The First Linux Installfest in Iraq

by Ashraf Hasson

The Linux operating system is becoming more and more prevalent nowadays here in Iraq, which is good news. So far, however, most of us who have contact with Linux and/or UNIX are technical employees, system/network administrators and the like, although not that many programmers. Actually, it seems that such technical people are being forced to deal with Linux by their bosses and high-ranking officers. The big and mostly foreign companies working in Iraq are aware of the power open-source software offers in many aspects of computing. Iraqi national companies still seem to lack this awareness, however, and see only a small portion of the big picture that open source has drawn for the worldwide community.

Generally speaking, these Iraqi companies, at least now within the hectic security situation in Iraq, do not emphasize the morals behind the Open Source movement. Instead, they want the work to be done fast--no time or place for social activities, even if such activities might improve their chances of finding a Linux-knowledgeable person for the job. After all, community effort basically has been responsible for building people's interest in learning and using Linux. I therefore decided we should take a practical step toward drawing more attention to Linux here.

A while ago, friends and students began asking me for a course to walk them through installing and using Linux. Others asked me to come to their homes and help them with installation and setup. Installing a GNU/Linux distribution has become a straightforward procedure, but some people had fears about installing something new and different on their computers. I also saw the potential to add these new users to the Linux community.

For that and other reasons, the Iraqi Linux User Group arranged for a Linux installfest. I was delighted to be the man power behind arranging and implementing such an event. It took me a week to write a short proposal and send it to the Dean's office of Al-Nahrain University, College of Engineering, and to receive a reply with modifications on the schedule and timing. The event was set for Saturday, August 14, 2004. Saturday is the beginning of the week in Iraq, so we selected this date in the hope that many students would attend. The group members agreed that MandrakeLinux 10.0 would be the perfect installation to use for introducing new users to Linux.

The Computer Engineering department of Al-Nahrain University generously hosted the workshop, supplying a place in its computers laboratory for the installfest and the required hardware. Our installfest capacity was 15 individuals, though, due to the limited hardware available. Surprisingly, more than 30 people wanted to attend the installfest, so the workshop was extended to the following day as well.

This event happened to occur during summer courses at the university, when only a small percentage of the student community is on campus. The university lacks a mail and news system/service that connects students and faculty to the university, so the installfest announcement was hard to publicize. Final exams also were occurring on the same days as the installfest, but that didn't stop students from showing up, especially on the first day.

From August 14th through the 16th, Baghdad witnessed massive gunfire and streetfights in many of its districts, which unfortunately prevented some from attending the installfest. On the first day, I was forced to stop while in the middle of the installation, due to an urgent call from the Dean's office informing the staff and students to leave for home at once. There was no time to serve any refreshments!

On the second day, we picked up from where we had stopped, and things went along smoothly, although the alert still was on. On the third day, I was frustrated because traffic slowdowns, due to the security issue, were preventing people from arriving on time. In the end, though, I was happy with the final results. The final attendee tally was 23 people, two of whom are senior engineers who heard about our portal through a friend in England. Most of the other attendees are graduate and undergraduate students from the Computer, Electronics and Communications, and Lasers and Optoelectronic Engineering Departments.

The whole installfest basically was an experiment to figure how many people are interested in learning about Linux, and it was a pleasant experiment for me. This was the first practical event in Iraq at which attendees had the chance to experiment with things hands-on, encouraging them to install the system and start using it at home or work.

Yet, many obstacles lay ahead in the quest to move Iraq towards fully using and embracing today's technology. Connections to the outside world still are not established completely, at least not at our university. It is a shame to know that most computer departments in Iraqi universities, although directly related to the Web and its technologies, are not connected to the Internet, even though they are considered to be the main technology feed line. But with the help of many generous and kind-hearted people who have sent us books, CDs, cash and even technical support, such obstacles are being worked around.

Our LUG members still might need someone to hold their hands as they make their first steps into the new world of open-source software, they might have soft technology muscles and not harvest the results of this work soon, but we shall have a fruitful season someday for sure.

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