Center for Strategic Communication

Two people at a Beirut hackerspace prepare a screenprint, Sept. 14, 2012. The initiative that set up the Beirut hackerspace is preparing a new one next month in Iraq — the country’s first DIY fabrication studio. Photo: Facebook/Lamba Labs

After decades of tyranny, sanctions and war, Iraq has a better reputation for destroying things than building them. That’s why an Iraqi-American who’s trying to create the country’s first hackerspace believes it’ll take “irrational optimism” for Iraqis to remember they were among the planet’s first maker cultures.

“I realize the ridiculousness of what we’re trying to do,” says Bilal Ghalib, a 27-year-old geek who, in a month, will return to Iraq, the country of his parents’ birth. He wants to convince Iraqis they can reverse the brain drain resulting from Iraq’s long, searing experience with political violence and “own their world” again. It starts next month in Baghdad with a two-day pop-up hacker space, where entrepreneurs, builders and nerds can fabricate everything from a heart-rate monitor to a sense of national unity.

Ghalib runs an organization called Gemsi, a nonprofit that’s helped set up a hackerspace last week in Beirut, part of an emerging wave of DIY maker labs in the Middle East. But that wasn’t personal. The one in Baghdad is. Ghalib’s family fled Iraq for Michigan before he was born. For his whole life, the country his family came from was defined by disaster. Now he wants to help Iraqis fix Iraq.

The elephant in the hackerspace, of course, is the war. The U.S. occupation of Iraq may be over for most Americans. But Iraqis will live with its ramifications for years — ramifications that have a particular urgency now that the Mideast has erupted with anti-American anger. For Ghalib and his colleagues, the Baghdad hackerspace might not just be a way for Iraqis to rebuild Iraq. It could be a way for them to see Americans as collaborators, not just people with guns.

Ghalib’s faith in hackerspaces verges on the grandiose. “This is a globalized positivity where collaboration and sharing are ideals that are acted on,” he says in a series of Skype chats from Beirut, where he’s currently couch-surfing. He’s there because Beirut is the site of Lamba Labs, the city’s first hackerspace, supported with cash and equipment by Gemsi and established on — of all dates — Sept. 11. Its handful of attendees have used it to screenprint t-shirts with the space’s logo. T-shirts are things that can be quantified. Globalized positivity, not so much.

This is a lot of confidence to place in a DIY fabrication studio. But the prospect of creative types coming together to exchange ideas, pool resources, network and build stuff has an urgency when it happens in a war zone. While Ghalib attended the University of Michigan in 2007, he visited Syria, where he met several relatives for the first time. They had recently fled the chaos of Iraq, as at least 2 million Iraqis did — particularly the country’s professional class. One of Ghalib’s cousins asked Ghalib if he could help him emigrate to America, as returning to Iraq didn’t seem like a viable option.

But around the same time, Ghalib — a frenetic talker who practically rattles with energy — became entranced by maker culture after visiting MIT’s MITERS hackerspace. It wasn’t just a bunch of smart people seeing what they could build together; it was inspiration to him, and he wanted to know “how to take that attitude of infinite possibility” to the Mideast. After graduation, he traveled the U.S. to document over 55 hackerspaces. And when the Arab Spring started in 2011, Ghalib quit his job at a small robotics firm to start what would become Gemsi, even as he continues to work for the software company Autodesk. “I wanted to see how I can be a part of the changing tide by bringing in this concept at a time which seemed receptive for community and change,” he says.

He found it through some remarkably old-fashioned methods: searching for maker terms through Twitter, Etsy and Facebook to see if he could find likeminded people in the Middle East. Quickly, he met Tarek Ahmed, who set up Egypt’s first hackerspaces in 2009, and a crew of DIYers who run a fabrication expo called Maker Faire Africa. They had the kind of “irrational optimism” that Ghalib was looking for. And they also helped connect him to Yahay Alabdeli, who runs a TEDX in Baghdad. In April, Alabdeli brought Ghalib to his parents’ home country for the first time — and his parents thought he was nuts for making the trip. (Attempts by Danger Room to reach Alabdeli were unsuccessful.)

But as Gemsi moved forward with plans to start a maker space in Beirut, Ghalib thought about doing one in Baghdad. He heard stories from Alabdeli’s community of makers in Baghdad about building machines that could operate heart-rate monitors at hospitals without relying on Baghdad’s iffy electrical grid. None of them talked about divisions between Sunni and Shia, Kurd or Arab. Everyone around TEDX Baghdad was simply Iraqi. Just as they took pride in their designs, they took pride in their culture — one of the world’s oldest.

So Ghalib put together a Kickstarter project to fund a two-day pop-up hackerspace in Baghdad, the country’s first. The funding mission wrapped up on Monday, outraising the $27,000 Ghalib sought. And so on Oct. 15, he’ll return to Baghdad, with a space rented and security provided, to watch the studio take shape. Whatever they build, Ghalib says, he hopes Iraqis will “imagine what the hell will happen if [the hackerspace] was open all year round.”

Ghalib’s Gemsi crew might have an outsized faith in hackerspaces. But they say they know the risks of working in a country as unstable as Iraq. “We’re going to do our best to be safe in the environment, but it’s really hard. You don’t know if a car bomb is going to go off,” says Qarly Canant, Gemsi’s San Francisco-based projects and communications manager. “The longer you’re there, the easier it is to become a target.”

Ghalib is undeterred. He holds out hope that the hackerspace will rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit that once defined Iraq, which used to churn out the majority of the Mideast’s engineers. “The culture ties us not only to each other but to our common ancestry,” Ghalib enthuses. “It ties back to the days before sectarianism — an innovative, collaborative culture, a hub of science, technology and philosophy.”