Linux in Government: Jordan - A Surprise in the Middle East
Editor's Note: This article has been update since its original posting.
I stood on a street in Jerash and suddenly realized that no one ever told me what to expect. I had seen ruins before, and I had viewed photos (see Figure 1) of this Roman city. Still, I cannot think of anything that could have prepared me for the experience. Jerash isn't some pile of rocks left over after people pillaged it as a quarry, as are most remnants of the Roman era. As I looked in all directions, I saw the equivalent of a major city too large to cover by foot and ready for habitation.
When Ed White of DevIS contacted me in April to speak at last week's OSS event, I wondered if he was joking. With all the trouble in the Middle East I could not imagine why anyone would want to go there. As Richard Stallman wrote, "In late February, when I mentioned to people in Europe that I was soon going to Syria, they were worried for me". Obviously, Richard had little if any trouble in Syria. But was that a fluke?
I could have buckled under and declined, as many invitees from the US did. Instead, in spite of the propaganda on the US street, I chose to step off the plane in Amman. As with my visit to Jerash, I cannot think of anything that could have prepared me for the experience.
With one exception, you probably can jot down a few thoughts about Linux and free software, and you'll know what we discussed. The sponsor, INT@J, devoted this seminar to applying OSS to government, business, finance and academia. So, the presenters spoke about real-life scenarios and projects throughout the region. As one might imagine, sincere interest in and many deployments of Linux exist.
Although the presenters abstained from Microsoft bashing, we all were aware of the Redmond company's large footprint in the region. Someone said that Microsoft has 29 offices in the Middle East. I visited one of its Gold Partner's offices and saw about 40 busy developers working on a variety of projects for the government.
The gentleman showing me around the Gold Partner's office introduced me to one of the project managers and mentioned that I was speaking at the open-source software event. Immediately, the chap stood up and began to tell me what was wrong with Linux. When I asked him if he'd ever used it, he said he had not. Ever the diplomat, I stopped the conversation there and told him how pleased I was to meet him.
I also spoke to a number of businessmen from the region attending the seminar who are ready to start doing business now. People eat lunch later in the day in Jordan and use the noon hour for what they call a coffee break. Coffee breaks and lunches provide ample time to speak about business. I entered several conversations about real business issues, and many people followed up with me by e-mail before I returned home. I have never seen this happen before at one of these seminars, not to this extent.
Throw your preconceived notions out the window. I used to say the friendliest people in the world live in Texas. Jordanians, both Hashemites and Palestinians, convey more friendliness than Texans, along with a gentle and loving nature. Their warmth isn't a facade either. Also, I saw no evidence of a repressive religious regime. Christians represent as much as 8-10% percent of the population in Jordan. But how would one know when Jordanians themselves pay no attention to such things?
Jordanian people have an attitude of acceptance towards everyone. I asked about and saw no evidence of anyone attempting to convert people, and I saw no discrimination because of religion. One of the people I met works in a high position in the government, and she is Christian. It's simply not an issue as far as I could tell.
Jordanians also have a high level of education. Two of the people with whom I spent time attended college in Texas. Most of the participants I met at the conference either attended universities in the US or Britain. That may account for the population's fluency in English. Street signs demonstrate the bilingual nature of Jordan, English and Arabic.
I could say more about how Jordan and its people impressed me, but this isn't a travel column, so we'll move along with our discussion of ITC.