An old friend

The last time I saw Toufoul was in Amman in 1998 – and, to be honest, I don’t really remember her that well. Back then I was washed up after a year in Jordan, suddenly single again, and she was one of a bunch of friends I was roaming around with, trying to keep real life at bay. It was a reckless time. Then, three weeks ago, she found me on Twitter, and said she would be flying into the UK and maybe it would be nice to catch up. It was.

I’ll spare you the personal details, but one of the things she mentioned was her contribution to Al Mashriq. That was like tying two long-forgotten friends together into one memory. Al Mashriq was one of the first websites I ever explored, way back in 1996 when I started to work out what on earth anyone was supposed to actually do with the internet.

Maghreb is a familiar term in English, used to describe the countries of North Africa; it comes from the Arabic word gharb, meaning west (i.e. of Cairo). Its equivalent, referring to the countries of the Levant – Mashriq, from sharq, meaning east – is much less familiar… not helped by the fact that the more common term in Arabic – Bilad Ash-Sham, or “Lands of the North” (i.e. from Arabia) – mixes up the compass points.

The Al Mashriq site was started by Norwegian academic Børre Ludvigsen in 1994 as a one-stop compendium of cultural material relating to the Levant (Ludvigsen grew up in Lebanon in the 1960s). Back in the day it was unsurpassed: getting any kind of online information out of the Middle East was virtually impossible, and for the best part of a decade Al Mashriq was one of my regular haunts.

However it was a mammoth undertaking, and the devil was in the updating. There’s not been much of that – the About page proudly boasts that the site hosts 35,000 documents “at the present (March 2000)” – and as a source of up-to-date cultural developments in the region, Al Mashriq has long since been overtaken (not least by the superb site Al-Bab, run by Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker).

But going back to it now, and exploring pages (and whole areas of the site) that haven’t been touched in more than a decade, is fascinating. It’s like stumbling across a dusty, old secondhand bookshop crammed with out-of-print gems. Earnestly uploaded information, lots of it hopelessly outdated, has a value of its own simply through having survived unscathed.

A 1973 tourist pamphlet of Jerash, “bought at Antoine’s bookshop, Rue Hamra, Beirut, in 1995”, has been digitized and uploaded, complete with B&W photos. Fifteen years ago, before Wikipedia, Flickr and, that was a genuinely useful resource… and, like a musty Baedeker, it still is.

Several articles from Saudi Aramco World magazine from the 1990s, each presumably typed in painstakingly by hand and uploaded, would have been rare and useful source reading. Now, the magazine has its own free online archive going back fifty years.

A blurry, indistinct satellite image of central Cairo was something to coo over, in the days before Google Earth. And it needed the warning that the full version was 300K in size – that must have necessitated a long wait for the download, back in 1994…

And so on. Loads of links are broken (though a surprising number still work) and lots of material is out of date – but there is still a vast amount of fascinating and useful stuff to browse through, much of which is not date-sensitive. And, occasionally, there is evidence of recent updating. Maps and images of the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel; recent socio-economic reports on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – and a section on the now-defunct Lebanese State Railway Company, researched and written in 2008-09 with the help of a certain Toufoul Abou-Hodeib.

Rediscovering old friends is such a joy.