Perhaps you’ve wondered about my bit of a blogging hiatus: I spent December 7-13 in Beirut for the second annual Arab Bloggers Workshop. The workshop, sponsored by The Heinrich Böll Foundation and Global Voices Online, with support from HIVOS and the Open Society Institute, brought together about 80 of the most amazing bloggers from around the Arab world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, for a week of workshops, discussion, trainings, and camaraderie. I was there as part of Global Voices’ Middle East and North Africa team, also known as the MENAce, and presented on both Herdict Web and my latest side project, Talk Morocco, which I founded with Hisham Khribchi (who was also in attendance).
Blogging about what I took away from the workshop is tough; there were a lot of personal takeaways, certainly, little things I learned about SEO and online campaigning. And then there were those things that can enhance my work: the importance of translation into Arabic, for example, in Talk Morocco (which Hisham and I intend to implement ASAP) to bridge gaps between the Maghreb and the Middle East, as well as an excellent review of the usability of Herdict (hat tip to Slim Amamou and Suad Al Khawaja, both of whom sat down with me for over an hour to discuss use cases).
Another important takeaway, as someone who works at an incredible Internet research center in the U.S. that has barely tapped into the Arab region, is gaining perspective on what works and what doesn’t, what’s important and what isn’t, in terms of conducting research in the region and on its blogospheres and entrepreneurial initiatives. It’s important for us to hear, with completely open ears, what we’re doing right…and what we’re doing wrong.
But the real takeaways go beyond the little things you pick up. They are the faces put to names, the networks built, the new projects formed. More than that, they are the friendships made and the lasting impact of feeling a part of something so big.
I can say this: I was one of only six or so non-native Arabic speakers at the workshop. My Arabic turned out to be not as good as I thought it was, and I was thus ashamed to even try to speak sometimes. But it didn’t matter – everyone else, so much more multi-lingual than I – made sure that I felt included in conversation, and made sure that I understood what was going on at all times (NB: I actually understood much better than I spoke, thankfully).
At the end of the workshop, we went around the room and each shared a few thoughts on our time in Beirut. When it was my turn, near the end, the floodgates opened and, like the sensitive ninny I am, burst into tears. It took me a moment or two to regain my composure, but when I finally did, all I could manage to eak out was how grateful I was for being included in such an amazing group, and how truly included I felt. Sometimes the fewer words, the better, I suppose.
And there are plenty of amazing things to come: Hisham and I will be working hard to translate essays on Morocco into Arabic for one, I’m going to help Sa’ed Karzoun get his writing on Palestine translated into English, and I’ve found interesting projects all across the board to share and get involved with.
I always feel sad when I leave such amazing people, but I’ve learned to realize that it isn’t the end…it’s only the beginning.