The Uncommon Creativity of Bassel Khartabil

Barry Threw

The people who are in real danger never leave their countries. They are in danger for a reason and for that they don’t leave #Syria

@basselsafadi on Twitter, 1/31/2012 14:34:46, one month before detention.

In October 2010, I sat at a checkpoint on the Lebanon-Syria border, waiting for Bassel. It was late, and I’d been sitting in a nearby café, smelling of bleach but otherwise unremarkable, for nearly 12 hours. I was waiting with one of my traveling companions, Christopher Adams, who had been denied entry as a result of visa issues (“everything fine, stamps just changed yesterday”). We were part of a group of Creative Commons advocates traveling to Damascus as the last stop on a tour around the Arab world, doing workshops on free culture and open source software, along with such community stalwarts as Joi Ito, Lawrence Lessig, Mitchell Baker, Jon Phillips, and Bassel himself. It was a group from the near-future, time traveling at a second-per-second to the oldest still-inhabited city in existence, a place outside of time.

It was clear, after much whispered negotiation between Bassel and the border police, that Christopher wouldn’t be admitted via one of the usual persuasions employed to skirt the bureaucratic impasses typical for that part of the world. Bassel spent several hours on his cell phone, serially calling government offices of murky authority, but eventually it became apparent that a resolution required in-person meetings. Bassel and the majority of our crew left for Damascus, leaving Chris and me to enjoy the landscape, a sepia liminal space of Martian desert and cinder-block buildings where used washing machines and cell phones were sold. As the night wore on and nothing changed Chris went back to Beirut, and I sat while Bassel allegedly made his way back for me.

These moments didn’t stand out to me at the time, but it was here I first was affected with great admiration and respect for Bassel Khartabil, through watching his tireless commitment to his friends, and later learning of his larger efforts enabling access to knowledge, preserving cultural heritage, and fostering free creative expression. The projects he’s created and supported, the artifacts left behind, reveal an astonishing intuition for issues holding back society in Syria and globally, and a singular vision for building technical and social ways to address them. Organizing this trip to Damascus for luminaries of the open culture/free software movement was exemplary of what brings him joy: bringing his friends and colleagues together, and sharing the knowledge and experience of his home.

Bassel Khartabil was born in Syria in 1981 of a Palestinian father and Syrian mother. Although born in a culture known for its conservatism and adherence to tradition, he was raised as the only child in a liberal and creative household; his father, Jamil, a writer, and his mother, Raya, a piano professor. As with many only-children, Bassel was most at home inside his own curiosity and creativity. An avid reader, he devoured advanced books on the ancient history of the Middle East, and Greek mythology, from a young age. He was also a natural self-learner and taught himself English from a CD-ROM on his father’s computer. He was drawn to computers, helping his father research online, and learning to program in C. This fascination and facility with technology continued throughout his upbringing, fixing his family computers, learning advanced programming for desktop and the web, and joining the communities dedicated to advancing and upholding the openness and creativity that he cherished. He was raised in a place of rich history and tradition, but lives in a global world of technology; a man outside of time.

Bassel, like many of us, found Freedom within technology, and tried to share that freedom with others, but he did not yet know the cost.

If there is one thing always said about Bassel by the people that know him best, it is that he loves to share is knowledge with anyone who asks. For two weeks we lived out of AikiLab, the “hackerspace” he founded in Damascus, giving workshops and lectures, and meeting the young community that came to listen. The space was for more than just events, it was a social gathering place, where knowledge was shared, and new friends and collaborations made. Inside were computers, projectors, the Internet, all of the equipment needed to provide education and support to the nascent Syrian tech culture. But, the vital element was not the gear or even AikiLab, but Bassel himself. Even when he was confined in Adra prison, Bassel found time to teach the other prisoners English and about technology, even though they had no computers available.

But, even more than education, Bassel’s true gift is Protoculture, developing the near-future alpha versions of projects catalyzing change in cultural contexts, whether software tools, community organization, or digital art. His Aiki web development framework allowed multiple developers to work simultaneously on a live web site, while maintaining security. It was used to build still active open content projects such as the Open Clip Art Library and Open Font Library. His platforms, whether physical, social, or digital enable new projects to spring up, and the community to build on its self.

Perhaps none of Bassel’s cultural prototypes were more prescient than the work he started around 2005, with a group of archeologists and 3D artists, to virtually reconstruct the ancient ruins of Palmyra. One of the world’s most important archaeological sites, Palmyra stood at the crossroads of several civilizations, with Graeco-Roman architectural styles melding with local traditions and Persian influences. Little could Bassel know that ten years after he began, Daesh fundamentalists would be actively deleting this architecture embodying Syrian, and the world’s, cultural heritage. But his foray into digital archaeology and preservation created a time capsule that will be invaluable to the public, researchers, and artists for years to come.

Tragically, Bassel has not yet been able to complete this project. On 15 March 2012, Bassel was imprisoned by the Assad government in a wave of arrests triggered by the civic unrest pushing for democratic freedom in Syria. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that Bassel’s arrest and imprisonment were arbitrary and in violation of international law, and has called for his immediate release. For three years, he was held in the infamous Adra prison with 7,000 others, until October 2015, when he was moved to an unknown location. As of this writing, no information has been released by the Assad government on his location or condition. The #freebassel campaign continues to fight to keep Bassel’s plight in the public eye, and, ultimately, achieve his release. For Bassel, the Cost of Freedom has not been trivial or abstract, but has caused him to be separated from his community and loved ones.

We have recently launched a project building on Bassel’s original work called #NEWPALMYRA. It is an online community platform and data repository dedicated to the capture, preservation, sharing, and creative reuse of data about the ancient city of Palmyra. Released under a Creative Commons CC0 license, all models and data collected are available in the public domain to remix and distribute. The project will continue, continued by its international affiliates and advisors, until Bassel’s release, when he can accept his research position at the MIT Media Lab and carry it forward once again.

The #NEWPALMYRA project starts from Bassel’s original vision, but goes further, creating a new community around the virtual Palmyra through open calls for participation, real world development events, and pop-up art shows. A city is built in architecture, but lived in by people, and our virtual New Palmyra will serve as a nexus for creative explorations and cultural understanding. The book you are reading is one of these related projects, bringing together writings from a diverse and insightful group of authors committed to the promise of free culture. Here we create our own time capsule, a record of thoughts on freedom and responsibility from many different perspectives and disciplines, so the next generation of digital archaeologists can learn about us.

Eventually, Bassel came walking through the dark to that checkpoint, and with more whispers to lackluster guards I was on my way to Damascus. Christopher met our group the next day, and together we all embraced Bassel’s world, one of standing up for freedom, and constantly giving to his friends and community, that to this day inspires us to push further. This Uncommon Creativity, an ability to innovate and invent in the future while building on the past, is what makes him a vital visionary for the Syrian community. But, I find myself once again waiting for Bassel, this time to regain his Freedom for which he has paid so dearly.

I hope, my friend, to see you soon.