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From Issue #50 August 28, 2014

Hackerspace in the Garden of Eden

A dismantled prison in Iraq births a new creative effort.

By Celeste LeCompte Twitter icon 

Pouring the foundation for a new makerspace

In 2010 when the US Army closed up Camp Bucca, a military prison in Basra, Iraq, it left behind its structural shells: razorwire fences, guard towers, giant berms of dirt, and a surplus of containerized housing units (CHUs) where the guards lived. The site is being revamped into the 48-square-kilometer Basra Gateway, a commercial and industrial development marketed as an “innovation district.” Its main tenants are expected to be oil and gas companies, which have been flocking to Basra to cash in on the state’s high-volume oil fields and infrastructure.

One of the first projects on the site was a much-talked-about hotel, aimed at visiting oil industry professionals. Former CHUs were painted white and turned into long lines of side-by-side guest rooms, with wooden deck chairs arrayed along an open-air hallway. Not all of the former structures were used for this project, and the developer sold off its remaining inventory to locals in late 2011.

One such buyer was Nawres Arif, a 36-year-old pharmacist born and raised in Basra. Arif moved the two units onto his own property, a 160-square-meter plot of land a few hundred meters from the Shatt al-Arab river, which is fed by both the Tigres and Euphrates. Arif lives next door with his wife, who is a biology teacher, and their four children.

Along with two engineer friends — Abid Al Ridhaa and Mohammad Hassan — Arif is turning the CHUs into a makerspace he calls ScienceCamp. The two units form two halves of their vision. “In the first one, we will use our minds; the other we will use our hands,” he says. The first unit has been built out as a space for events, brainstorming sessions, computer programming, and an electronics lab. The other unit, still under construction, is intended to become a hardware workshop.

The members have adopted a motto: كن طماطة, or “be a tomato.” It’s an idiom that means, as one participant explains, “be flexible and open, so you can be a part of any dish. Do everything.”

Semi-powerless

Recently, Arif purchased a used, Chinese-made CNC (computer-controlled) mill via the Internet. He cleaned it up, repaired it, and overwrote its operating system with an open-source version that expanded the machine’s capabilities. He needs just two more things ”to make it an official hackerspace,” he says via Skype: a 3D printer and power.

“Here in Basra, there is a lack of electric energy provided by the government. We have three hours with electric power and three hours without.” Most people in Basra fill the gap by using diesel generators. According to local officials, Arif says, there are 4,200 legal diesel generators operating in the city today, and many more unaccounted for by the government, all of which belch out noxious fumes, as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

“And the noise!” Arif exclaims. “Nobody knows absolute silence in Basra. The temperature in summer is 60°C [140°F]. So in Basra, you hear either the sound of air conditioners or the sound of diesel generators.”

He doesn’t want to add one more sound to the mix. “The [oil] reservoirs in Basra are some of the biggest in the world; this makes many wars and people die, so I want the Basra young people to work in a hackerspace clean from the petrol and the blood,” he says. “I don’t want to distort the picture of hackerspace by using this device.” 

Repairing fans

Semi-automatics into ploughshares

Growing up in Basra during Sadaam Hussein’s dictatorship, Arif wasn’t a staunchly peaceful person. “War makes people tough, and life there was tough, too,” he recalls. Drawn to art, sculpture, and hands-on forms of creativity, Arif designed practical things for the world he lived in. One of his first inventions, as a teen, was a semi-automatic weapon.

The homemade gun was functional, and he built it in the narrow 1.5-meter alley behind his house using drills, manual grinding stones, and other tools that belonged to his uncle. “It was very primitive work,” he says. “Everything was made precise not by tools or [careful] measurements; it was precise because I hand-built every piece. It is very good I was too young to be used by the government. Once I grew up, I understood that war is not everything.”

Fortunately, weaponry wasn’t the only thing he was good at, and in 1996, he placed at the top of his class, qualifying to attend the University of Mosul’s College of Pharmacy, far in the country’s north. He completed his program in 2003 and took a job in Iraq’s Ministry of Health.

But his creative aspirations hadn’t faded entirely, and after a few years, he chafed at the dull, routine work. He quit the ministry and opened an independent pharmacy in Basra in 2006 with two of his former classmates. The country’s civil society (and economy) had begun to open up, following the US invasion of Iraq, and the pharmacy did brisk business. With three partners and a reliable income, Arif had more free time. Internet access improved as Basra boomed, and he became “addicted” to the Internet, he says, spending hours on sites like YouTube, Instructables, and Sparkfun. He learned about Arduino, and immersed himself in 3D animation and design.

He became involved with the fledgling hackerspace community in Baghdad, where Fikra Space opened in 2012, and started a 3D-animation business with three other designers. He also designed a 3D motion capture system, and although he failed to raise funds through a crowfunding campaign in July, he’s hoping to find other ways to move forward. He also coordinates entrepreneurial technology events in Basra. As we chat, he is preparing for an upcoming Startup Weekend Basra event.

The biggest revelation was connecting with an international community of people who shared his interests — and were willing to help him. “I learned about the DIY and open-source hardware and software [community], and the nature of their relationships,” he tells me. “It’s about people…helping each other freely.”

This kind of teamwork is something Arif says has been missing in Iraq. “Here in Iraq, everything is done individually,” he says. A history of war and conflict, combined with a highly competitive emerging economy, had damaged trust between people. He saw hackerspaces as one way to rebuild that trust and help a creative, tech-savvy generation of young Iraqis. “When people work together, one of the main results is they trust each other.”

Arif and one of his children

From water, power

Arif hopes that the Iraqi hackerspace community can tackle his biggest frustration: the noisy, dirty diesel generators. “My dream is to empower this hackerspace with a fuel cell,” he says. Specifically, an off-grid, water-powered fuel cell. Arif first heard about fuel cells in a high school chemistry course. The device his teacher described used hydrogen fuel, oxygen, and a platinum catalyst to produce energy and water for NASA’s space shuttles. “It was stuck in my mind,” he says.

A hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to create water. But the reaction is controlled using a proton membrane (PEM), a thin sheet of material that looks like plastic wrap and forces electrons from the hydrogen fuel source to flood into a ready-and-waiting circuit, where they produce usable electricity. Solar-powered electrolysis can inexpensively and cleanly reverse the process, too, to create the source elements. This kind of electrolysis is within the reach of DIYers like Arif, letting him essentially power his hackerspace with not much more than water and sunshine. 1

The technology is becoming sexy again, and Arif believes PEM technology will soon be affordable for experimentation at his scale. He’s trying to get information from a Canadian firm that makes lower-cost PEMs and from a Greek company that is using them in fuel cells, but they have been reluctant to share prices with him.

While solar panels could be an option in Basra’s sunny southern location, Arif wants power 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He insists that he doesn’t want to rely on batteries for storing power, in part because it requires relying on components and systems that can currently be built only outside the country.

But there’s also some sentiment to how his heart is set on fuel-cell technology. “It is, I think, almost like magic.”

Photo of Arif and his son courtesy of Bilal Ghalib. Other photos courtesy of Nawres Arif.


  1. In the early 2000s, when I edited a sustainable business magazine, I wrote that 2007 would be “the Year of the Fuel Cell” in an annual prediction issue. Boy, was I wrong. Nearly a decade later, we still haven’t seen fuel cell technology take off. 

Celeste LeCompte is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco and Guangzhou, China. She writes about innovation and the environment, and thinks amateurs are amazing.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
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