In 1994, Ali Shaath and three of his colleagues, Sa’id al-Qidra, Mustafa Harara, and Majd al-Khalidi drove from Cairo to Palestine. It would be Ali’s first visit to the land that shaped him from a distance. It was a moment of hope and possibility. These were the moments Ali lived for.
The four men were the first to enter Gaza after the initial stages of the Jericho-Oslo agreements. At that time those words signaled possibility and change. Their goal was to make technology available in a simple but refined form.
He did not sleep that day, and for many days to come, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds he could previously only have imagined, he immediately plunged into the work.
The four men were charged with taking over the information infrastructure of the West Bank and Gaza. They confronted the realities of opposition and the real possibility of death. They faced, what seemed at the time the insurmountable challenge of information organization — everything from the payroll of government employees to the hardware and software development and training, to the details of transportation management. Ali and his team mapped the government sector and in the first year of round the clock labor established an expansive informational infrastructure.
Ali took part in gathering and leading Palestinian experts from universities and non-governmental organizations who would oversee this information production, and the administrative and engineering needs of a government in progress. Innovating databases and training on Oracle and UNIX, Ali and his team paved new methods that would influence the shape and content of secondary and higher education. Displaying what his colleagues remember as a unique analytical precision, Ali faced the difficulties of understanding rapidly shifting and harsh conditions and quickly transformed long discussions into concrete action plans. He shaped the possibility for a new kind of knowledge.
He was known at this time, like at so many others, for a profound intelligence, for embodying a new generation that promised a different future. Never raising his voice and never stopping at petty conflict, Ali built with pride. He bridged territory through hope, through critical work, through vision.
The Arab Digital Expression Camps became one of Ali’s next building blocs. Here young people, from across the Arab world, gather in a residential camp and embark on an experiential educational journey where technology and art are fertile avenues for self-expression and identity exploration. In 2013, the seventh camp took place, and Ali played multiple roles. At times, he would be a trainer in audio production, giving new meaning to sound as a form of telling. At others, he would skillfully animate the morning circles with the campers, playing with language and body — a small index of how expression unfolds in an array of forms. At other times, he would be the camp manager, deploying his wit and wisdom in the craft of running boats. In the background, he would be plotting for the coming year, alongside some of the most passionate educationalists, techies, and open source enthusiasts and artists in the region, to shape the structure and the content of the camps. The plotting sessions were often fragments of life at the camps from fun, to artistry, to random landings in uncharted territories. And there would be overriding love.
The camps were one of several beginnings for a man who constantly looked for ways to practice change. Ali is the offspring of the Arab Computer Camps, which for 10 years beginning in 1984, trained thousands of Arab children on basic computer languages in a setting that promoted Arab culture and Palestine consciousness. The camps were home to young people who came to be prominent activists in the Arab world on the forefront of using information communication technology (ICT) in their work.
The camps were not the end. After the revolution, the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, co-founded by Ali and his partner, Ranwa Yehia, became the home of the camps and much more. ADEF, which translates as “add” in Arabic, has been a platform for youth collectives working in fields such as arts and media. It uses technological tools that are open, empowering and sustainable. Like in the camps, Ali was constantly shifting gears, from computer engineer, to manager, to mediator, to trainer, to negotiator, to art producer and more. His ability to travel between multiple functions is perhaps a reflection of our profound and ambitious desires at precarious times of crisis, where only we can turn what we imagine into de facto realities on the ground.
Ali’s excitement about life came from new discoveries. Like a man set to decorate his space, he spent time exploring and gathering. These daily expeditions were his moments of euphoria; the euphoria of poetry, of dj-ing, of putting up a karaoke set using floppy discs, of archiving, of exploring the Yellow Fleet that dropped off the face of history, and much more. He built small and large collections of interest that in aggregate were a trigger of knowledge for everyone around him. But these collections were also very personal in their motivation, and with their multifaceted breadth, remained deeply interconnected. For Ali, knowledge was an adventure; it was personal.
In ADEF, this multiplicity of functions follows a unique logic. In one of his most recent attempts to put ADEF’s plethora of activities into writing, Ali spoke of the space as both a factory and a store — where promoting and advocating open source software happens only through its in-house development. Similarly, promoting alternative education and the self, could only happen by developing educational curricula at home and teaching them in the camps. And promoting Arabic online and open content would only happen through developing Arabization tools and actively contributing to Wikipedia in Arabic.
While tools can become fetishized for techies, Ali always had his eye on people, training, mentoring, and advising, either through the camps, or the training of trainers or the various projects he supported. There are people behind Internet radios aspiring to be on the airwaves one day, graffiti artists aspiring to expose the city to its gender biases, videographers seeking to turn their content into open archives that function as both repositories and active sites of production.
Those were days of hope. Ali held fast to this hope and continued building and innovating. He would return to Palestine many times since his first trip in 1994. On his last trip, during the hopeful throes of revolutionary possibility in Egypt and beyond, Ali met with a new generation of activists, sharing strategies, inspiring with ideas, and, as always, intently listening.
That trip, he and his son Nadim made their way to Haifa and Acre. It was the first time that Ali would visit the coastal cities that shaped memory and imagination. He did not linger on what had been but absorbed the beauty of what remained. We sang with Nadim in the car as we traveled the road to Acre. We ate fish on the Mediterranean. We reveled in the beauty of togetherness. He was then as he will always be, a source of insight, a model of fatherly love, an inspiration in his wisdom, and an embodiment of a unique hope.
Many of us gathered on the late hours of Wednesday, December 4, when Ali abruptly left us, suspended, interrupted and petrified by the brutality of separation. We gathered in an amalgam of disbelief and pain. In less than an hour, Ali had departed when a place that called itself a “hospital” did not have a defibrillator or even an ambulance to salvage him from a brutal heart attack. On his way out, it was the youth of Moqattam, for whom ADEF became a home of choice, who carried his coffin. A day later, we all went to Alexandria, from where Ali hailed, to bid him a final farewell. We set out on what we expected would be an ominous trip, but Ali’s spirit was soon bestowed upon us. We found ourselves together, around a table, with children, laughing, eating, intellectualizing, and remembering.
On his deathbed, Ali lay serenely smiling, perhaps to remind us of a legacy of love and laughter we are to continue with, and through.
We suffer now under this unbearable loss. But we take comfort in the many gifts Ali left us. Hope for the future. An insurmountable energy based in a firm understanding of the historical. A commitment to the possibilities of change. His warmth, his readiness to move, his capacity for joy and laughter, his insight, his deep ability to appreciate critical thought. He surrounded us with excitement. He infused us with an inspiration to be in the open. He taught us to produce knowledge and to innovate its widespread use and access. These were the things Ali Shaath gave us. For the time we had with him, we can only count ourselves lucky.
This piece is co-published by Mada Masr and Jadaliyya.