How Syrians Pioneered Digital Tools to Stand Up to Authorities

What is Beirut’s tech scene like? What are some of the most popular homegrown apps there?

There are some tech start-up incubators in Beirut. Lebanon has terrible communications infrastructure, except for a small area in downtown Beirut that has better internet speeds. But it has lots of creative human capital with an incentive to work on tech ideas that bypass the corruption that is prohibitive for many brick-and-mortar businesses.

My favorite Beirut tech idea is MakerBrane, which comes from Ayssar Arida, an urban designer, and Sabine de Maussion, a curator, a married couple we met when they had the cubicle next to my husband’s in a shared office space a few years ago.

It’s still in development. The idea is a reinvention of building sets like Lego and going to a more creative and sustainable mind-set. It’s a combination of physical and online tools that allow kids and adults to connect pieces of existing modular building sets they already own to one another. (You could combine Lego and other toys, for instance.) The online part lets people share and collaborate on designs as in Minecraft.

The idea is to let people design toys locally and for the company to make money not by selling plastic but by letting people share their designs. So kids can design their own toys and sell the designs to others. Or they can pay small fees for designs they can then build themselves with stuff they have — kind of like paying for a recipe — plus the “branes,” which are small and sent for free.

Outside your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with?

Books! Enjoying reading offscreen is increasingly important for everyone in an over-digitalized world where email and other digital communications encroach on the boundaries between night and day, home and work.

My kids, 10 and 7, spend hours reading books every day; we don’t have cable or satellite TV except in our home office for me and my husband, who is also a journalist and a researcher, to very occasionally watch breaking news on Arabic regional channels. Kid screen time is restricted to a few hours on the weekend.

The biggest challenge in trying to fit our stuff back into the smaller apartment we’ll be moving home to in New York soon is not clothes or even beautiful Middle Eastern textiles and woodwork. It’s our shelves and shelves of books. One of the biggest consolations we’ve offered the kids for leaving Lebanon, where they’ve grown up, is a promise that a few blocks from our apartment, there will be a public library.

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