Lucy Knight

Geeks to take over Beirut?

Computers and robots, no longer the hidden hobby of boys in bedrooms

Lamba Labs
Lamba Labs
Geek Express
Geek Express

The world of computer geeks, if you wish to call them that, could seem as foreign as Mars to many – boys huddled over laptops or making robots out of things you can find in a kitchen drawer. It’s not the glamorous world that most of us aspire to, unless we have aspirations to be the next black-roll-neck wearing computer magnate.  But it seems that self-proclaimed geeks are planning a Beirut takeover in 2013. 


Geek Express, who describe themselves as a “hosting a space for all the new happenings in technology and electronics,” are planning a #geekinvasion. As their launch poster proclaims: “We are the wings of progress. We are the promise of a future worthwhile… We are the makers of the world. We are invading Beirut. Resistance is futile.” They recently wished an idiosyncratic happy new year to like-ers of their Facebook page: “The geek vaders have brought along what seems to be 'A New Year.' Get ready to get your 'geek on' in 2013.” And a few days ago, Geek Express staged one operation in their takeover, launching their new concept store in the government-planned digital district. So, had we better watch out?


This NOW journalist’s first foray into the world of Beiruti ‘computer geeks’ came on a sweaty summer evening in 2012. It broadly coincided with the launch by the Lebanese government of the Beirut Digital District, a bid to create a technology hub in Beirut that would plug the country’s brain drain and attract foreign investment to Lebanon. At a party for the newly-formed Lamba Labs, another Beirut-based geek startup, there was conversation about musical choices. An admission of ignorance about downloading, and a confession of a dry spell in downloading activity sparked one girl to ask, “what was the last thing you downloaded?” Barely pausing, she went on sarcastically, “was it The Beatles, or Amy Winehouse?” In this new Beirut, can we all expect a brisk put-down if we out ourselves as not knowing the value of a Mega Gigabyte?


Geek culture is notoriously clique-ridden, reputedly very elitist, and is no stranger to having claims of misogyny levelled at it (see this New Statesman article from late last year in which Tony Harris, the artist behind some of the most critically acclaimed comics in the last 20 years, rants against what he calls “COSPLAY-Chiks,” or girls pretending to be geeks.) But if places like Lamba Labs and Geek Express are planning on staging a Beiruti takeover this year, and even the Lebanese government are planning on facilitating it, perhaps some more research is necessary before we, in turn, stereotype the people (geeks) and their culture. 


In the interests of research, NOW decided to attend a couple of workshops at Lamba Labs in order to see if we would be welcomed into this excited hub of youngsters, each probably with an IQ far exceeding the national average, and to discover what it was that truly motivated them. Obviously, as evidenced by a previous Mega Gigabyte faux pas, turning up to an evening where a small group was looking at ‘C Programming,’ was jumping in at the deep end. Lacking any knowledge of what they are doing, hounding them with very bog standard ‘techie’ questions seemed to be a good option: “when should I change my Mac? How much is a battery? Where can I buy a light bulb?”


Taking the workshop is Nadim Taha, 24, a tall and friendly-faced, rather attractive man. He was over for a holiday from the USA where he’s pursuing a Masters in Information Security at Carnegie Mellon University. He loves programming so much that he agreed to help out his techie friends with an evening course. A bid to summarize what was said over the next three hours would be futile, like a non-Turkish speaker trying to read in Turkish – impossible. One fact that could be gleaned: ‘C Programming’ is the most popular language in the world.


“Warble warble….compilations assemblers….initialized to some non-zero value….warble warble.” You either have the brain for it or you don’t. Taha did say that there are obviously some things that need explaining – luckily the rest of the group already had a basic grasp of whatever it is he was saying, so NOW’s time was spent instead looking around at the people and asking questions during the lulls.


“Do girls ever come to these things?” was one. “Ha, what do you think?” snorts a despondent-looking Bassem Dghaidy, manager at Geek Express. Taha explains that the industry is male dominated and that they only meet girls in bars. The rest of the room laughs, including the one girl who was actually attending. Maya Kreidieh is a founder of Lamba Labs, along with Marc Farra, so she’s possibly an exception to the stereotype that girls don’t do geek. “It is changing,” she said.


The passion for the programming exercise, or was it a hacking exercise, is finally expressed when Taha, looking at the projection on the wall – a series of numbers and letters that make no sense to the uninitiated eye, said “and there you go, beautiful isn’t it?”


The catalyst for creating Lamba Labs came about last year after a couple of guys decided that Beirut needed its own hacker space. Bilal Ghalib, an Iraqi with a mission to create ‘maker’ spaces all over the world was visiting and gathered together a few eager young minds. What’s a ‘maker’? Exactly as you’d expect, someone who makes things. Farra, who was a computer engineering student at the time, took on the project with Kreidieh and got together with super girl geek Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits, who had the space. Since opening their doors they’ve been welcoming in fellow geeks with a passion for anything, not just objects with wires; before Christmas they hosted a cooking workshop where the simple making of omelettes almost became a physics lesson. For Farra, Lamba Labs isn’t just about computer geeks, “makers make things and this can be anything, and we wanted to create a hacker space where you hack cooking as well as making robots.” 


They’re all geeks, yes, they love their jobs and their hobbies, and this is what makes it so warm and fuzzy there. It’s definitely a new favorite hangout spot, but it’s safe to say the programming workshops will not be on my list of things to do – leave that to the pros. Meanwhile, the tech savvy young men are ready to welcome you with open arms, especially girls. 

Lamba Labs (via Facebook)

‘C Programming’ is the most popular language in the world