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Openness, Mapping, Democracy, and Reclaiming Narrative: Majd Al-shihabi in conversation

Open Culture


Majd Al-shihabi, the inaugural Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellow, is a Palestinian-Syrian systems design engineer focusing on the role of technology in urban systems and policy design. He is passionate about development, access to knowledge, user centered design, and the internet, and experiments with implementing tools and infrastructures that catalyze social change. He studied engineering at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, and urban planning at the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon.

The following is a conversation between Christine Prefontaine and Majd Al-shihabi, reflecting on his work and experiences as a Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellow.

The Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship

The Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship awards $50,000 + support to an outstanding individual developing open culture in their communities. This unique and life-changing fellowship promotes the values important to Bassel’s work and life: open culture, radical sharing, free knowledge, remix, collaboration, courage, optimism, and humanity. The Fellowship supported Majd Al-shihabi, the inaugural recipient, on two projects: Building an open source platform for oral history archives, to be used by the Syrian Oral History Archive, and digitizing, releasing, and improving the accessibility of previously forgotten 1940s British Mandate-era public domain maps of Palestine. The common thread: Preserving memory based on openness and collaboration and advancing visions for re-building and moving Palestinian and Syrian societies towards an open, fair, and free future.


Majd’s Story

Can we start with a basic overview of your work and then maybe dig into the fellowship projects that you’re working on?
I’ve been loosely involved with the open community for a long time. When I was studying in Canada at the University of Waterloo, the pressure of school limited my involvement. As soon as I finished I was like, oh, finally I can do the things that I actually am interested in doing. So, slowly that’s how I got involved with the a few open communities locally.

Throughout my studies I’ve mostly worked as a developer so I’ve been using a lot of open source software. That helped me improve my understanding of the open source community. It is not just about the code of the open source software, but also about how community dynamics in its community work, who can contribute, who doesn’t, and so on. So that has been the formation that has guided my work so far.

When I moved to Lebanon, I moved specifically to work with a project called the Arab Digital Expression Foundation youth camp. ADEF is the organization. This camp is at 10-day camp in the summer for people 18 and up. We had some participants that were 19 and 63 years old. It’s about the intersection of art, technology and politics, especially in this region, especially about the production of knowledge and content in the Arabic language.

That was the entry point for me in the Arab open source community — because the camp was very explicit about using open technologies and using open approaches to knowledge production and media production. That was the first time when I was like, I’m producing something that can benefit my community in a very explicit way.

I curated that camp, and then I stayed here and I was like, we have a lot work on openness in this community in Lebanon so let’s start with this. So I worked on a few smaller projects related to mapping. We worked on the Beirut Evictions Monitor, where we ran workshops to map housing evictions in Beirut because it has been undergoing a lot of pressure on real estate and housing — to think about how to map it and publish what is appropriate of that data.

Working on those projects were the first steps. I started thinking about how to activate the community around the mapping and issues of mapping. Because, for example, there is no one authoritative map of Beirut that you can get, especially of buildings of Beirut. On OpenStreetMap there are areas where some active mapper lives, so you can find all of the buildings in their neighborhood. But they’re drawn from satellite imagery so they’re not very accurate. But there’s no comprehensive map of Beirut. I’m trying to think about how can we use OpenStreetMap to engage the community in mapping efforts to make sure that their communities are on the map — literally — and connecting that with other sources of data, so that organizations like like the Beirut Evictions Monitor can use it.

The next step was when my collaborator Ahmad Barclay found the historic maps of Palestine, from just before the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, in the archives. We were like, we can use those maps. They’re really precious. As Palestinians, most of us have not seen what our villages look like. Before I saw those maps, I only knew of one surviving photo of my village and now I have a more textured view. We got really excited by the potential of those maps and we said, what can we do with them? That’s where the Palestine Open Maps project started. Visualizing Palestine hosted a lab with Columbia Studio X in Amman where we developed a prototype, which we carried on to what you see now on the platform.

At the same time, I was also interested in oral history archives. One of my main collaborators and friends has worked on the Palestine Oral History Archive at the American University of Beirut. She has also been a consultant for a few oral history projects and did an assessment of the Syrian Oral History Archive. Often what happens with those archives is that everyone gets really excited about collecting and then they have like 500 hours of recordings and they don’t know what to do with them. So she did that assessment. Then she was like, you guys need to think more explicitly about what to do with this collection and how to archive it. She said, you should not use Omeka as your only solution. And think about a more refined way of addressing the special needs of an oral history archive.

