had been to that really seemed like a war

I decided that first I needed to learn from them! What were their
projects? What did they hope for? I hoped they would learn from each
other and get excited about their projects and I wanted to be able to
share things that were relevant to them. Thus, everyone was encouraged
to talk about who they are, how they learned about TEDxBaghdad and to
share their project, share with us their mission, or share an
inspiring story. I was amazed to hear about all the amazing things the
crew was doing. From intercultural exchange programs, to street clean
ups, to historical artifact preservation, each of them shared and I
started realizing something. They were not interested in new
technology as they were interested in arts and culture and after
hearing about a few of their projects I started realizing why.

Learning about culture and paying attention to the arts gives people
the ability to pay attention to details. They can look at another
human being and see all the subtleties that make us who we are. We
each fall in love, we struggle, we question, and have doubts. Arts
give depth to a black and white world. Sectarianism is difficult when
we pay attention to the commonalities that tie us all together. What
would the world be like if anyone who wanted a weapons license was
required to have visited India, could pass an art history exam and
could play stairway to heaven on the guitar?

We were in a sort of office building near the river which ran by dark
and muddy looking through the tinted windows. One by one, they stood
up in front and gave their short presentations. There were doctors,
engineers, and designers in the crew. They each stood up and told the
story of how they found out about TEDxBaghdad and it was incredible.
Each of them had a friend recommend it to them, and it was mostly done
through Facebook. Some people’s projects were related to health,
culture, antiquity preservation, and connecting Iraqis with the rest
of the world. While they spoke I made a graph of the things that
connected all of their ideas together. It was a beautiful thing to
see. The common themes were to help Iraq as a country through the
integration of new ideas and how to bring a new face of Iraq and
present it to the world. To have the news about Iraq be about amazing
things, inspiring things, rather than explosions. Being in that room
with that energy made me feel like we were already on our way.

I pulled out the boxes of donations given to us by Sparkfun and The
Make Shed and now it was my turn. I told them about my story coming
into contact with my friend Alex through, how being
in San Francisco and Cambridge opened my eyes to a new way of
entrepreneurship using communities and open source technology. And how
they could make anything they could imagine if they got together to do
it. We discussed how sharing and collaboration was a common value that
held the entire system together. I used the concept of the LED
throwie, which is a simple idea by Graffiti Research Labs to connect
an LED to a coin battery and a magnet. They used it to throw at
ferrous buildings as a form of electronic graffiti but once they
uploaded it to instructables the idea was out there and people were
inspired to take it and derive many other projects. You can never know
what will happen when you share something or when you create a tool
and share it. People created outlined throwies, LED floaties in
balloons and finally we start seeing LED floaties which are sequenced
to act like a light show at a fish concert. Hahaha!

We then talked about the Arduino an easy to use microcontroller
designed for artists. It’s a bit of technology that is a simple and
easy to use platform to build interactive projects. We talked about
how the open nature of the project people can use the Arduino and then
use shields to add features like being able to connect to the internet
or play MP3s. Open source tools make building new products a lot like
using legos. We were in the middle of using some of the sensors The
Maker Shed had sent us to make a DIY heart rate monitor when the power
went out and all went dark except for the LED throwies we had made.

It suddenly felt very intimate. We put all the LED throwies in the
center of the room and huddled around it for story time. The feeling
of connection was palpable for me. Sure the lack of power meant that
we were not going to be able to 3D print, but being in the dark with
TEDxBaghdad was one of my favorite memories of this trip.

The lights went on and we had a long question and answer session /
photo shoot. Some of the doctors were interested to use the Arduino
based heart rate monitors to replace the broken ones in the hospital.
I heard about this and was flabbergast that the most basic and cheap
tools I had brought with me might have a direct impact and may even
save lives. Technology might not solve the political problems of the
country but it seems that there was a lot of room for development and
that the crew I was with was creative and excited to make use of it. I
passed out 20 Arduino kits that day, including the Lillypad which is a
version of the Arduino intended to be sewen into clothing. Although
there were very few engineers in the audience, everyone seemed to be
buzzing with ideas and ways to use the Arduinos.

What a great workshop! I was super excited because not only had they
understood the message, they seem to have been infected with the
feeling of capability! Now to seal the deal, we were all going to go
out and eat a classic Iraqi dish Simach Masguf. Ahmed has been calling
me hourly making sure that I was OK, but I felt safe enough with my
new friends so we all headed out to a fish spot by the river. Hours go
by, lots of fish is eaten, and lots of juice is drunk. Some of the
crew smoke some sheesha. It was like I was with new old friends. My
Iraqi slang was improving hourly and although we had just met I knew
me and TEDxBaghdad we’re going to be working together again very soon.
I would have stayed all night eating and chatting about future
projects and the problems to solve in Iraq, but the cerfew was about
to set in and we had to jet.

Yeah, there is still a curfew. On the ride home my head is filled with
contradictions. Hope and confusion mix in my head as my family rings 4
more times. I get home safe and decide that the only way to deal with
the bizarre situation in Iraq was to act with irrational hope and
optimism. That’s the way TEDxBaghdad seemed to work. And that’s going
to be mine as well.

The next day there were five explosions in Baghdad so TEDxBaghdad and
I decided against going out to the Iraqi National Museum even though we had to
request permission to go. We meet instead back at Everyday and there
we solidify our commitment to working for a more beautiful Baghdad and
a country which will become a producing nation once again. Sharing
with the world it’s art, science and literature like it once did years

Be great, be beautiful, spread kindness and joy.

By Bilal Ghalib