E-Mail Service Handles Arabic
August 9, 2001
Hey, Lebanon: You've got mail.
A Hartford-based Internet start-up hopes that phrase is the future of the Arab community, which is just starting to catch the wave of electronic communication. The company, Alawy LLC, is pinning its hopes on www.alefbeh.com, a new e-mail service launched last week that allows users to send and receive messages in Arabic and English free.
For years, the only way Arabs could communicate online with friends and family who did not speak Latin-based languages was to make sure both the sender and recipient had compatible computer operating systems configured the same way.
Using e-mail meant downloading Arabic language programs and tinkering with each computer's finicky specifications.
And not all computers support Arabic, meaning friends in this country whose second language is English found themselves forced to communicate in a foreign tongue.
"It feels funny to speak to them in a language that is not yours," said Ahmed Alawy, a Norwich resident who, with his wife, Rachel, runs the Pratt Street Internet firm. The Egyptian native said communicating with family members back home who don't speak English was "almost impossible."
So the computer science graduate of American University in Cairo wrote a computer application to give to his friends and family that would allow them to communicate in Arabic.
Then it struck him: Why not give everybody the opportunity to do the same?
Alawy's answer comes in the form of the e-mail website, which employs Java technology that operates independently of the user's computer to eliminate the old problem of incompatible computer systems.
The site is named for the first two characters of the Arabic alphabet; Alawy said he hopes the site will be as integral for an Arabic speaker as learning the language.
"It has a good chance to improve our society," he said.
The Internet is just starting to touch the Middle East, which keeps with tradition: Western technologies usually take three years to reach the region, said Habib Zaatar, the CEO of www.zorona.com, an Arab cultural website based in Dearborn, Mich.
"In the Middle East, most of the infrastructure isn't there yet," he said.
A Western development, the Internet has been dominated by English. Estimates indicate there are 13,000 English websites for every one in Arabic.
Most of the 225 million Arabs in the world are spread around the globe, Zaatar said, noting that the average Lebanese family has at least two members abroad.
That translates into a giant community eager to stay in touch, and one that is increasingly interested in the Internet's power to keep close to kin.
"It's catching," said Rashid Barkaji, information technology director for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, a nonprofit group in Dearborn, Mich. "Everybody you ask has a computer these days."
Worldwide, Arab Internet users number 1.9 million, and are projected to total 12 million by 2002, according to a survey conducted last year by Internet Arab World magazine.
High-speed transmission lines running through Hartford made it an attractive destination for their Internet start-up, Rachel Alawy said.
"Everyone's thinking about Hartford," Ahmed Alawy said. "We're trying to be pioneers."
Although most of the site's users so far are concentrated in the Middle East, Alawy hopes the service will tie together a widely dispersed community.
"Bridging the gap to the Middle East is vital," he said. "There are so few resources."
By MISCHA GAUS, The Hartford Courant