Those two projects were in the background of my mind when the fellowship was announced and I was like, this sounds like the right place to get sustainability while I work on these projects that are really exciting to me. Also, those two projects are very closely linked and both have great potential. For example, if you think about Palestine Open Maps and the Palestinian Oral History Archives — specifically the use of them after they’ve been archived — can you use the maps as a way to spatially navigate an oral history archive? One of my plans is to make that link between the two. To me they’re related in the long term.

The Palestine Open Maps Project has five different archival map sets that show Palestine before it was ethnically cleansed. We’ve been trying to combine those with census data sets and the locality name data sets. And now you can view it on That was what I presented at MozFest. That’s the project that I’ve been working on for the first part of my fellowship. For the second part, I’ll focus more on building the oral history platform.

We ran a few design workshops with the Syrian Oral History Archive to extract a workflow from the practices of the archivists. The idea was to enhance the workflow and make it applicable to all oral history archivists, but at the same time to make it as tailored as possible to oral history archiving. It’s a delicate balance that we had to hit. Then I did a few sessions with Palestine Oral History Archive and also talked with the Knowledge Workshop, here in Beirut, as potential users of the platform. Now we have a community that’s excited about finally having a way to archive and publish their collections.

From the outcome of the workshops, I started to build a user interface with a company called Calibro that does user interface design. The interface addresses each one of the phases of the archival process. And that’s where I am right now. I just started experimenting with a little bit of code in the past few days, but the majority of the code will be written between now and the end of my fellowship.

Hearing about the mapping project, what stuck out for me was the ability to anchor a story physically in a place. It’s one thing to hear it, but it’s another thing to have the opportunity to go to a place — physically or digitally. It grounds the story. Literally. It’s profound.

My grandmother is still alive and she was born in Palestine. She was one of the people that was ethnically cleansed during the Nakba and she hasn’t been back since. She was 11 years old when it happened so she remembers what it was like. I grew up listening to her talking about our house in Palestine and I know that the village doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been completely destroyed and in its place there’s a forest, a South African memorial forest, a European pine forest. She can name a few places but because they don’t exist anymore you don’t know what those places are. Because she was only 11 years old she doesn’t have that grasp on geography.

But when I got the maps I looked them up. Last summer I was visiting my family — they live in Kitchener/Waterloo, close to Toronto. My grandma was there and I was asking her, Teta, can you describe your house to me again? So she started describing and she was like, oh, it’s on top of the hill called El Khirba. And I looked at the map and there it was: El Khirba. It was labeled on that map. Then she was like, if you look from our house qibli (in the direction of Mecca, south) you would see Esh Shajara, the other village, and sure enough it’s on the map. If you go there right now wouldn’t see it but on the map it’s right there. It’s directly south. She would describe all of those landmarks and those features and, sure enough, they’re on their map.

To me, it’s extremely profound. Finally I know what my grandma’s talking about. Even if I can’t access it today, at least there’s this physical remnant that has been left to us. It’s particularly interesting if you’re thinking about archives. I learned this because I’m more of a technical person so I’m not as well-versed in the terminology of the philosophy of archives. But my collaborator, Hana Sleima [see also: Constructing a Palestinian Oral History Archive], taught me this term: “reading against the archival grain”.

Those maps were made by colonizers. During the British Mandate, they went in and decided that now the land of Palestine is theirs and they are going to map it. They made highly detailed maps and now, as the victims of that colonization, we Palestinians can read those maps with a purpose that’s completely different from the purpose that they were intended for by the colonizers. We’re reading those maps in a way that is not in alignment with their original purpose.

This is common among people of the South when they’re reading their archives, especially in colonial archives. That’s one of the really powerful things that we’re enabling through this project: You can understand your own history and you can have a different understanding of your own history by taking a critical look at the archives.

Can you hone in on a moment where you felt a sense of success with this project?
Both projects are a work in progress, but the biggest sense of success that I have is when I demo those project to people. Especially the Palestine Open Maps project — when I demo it, especially people who are descendants of Palestinian refugees and I ask them, what’s the name of your grandparents village? All of them know the name but they don’t know where it is geographically. It could be in the north, it could be in the south, they don’t know. I take my phone and I show them, this is what it was like.

People are kind of shocked and taken aback. They spend a surprisingly long time just navigating their map, zooming into details like, you can see where the school was. I was looking for another map and it had a museum there. It’s a small village that has a museum — why? There are all of these nuances about our lives as Palestinians that have been systematically erased that we can actually extract again out of these maps and reconstruct.

