In this story, “Roblimo” takes us back to 2002, to an open source conference in a country where the common belief was that “nobody knew anything about Linux.” Boy, were they in for a surprise.
In December, 2002, I gave the keynote speech at an open source conference in Amman, Jordan. It was a tense time in that part of the world. Not long before I was there, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAISD) chief in Amman was assassinated. Anti-U.S. demonstrations had been shut down by Jordan’s armed forces earlier in the year. King Abdullah II was still new in the job and did not yet have as certain a hand on the helm as his father, Hussein (amateur radio call JY1) did during previous decades. To make things even more fun, the country was flooded with refugees from Iraq, and rumors were rife that the U.S. would soon go to war with Saddam Hussein over 9/11. Or something. Of course, the war rumors turned out to be true.
But the Linux show must go on! Several American speakers dropped out, and one nearly did, but I was determined to go, and so I did — even though people from USAID (which sponsored the conference and paid my expenses) warned me that nobody in Jordan knew anything about Linux.
Fine. Then I’d teach them! And to get a better handle on the Linux situation in Jordan, I checked the country on the Linux Counter as part of my trip preparation.
Through the Linux Counter I learned that not only were there Linux users in Jordan, but that some of them were even starting to organize a LUG. I sent word of the conference and invited them all. Hey! Free admission! Free food, too! I knew that would draw an American Linux crowd in a heartbeat, and I didn’t think it would be much different in Jordan.
So I’d done my part to draw a crowd. I packed up my laptop and drove to Dulles to catch the plane.
When we got to Amman we went to a hotel ringed with sandbags, machine gun emplacements, and soldiers carrying M-16s. We ate, we showered, we rested, then we went to visit the Education Minister, who had gotten his job the traditional way: by being part of the Hashemite royal family. Except Mohammad (not an uncommon name there) was also an MIT grad. We gave him one of the hundreds of Knoppix CDs we’d brought. He eagerly grabbed it and shoved it into the CD drive on the nearest computer in his office. Was he thrilled to try Linux for the first time? No. He was thrilled to try Knoppix, and by extension Debian, because he’d been running Red Hat up until then.
What’s more, Mohammad wanted to tell us all about GNU, which he’d learned about at MIT from a guy named Richard, who worked there and had helped him a lot. This was, of course, Richard M. Stallman. So we were going to tell this guy about Linux? Not exactly. By the time we left his office he’d given orders to a secretary to make copies of Knoppix for every school in the country, and also for the rural computing and Internet centers the old King, Hussein, had put up out in rural areas so even the most backward Bedouin children could get exposed to modern technology.
These computing centers ran Windows because Microsoft had donated not only software but had kicked in heavily for hardware. Jordan had (and still has) no oil or any other natural resources besides sand, people, and a ruined city that served as a set for an Indiana Jones movie. Jordan has had a hand out ever since the Hashemites rebelled against the (much hated) Ottoman Empire with British help. It was a dramatic event. You could probably make an epic movie out of it, with British colonel T.E. Lawrence as the main character.
Back then, most Arabs were poor and often nomadic. Outside of the few cities, the same holds true of most Arabs in Jordan in the 21st century, whether they are Bedouins or Palestinians. And being an American egalitarian, it never crossed my mind that these “country Arabs” might not be welcome at a Royal-led conference held in an expensive international hotel. And guess what? My “Y’all come!” invite drew over 100 dirt-poor Linux users from the countryside who were teaching themselves system administration and software development at the government computer centers, where they’d installed Linux all over the place.
Hah! Lots of Linux in Jordan, from royal ministers to guys so poor they used rope instead of belts to hold their pants up.
The funny thing was, while the government bureaucrats looked totally down their noses at the sandal-wearers, Mohammad the Education Minister loved finding people he could hire to teach computers to kids out in the boonies. Royal or not, by the end of the first day he was chattering with a whole crowd of his countrymen, making plans to visit this town or that one, taking notes on what supplies their computer centers and school computer labs needed. And the country boys were ecstatic to have a friend in the royal family. Jordan is, like it or not, a country where the King can still say, “Off with their heads!” and have someone say, “Yes, Your Highness,” and get to chopping.
IBM used this conference to announce the opening of a brand-new Linux lab at the University of Jordan. The IBM people running that effort were downright ecstatic to find an entire horde of Linux users (or at least self-taught trainees) they could hire. They had been worried about recruiting. Problem solved. Ragged clothes? No problem. A month or so on the payroll and they’d be able to outfit themselves appropriately for business meetings in the capital city.
One thing to note is that the dirt-poor party crashers (who weren’t really crashers since I’d invited them, and it was supposed to be a free conference, “open to all”) were not ignorant. Jordan has had a decent public school system and a literate population for many decades.
Considering the country’s high level of education, at least in the Middle East context, why should anyone have been surprised to find many computer-literate, Linux-aware people in Jordan? I certainly wasn’t.
Here is a reprint of the NewsForge story I wrote immediately after my return to the U.S., titled Advocating Linux and Open Source in Amman, Jordan. Reading it really takes me back. And yes, I truly enjoyed writing that piece. I hope you enjoy reading it, too, these many years later.
Robin “Roblimo” Miller is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief at Open Source Technology Group, the company that owned SourceForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, NewsForge, ThinkGeek and Slashdot, and until recently served as a video editor at Slashdot. Now he’s mostly retired, but still works part-time as an editorial consultant for Grid Dynamics, and (obviously) writes for FOSS Force.