When Islamic State overran the Iraqi city of Mosul, human life was not the only thing in peril. Knowledge was, too.
Fortunately, Ameen al-Jaleeli understood this. He used a friend’s wifi to transfer a vast batch of Wikipedia files for offline usage. When the militants cut the cables in July 2016, he was ready.
“Reading gives me the feeling that I’m still a human being, especially when living under Isis, because knowledge has no limits,” he said. “Even under the airstrikes, I used to put my earphones on, listen to music and read.”
Jaleeli downloaded files in English because Arabic is severely underrepresented on the internet. Now that the city has been liberated from Isis, he and a team of student translators at the University of Mosul are setting about redressing that imbalance.
Together, they are making Wikipedia pages, academic articles and seminal works covering science, literature and philosophy available to Arabic speakers in attempt to confront lies with logic and pit critical thinking against propaganda and fake news
Just 0.6% of internet content is available in Arabic, despite it being the fourth most common language among internet users. Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB), the organisation behind the House of Wisdom 2.0 translation project, plans to narrow this chasm and democratise access to knowledge for the Arab world.
The organisation’s founder, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, grew up under the regime of Saddam Hussein. “It was kind of the motherlode of misinformation,” the 28-year-old recalls. Now he wants to arm Iraqi and Arab young people against the authoritarian regimes and extremist groups that silence diverse narratives and allow violence to thrive.
So far the organisation has added more than 2.1 million words to Arabic Wikipedia, including entries on female scientists, civil rights, religious diversity, evolution and conspiracy theories.
The response has been remarkable. Since launching in 2017, IBB has attracted more than 1 million followers to its Facebook page, and draws more than 40,000 views across its online channels a day. It has also translated books, including Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker and Waking Up by Sam Harris.
Requests are flooding in and IBB is doubling the team of 60 translators to work with six more universities across Iraq as well as branching into Kurdish and Farsi. Every week, the team posts about a different female scientist on social media.
“It’s very important to raise the understanding of people here that women can do anything,” said Shahd Shahin, 25, who recently graduated after suspending her studies for several years when Isis shut down schools and universities in Mosul.
At the time, Shahin was too terrified to leave the house, so she stayed inside, reading works about science and space downloaded on her phone. “I had my books. When I read I used to go to another world.”
Momen Mohamad, a third-year student, spends two hours a day translating articles for the project. He will be paid a small stipend but money is not what motivates him.
“I want to do something good as a person from Mosul and show the world that we can achieve things,” he said. “Going through a really tough time helped us understand the world better and look to improve our knowledge.”
IBB makes material available via PDFs, which can be downloaded for free. But on the street readers are finding their own ways to spread the word.
“People have started unofficially printing our books or distributing them via Telegram and other platforms to avoid censorship,” Mutar said.
What started as a translation project is rapidly becoming a youth movement, he added. “These are people who have every reason to feel hopeless – all they have known is war and destruction – yet they wake up every morning and translate stories about culture and diversity because they want to be part of a solution that makes their country a better place.”