One of my goals is to combine this archive of the maps with another archive — the Palestine Oral History Archive — because they have a collection of interviews with people who knew Palestine before the Nakba. Whenever a place is mentioned in those narratives and those interviews, can we have it pinpointed on the map? And then can you hear the story about that place?

People get so excited about this and that, in turn, excites me. I think that’s the biggest success of this project: Using the power of technology, turning this abstract concept of Palestine that we’ve been told about as children — this is your homeland and this is the place where you belong — turning that into something that’s really tangible.

As I’m listening to you, there was a connection that came up in my head. Dave Isay, the person who started StoryCorps has a TED Talk where he describes documenting people’s stories — and sharing them back. When he did that, one of the participants grabbed the printed story and started screaming, “I exist! I exist!” [See minute 2:10] For me, this connects to both the mapping and the oral history. When you do your demo and someone says, this was the name of the place. And you show them: Here it is! It’s not just in your head. The place exists and your story exists.
Totally. I hesitate to talk about this because it always brings weird critiques. But, the central premise of the creation of Israel is that this is a land without a people for people without a land. But if you look at those maps it just shows so clearly that there were people in that place.

If you positioned this project in an intellectual history of the Palestinian struggle, to me it’s a descendant of a project called The Atlas of Palestine by Salman Abu Sitta. The book is in two parts. One is the atlas which compiles the paper maps of Palestine and records about localities and census and so on. It’s a paper book that’s really thick and huge and heavy. And the other component of that book is called The Return Journey. It proposes that the land of the historic Mandate Palestine, between the Jordan River and the sea, can fit everyone. It can fit the four and a half million Jews who live in that land right now, and all of the Palestinian refugees that have been ethnically cleansed.

There’s no need for anyone to have to be forced to leave. We can all live there in a democratic state where everyone is an equal citizen. This project is a small step towards furthering that goal. All of us are equal human beings and we should have equal rights to live in the lands where we belong. [laughing] It gets really heavy whenever you’re talking about Palestine!

That is a beautiful and admirable sentiment. Thinking again about these projects, can you hone in on a moment where you faced a challenge or a struggle?
On the Palestine Open Maps project, even something as simple as getting those maps was a struggle. We kept reading references to those maps in various books about Palestine, but we never actually saw them. We’d see small scans of a single village but we’d never get the access to the whole map.

Then eventually, ironically enough, we found them in the Israeli National Library Archives. They’re all scanned at very high resolutions, which is perfect for us. But if you go to the website, the content management system that they use doesn’t give you the entire image. You can’t just download the entire image. If you right-click on it, it gives you a smaller section. Also: You can’t access .il Israeli domain names from Lebanon because the two countries are at war. So we have to circumvent that and use Dropbox to download all of the files, and write a script that takes every tile, stitches them together, and saves them back to Dropbox. It was a very elaborate process technically to circumvent all of those restrictions — whether they’re technical or political — and get those maps. So that’s one thing.

And then in the Arab world, there’s a lot of technical people, but the good geeks — the nerds that we rely on to build our tools — everyone just leaves and goes to Europe or North America. There is a huge brain drain and when you want to start building a platform like this one, especially when we first started — before I got the fellowship that’s helping me build the platform now — I didn’t have much time to develop it.

It was a very slow process of me wrangling in a few hours here and there to work on development. It was also trying to get people to learn front-end frameworks for Javascript so that we could build it in a modular way that doesn’t turn into spaghetti code and become completely unsustainable a year later. I had to convince people to learn Vue.js as a front-end development framework. We just don’t have enough technical people who could help us grow this project to its full potential.

The project has so much potential, and it gets people excited so much, but we don’t have the technical capacity to take it to the next step because it’s just me and a couple of other people very-part time right now. Everyone else who can help is in a different country and is unable to help on this.

Then, one of the scary things for me is that I don’t want this project to die after my fellowship is over. It’s always so difficult to fund anything that’s related to Palestine. In terms of sustainability and in terms of funding, I’m kind of scared of not being able to find funding for it over the long-term.

Also, if we talk about the Oral History Archives, there is the question of finding developers to help me out because I’m going to be doing it all by myself. Finding developers to help me out will be difficult. I found someone from Mozilla who was willing to do code reviews for me, which is awesome. But I envisioned this as an open source project that is sustainable over the long term.

The front-end framework that I’m using just announced plans to make another major release which breaks backwards compatibility in mid-2019, which is around the time that the platform is going to be released. That means that immediately — as soon as it’s released — the next version of the front-end framework that we’re using is going to be outdated, which breaks backward compatibility. So we’ll need to work on an update.

