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Borre Ludvigsen

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The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon - January 6, 1998
In love with the Levant on the Net

By Gareth Smyth
Special to The Daily Star

Borre Ludvigsen is an architect in digital space. Which means he devises ways of storing words, sounds, photographs and moving images.
A Norwegian who grew up in Lebanon, Ludvigsen has developed the popular Al-Mashriq site on the World Wide Web extending his skills while indulging his love for the Levant.
Al-Mashriq, which is mainly in English, is packed with over 13,500 documents around 80 per cent of them on Lebanon which range from Homsi jokes to scholarly articles on geology, from pictures of the ‘Green Line’ to cooking and the music of Feyrouz. Around 200 people visit every day.
“The target audience is those living worldwide who are concerned with the culture of Lebanon,” Ludvigsen explains. “Half of the Lebanese abroad speak English, which is the language of the Net.”
Ludvigsen talks freely of ‘megabytes’ and ‘servers’. But behind the techno-talk beats the old-fashioned heart of a northern European in love with the Levant.
Ludvigsen grew up in Lebanon, coming aged just five years old with his father who was a ‘master moorer’ at the Transarabian oil terminal at Sidon, which then handled 85 percent of Saudi crude oil.
“This is where I learned to speak to other people, to think, to dream,” Borre says. “It was a happy childhood.”
For the past six months Ludvigsen has been back. Away from his home turf of Norway, he has returned to Lebanon to help establish a ‘digital documentation centre’ at the AUB.
The centre will preserve the text of books and research papers, the sounds of magnetic audio cassettes and the images of posters committing to the ‘eternity’ of digits what would otherwise perish with time. The information will soon be available on AUB’s own Intranet, and later to the worldwide audience of the Web.
After leaving ACS in 1964 (where he acquired an American lilt to his spoken English), Ludvigsen trained as an architect in Kingston-on-Thames, near London. In 1970 he went off to explore Norway his “second homeland” where he worked an architect.
His involvement in computer science, he says, came through the practicalities of building design and specification, and of office automation. “I realised a lot of the information being thrown around notes, memos, building specifications, drawings was taking place in a digital environment...”
In 1987 he was invited to be visiting professor in the Oslo School of Architecture, and transferred full-time into academia in 1990 with appointment to his current post as professor in the school of computer sciences, Ostfold College, in Halden, a town 150 km south east of Oslo.
Mixing theory and practice placed him well to grapple with the developing overlap between architecture and computing. “I work in space,” he explains, “but it is a form of space which is not physical but digital: it needs design and organisation in order to make it work. [As with ‘normal architecture’] there’s light, sound, traffic plus you need foundations, services, addresses and finances.”
The work was exciting, but Borre was never able to forget Lebanon. The war years were “utter frustration”, he remembers. “There was no way of contacting people I was very close to or of helping them.”
His reaction closely resembled that of many Lebanese people in exile. “After a while, I closed up. I didn’t read the newspapers. Watching TV was emotionally draining, so I turned off. I decided to catch up when it was all over.”
Ludvigsen set up Al-Mashriq in 1993, after meeting on the Net, naturally Berthe Choueiry from Tripoli, who was researching artificial intelligence in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Choueiry had collected pictures of Aleppo and Damascus and put them on the FTP server, the forerunner of the World Wide Web. Here were two kindred spirits in Cyberspace.
“We decided to make a server with cultural information from the Levant,” says Ludvigsen. “On Use-Net (an Internet bulletin board), we saw young Lebanese arguing about Lebanon.
“Yet when we looked for information, there wasn’t much there. We found good scholarly work like Kamal Shehadi, which a lot of people find heavy, coffee table books on the war, or old guide books,” he said. “There was nothing that showed the new reality.”
Al-Mashriq began life at Lausanne where, by 1994, the popularity of the site meant space was short.
Fortunately, Borre had at least 300 megabytes available at Ostfold College and the site with texts, videos and sound promised valuable material for Ludvigsen’s students to work on.
Ludvigsen has a strong personal input into Al-Mashriq, including 1,200 of his own photographs and his ‘travelogue’ of the first seven days of ‘Grapes of Wrath’.
In April 1996, he set foot in Lebanon for the first time since January 1970, carrying a DAT tape to create a ‘mirror image’ of Al-Mashriq for AUB just in time for the Israeli onslaught.
But the bombs did not quench his passion for the country.
Ludvigsen boasts he “can go anywhere in Lebanon, including the occupied zone although that can be difficult to arrange”.
Recently in Jbaa, he says, “we missed being shelled by five minutes”.
Ludvigsen will return in May to follow up with the AUB digital documentation centre. But he will also be continuing the love affair with Lebanon that his work allows him to indulge.
“This started partly as re search,” he says, “but if you collect information just for technical reasons, you’ll run out of steam. It’s like my father’s job, really a ship’s captain in a growing business in a country with the world’s best climate and the friendliest people.”

Al-Mashriq can be visited at

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