In love with the Levant on
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
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
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 AUBs 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]
theres light, sound, traffic plus you
need foundations, services, addresses and
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 didnt read the newspapers.
Watching TV was emotionally draining, so I turned
off. I decided to catch up when it was all
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
Yet when we looked for information, there
wasnt 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 Ludvigsens students to work
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
But the bombs did not quench his passion for the
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, youll run out of
steam. Its like my fathers job,
really a ships captain in a growing
business in a country with the worlds best
climate and the friendliest people.
Al-Mashriq can be visited at http://almashriq.hiof.no/
Copyright© 1997 The Daily Star. All rights reserved.