All of this means that the only way to make this project sustainable is to turn it into an open source project that has a lot of different institutions invested in it so that we can have a front-end developer and a back-end developer who can spend one or two days a week making sure that it’s running smoothly. A big challenge for me is figuring out how can we activate an open source community around this project — specifically in this region. We need to consolidate the power of the open community so that our projects become more sustainable over the long term, both technically and financially.

What kind of funder support would help you take your work to the next level?
We can split that for the two different projects. For the Palestine Open Maps Project, the project is not about the maps themselves, it’s about the story that they tell. How can we build storytelling tools based on those maps that reveal the nuance of Palestinian life over the long term? To do that, you need a team of three people: a user experience designer, a front-end developer, and maybe a researcher who could extract all of the narratives. At least three people, maybe more. So we would need funding for that team to sit down together and collaborate — let’s say for a year — and make this project reach its full potential.

The cool thing about this project is that it’s providing the raw data, a base that other projects can build on. In the current phase of the Palestine Open Maps Project, we’re vectorizing all of the map data. You can already download all of the data and it’s all licensed as CC0 — no rights reserved.

One of my major inspirations is the New York Public Library’s NYC Space/Time Directory, which digitized maps of New York that were made by fire insurance companies. One of my favorite geographers and cartographers, her name is Leah Meisterlin, has done amazing work on cross-referencing different data sets with the fire insurance maps data set. So, after it was vectorized by the Space/Time team, she overlaid that data with other data and she came up with this really nuanced vision of what New York looked like in the 1800s. Where the rich people lived, where the poor people lived, as well as the class distribution. It’s so fascinating!

This place where we walk right now, it used to be inhabited by people and this is what the character of this neighborhood looked like 100 years ago, 150 years ago. If I can do the same thing with Palestine Open Maps for Palestine, that would be an amazing thing for me.

One of the major goals for the oral history archival tool is that we wanted to point out all of the epistemological decisions and ontological decisions that an archivist has to make when they’re creating an archive. So something as basic as do you do transcription or do you do segmentation? It’s a big question mark because there are schools of people who are very strict adherents of one way or another of doing oral history archiving. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and there is no correct answer. Hana and I tried to incorporate those decisions in the platform.

How do segmentation and transcription differ, for those of us who are not familiar?
Transcription is when you take every single word and you write it down. With segmentation, the goal is to preserve the orality of an oral history testimony. So if you transcribe, you can read the text and you know the content, but you lost the orality — the tone, the nuance of the language, the intonation, and so on. But it’s really good for searching. You can just search for a keyword, then you find all its appearances in the text.

With segmentation you say, okay, from this second [timestamp] in the interview the person was introducing themselves and explaining where they’re from. And then from this second to this second they’re talking about the chemical attacks in Ghouta, for example. You have keywords and subject headings for each one of those segments. You don’t have a word-for-word transcript, but what you do have is an index of the content of that segment. You can still search it, but you are forced to listen to it so that you can get the texture of the sounds.

So segmentation is like a metadata approach?
Totally. I think that this platform is really useful in pointing out the decisions that an archivist has to make. We’re trying to create a guide that accompanies the use of the platform so it’s not just stand-alone software, it sits in the context of this debate in the oral history community.

How can it be sustainable on both fronts: in continuing the conversation on an intellectual level of how to archive an oral history collection, and how can we make sure that the actual code is sustainable?

Hana Sleiman is my collaborator on the MASRAD: Platform for the Syrian Oral History Archive project [website will be live soon!]. Ahmad Barclay and Hanan Yazigi are my main collaborators on the Palestine Open Maps project. With two other people we’re starting to think about how to create a collective that embraces those two projects plus our other projects around knowledge production and knowledge dissemination, especially in the Arabic language but generally around this region. I see MASRAD, which is the name of the collective that we’re trying to create, as a sustainable vehicle for the Syrian Oral History Archive project — but it’s not the ultimate answer.

Beyond the money, what would you say that the Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship contributed to your work?
The first thing that I should say is that I recognize the importance of our people to us. Bassel Khartabil, who my fellowship is named after, I was not around when he was around. I was studying in Canada. But I knew of him and everyone I’ve talked to in our community right now has had some interaction with him. His legacy is still there. If there’s one thing that this fellowship has given me, it’s access to that network of people who have similar beliefs, who have been touched by the same values that Bassel was striving towards. Access to all of the people in his community.

