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A cyber-platform for Arab culture

New Jersey mom's Web site gets up to 12,000 hits a day


It doesn't take more than a casual perusal of the Internet today to realize it hasn't fulfilled its potential as a global forum for popular democratic action.

Yet the dream of using its ubiquity to educate and connect people across the world through art and culture is still energetically pursued by small cyber-pockets of optimistic bloggers, NGO bulletins and, in Leila Barclay's case, Arab mothers in New Jersey.

In January 2005, Barclay started "Al-Hakawati" ("The Storyteller"), a Web site dedicated to educating Arabs in the Arab world and in the diaspora about their countries, art, culture and history. The site now receives up to 12,000 hits a day. It was featured on Radio Orient in Paris and it is now being used as a teaching tool in the Arabic department at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Growing up in the Middle East I had a great love for the region," says Barclay in a telephone interview with The Daily Star. "Leaving Lebanon for the States and then coming back and seeing it from the Western perspective made me want to highlight our culture the way that I see it."

"Al-Hakawati" is divided into two major sections, Arabic and English, the former being substantially larger than the latter. Both portions are further subdivided into categories including stories, Arab personalities, cities and countries, civilizations, art and artists, architecture, religions, history, culture and environment.

"Years ago I wanted to produce a weekly children's magazine about the Middle East; I had researched stories and I had about 100," Barclay explains. "Then with the Internet I thought I would put it online, but I had already decided how I wanted to arrange the sections."

Barclay, whose maiden name is Khoury, was born in Beirut to a Palestinian father and an Iraqi mother. She lived in Lebanon until the Civil War forced her to finish high school in London. She continued on to study at Bryn Mawr College in the U.S.

She returned to Lebanon briefly after graduating in 1982 before returning to the U.S. to marry David Barclay, whom she met while at university. The couple settled in New Jersey, where they raised four children.

"I want my children to be proud of their heritage and to know about it, and it's very difficult to know very much when you're living in the States," Barclay says. "When we have an addition to the site I am very excited about, I show it to them and they feel proud because they know that this is for them really."

But the site isn't just to educate people outside the Arab world, Barclay adds; it is mostly for Arabs to learn about each other.

"Growing up in Lebanon I knew very little about North Africa ... and the people in North Africa know very little about the Levant," she says. "With the political situation in many Arab countries, the focus in on the internal problems and the West rather than on the region as a whole."

Significantly, most of the site's visitors are logging on from the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, indicating an information vacuum within the region about the region.

"We haven't reinvented the wheel, we've just put on existing material, but now, people in the region who it seems have no way of expressing creativity are finding 'Al-Hakawati' the place for that," Barclay says.

"We get wonderful e-mails from people who would like to contribute: a Moroccan short story writer, a Bahraini poet and also sometimes some details that you have to be there to know about," she says.

"There was a historic town in Northern Iraq we had written about, but then we heard from a person who lived there who knew much more and was able to share his intimate knowledge of the town's history, so the site is really getting people in the area involved," she adds.

The site now has a section for original stories submitted by its readers in Arabic, as well as a selection of writings in English about growing up in the Middle East by notable Arab writers, including Awad Abdel-Rahim Abdel-Gader, Masour al-Hazmi, Leila Abouzeid, Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Houda Naamani.

Barclay says the site has a core team of four people, herself and three contributors in Beirut, but they consult experts on specific topics and outside editors to make sure the Arabic is grammatically perfect yet accessible.

Barclay says that for her, the most important function of the site is as a medium, "for us as Arabs to be involved in our culture. We see that when people read it and dispute what we've written and send in their own corrections, they are invested in portraying our culture."

For more information, please check out www.al-hakawati.net

Beirut,04 10 2006
Meris Lutz
The Daily Star
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