I’m afraid of idealizing him. Of course he was an amazing guy, but he’s not a perfect guy. He was a very active member in our community, and if you want to kill a movement, you kill its leaders. That’s what happened to the Palestinian movement in the eighties — there was a series of assassinations of Palestinian leaders all over Europe by the Mossad. Car bombs and poisonings and so on. This is what happened when we lost someone like Bassel.

What this fellowship has given me is access to that network and a chance to connect people and disparate projects together with the weight of the three big organizations that are sponsoring this fellowship: MozillaCreative Commons, and WikiMedia.

When I went to MozFest I was meeting my people! Especially Jon Phillips and Mahmoud Wardeh— he’s “@lurnid” on the internet. We had this really beautiful moment of connecting over Palestinian-ness and our desire to push for openness and for that connection in our community.

It’s those beautiful human interactions that the community has given us.

Right. It’s like, these are my people. It comes back to “I exist, we exist.”
Yeah, that’s so true.

The movement you were talking about, how would you describe it? What is that legacy?
It has a couple of aspects to it. One is the bigger umbrella that is the struggle for democracy in our region. In 2011 we were so hopeful. I can’t even tell you the level of hopefulness that was engulfing the entire region. I was living in Italy when Mubarak stepped down and I could feel it from there. Then that quickly collapsed over the next few years.

But we still believe, regardless, that the tool to accomplish our goal, which is having democratic representation of ourselves, is openness, with all of its permutations. Whether we’re talking about open source, having access to the inner workings of the tools that we are using, or whether we’re talking about open institutions, having access to archives of the state and having access to data that’s being produced by the state.

There’s an idiom in English: sunlight is the best disinfectant. So the more open that we are, the more capable we are at disinfecting our region from the corruption that is very deeply situated in it.

That’s the legacy: How can we use the tools of openness to extend our goals of democracy and participation and representation?

Those are all the questions I have for you, but is there anything more you want to tell me?
This is a lot more emotional than I thought it was going to be!

I feel you on the emotional bit! These are challenging and profound issues that go beyond one people. Your vision for what you want to achieve and your values touch everybody. What you’re discussing is very profound for everyone. As you were talking about how there’s space for everyone, I had a vision of being able to use those stories that are grounded in specific places to enter into dialogue with the people who now live there. Sharing stories can be the beginning of a truth and reconciliation process. They help people to listen to each other, make space for each other, and go forward.
One of the things that happened at MozFest, I was doing the demo at the science fair and three things stood out for me. One of the things that’s really cool at MozFest is that there was a lot of ethnic diversity. It was just not Europeans and North Americans. It was everyone and that was really cool.

Among those people who came were lot of South Asians. Personally, I feel a lot of solidarity with South Asian people because we’ve both been colonized by the United Kingdom. One of the lines that I had in my demo is, the British loved making maps. And there’s always this mutual look of recognition whenever there is a South Asian person in the crowd that I’m demo-ing to. They smile and I can catch it and there’s this moment of solidarity between us. There’s mutual understanding even if we don’t have to explicitly say it.

Only two people had a negative reaction to the project and one was this young woman. I’m happy for people to ask questions and learn from my experience, but she was asking them in a very aggressive way. Questions like, “Is it normal for people to be ethnically cleansed during a war?” It’s not normal. Even if it was normal, it shouldn’t happen! Then she was asking me all of these basic questions that showed she didn’t actually know anything about the conflict. And as she was asking me all of these questions there was this other guy who immediately identified himself as an Israeli and he kept saying things like that were denying my Palestinian-ness. Like, “Why do you call yourself a Palestinian refugee? You don’t count as a Palestinian refugee.” I said, “I have the goal of keeping your right of return to what you consider your Jewish homeland. I want to keep that. In return, give me my right of return as well. Your right of return is 2000 years old. My right to return is 70 years old. This desire to return is a mutual feeling between us and you should be as understanding of it and of me as I am of you.” That was what I was trying to convey to him, but he was very rooted in his denial of this.

I wonder if this project, if it combines with oral history, if it combines with other programs that add nuance and texture to Palestinian life, can stand in opposition to narratives that just say “Palestinians want to kill us and throw us in the sea.” If we can use all of these tools to enhance the image that Israeli Jews have of of Palestinians then maybe we can reach a solution before it’s too late.

The first step of hate speech is to dehumanize and I see your work as infusing that humanity back in by replacing the texture — by replacing the depth from mundane observations like, “From my village here, I could see that village there.” It’s memory, it’s not political. And it creates the opportunity for a bridge. Thank you.
Thank you for being a great listener.

 Photo of Majd above copyright by Cynthia Kreichati, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Posted 15 January 2019