West Bank Buzz: The Quiet Rise Of A Palestinian Silicon Valley

Breaking down walls
Breaking down walls
Michael Borgstede

RAMALLAH - The smiling receptionist indicates that I should take a seat, so I settle into one of the lobby's leather chairs. On a glass table, there’s the latest issue of an American business magazine and a day-old local paper. Flowery wall art contrasts with the space’s cool modernism.

But this high tech company is not in Silicon Valley, not in Tel Aviv – but in Ramallah, the unofficial capital of the West Bank that some day is supposed to become part of a Palestinian state.

But Murad Tahboub isn’t waiting around for the politicians. "The technology sector is the future of the Palestinian economy," says the CEO of Asal Technologies who appears to be entirely unperturbed by the din rising up out of the street where an ornery donkey has caused traffic chaos.

Wearing a pin-striped suit and discreet tie, he sits at his huge desk in front of a bright red wall. On the desk, aligned at right angles, are his computer, printer, phone, calculator, stapler.

Some 7,000 people in 300 companies presently work in the Palestinian technology sector, Tahboub tells me. That may not be many, but every year 1,500 to 2,200 programmers and engineers – 40% of whom are women -- graduate from Palestinian universities. "There’s no way for them all to find jobs here, and most of them are unemployed."

The 42-year-old Palestinian started his own career abroad – the first business he founded was an import-export company in Greece. In the euphoria that followed the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s he returned home to help build a new Palestine. Asal has been turning a profit for five years, he says proudly.

At Asal, 120 software developers work in a large, air-conditioned open plan office fronted by a semi-circular glass wall. Twenty percent of them are women. As we tour the premises, some of them – veiled – are taking a break in a canteen where there are different containers for garbage separation. A list that reads "Tasks, Pending, Implementation, Review" is tacked to a wall.

"In Palestine, English is taught from the first grade on," Sharif Abdeen, Asal’s head of marketing and sales, tells me, adding that it’s no secret that the Palestinians are the best educated of any people in the Arab world.

Sharif perfected his own British-accented English in London where he worked for Lloyds Bank for 13 years before hope lured him back home too. "English is also widely used at Asal because so many international clients outsource to us."

Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, IBM – industry leaders are slowly discovering the skills and dependability of Palestinian workers, says Abdeen. Also: in Palestine, a developer costs only 30% of what he or she would cost in Israel, and a team leader only marginally more than 30%. That’s interesting to Israeli companies – plus there’s no time difference, and communication is easier.

Israeli-Palestinian venture capital

The Palestinian high tech industry went into high gear in 2008 when Cisco decided to invest $10 million in the West Bank. Back then, the sector represented only 0.8% of Palestinian GDP. Today, it represents over 11%. By comparison to Israel’s $1.3 billion annual profits in the sector, Palestine’s $6 million might seem like peanuts – but since 2009, foreign investment in Palestine has grown 65%.

Yadin Kaufmann is one person who’s betting on the Palestinians. The Harvard-educated Israeli has shown sound business judgment so far. When in the late 1980s Kaufmann founded Verita Venture Partners to invest in young Israeli companies in the technology sector, many people thought he was crazy. At the time the industry barely existed, and foreign investors were wary because of the security situation. But Kaufmann was right, and made good money with start-ups that were soon worth billions.

Now the 51-year-old believes that the future is a few kilometers east – on the West Bank. Together with his Palestinian business partner, former Microsoft programmer Saed Nashef, he has amassed nearly $30 million for the first Palestinian venture capital fund, called Sadara. It’s not a lot of money, he admits, but the sector is still in its infancy in Palestine so you can get things done here with that money.

Nashef says that they’ve vetted 45 young entrepreneurs and narrowed them down to five. One of these is MobiStine, a company dedicated to the health and beauty of Arab women. They’re developing special apps for smartphones. There are over 150 apps in English for pregnant women, but only five in Arabic, says company head Husni Abu Samrah – “and they’re not good, yet Arab women have more children and have no fewer concerns about giving birth than other women.”

Also successful is Souktel, a jobs exchange focused on the rapidly expanding jobs market in developing countries. The exchange allows employers and workers to trade offers and CVs via Internet, SMS or phone. Construction companies use it to find day workers. It works as well in Palestine as it does in Rwanda, Egypt or Morocco.

But the very first Sadara million went to Yamsafer, a hotel-booking site. The Arabic travel industry is inefficient, says one of the three founders, Faris Zaher. In 2010 there were over 27 million hotel bookings -- worth $22.6 billion -- in the Arab world, yet only 2% of the bookings were made via Internet.

Saying "No" to NGOs

Yamsafer is out to change that. Their website in Arabic and English is attractively designed. Many hotels in the region can only be booked electronically through Yamsafer that combines accommodation packages with tourist-magnet events taking place in a given area, books rooms at group rates and then sells rooms individually at reasonable prices. People without credit cards, or reluctant to use them online, are referred to pay-points near them where they can pay for their package in cash – an especially important feature in rural areas of the Arab world, Zaher says.

When asked about the greatest potential danger for his company, the Israeli occupation was not his concern – it was the omnipresence of international aid organizations. "I believe that the private sector, not the organizations, is what’s going to get Palestine up and running," the young entrepreneur says. What’s more, the NGOs distort market reality: "They pay $1,500 salaries while we in the private sector can only pay between $500 and $700."

That’s one view of the occupation, but there are others -- starting with the fact that most Palestinian companies have no access to Paypal because to open an account, you need an Israeli bank account. Another consideration is travel: getting to meetings and conferences abroad is difficult, time-consuming – and sometimes impossible.

Tareq Maayah, chairman of Exalt Technologies, has adopted a pragmatic view: "We just have to work around it." The occupation is a regrettable reality that can’t be changed short-term. "But that’s the beauty of modern technology," says this polo-shirt-wearing boss back in Ramallah after working in Silicon Valley and for Siemens. "All we need is electricity and a good Internet connection. Travel is rarely necessary anymore." Nor is there any need for all the bother of snail mail, and the risk that projects get to clients late: "The software flows through the cable so we can always deliver on time."

In fact, Israeli-imposed limitations have even led to some creative innovation. Because Palestinian telecom companies do not have access to high frequency ranges, there is no mobile web in Palestine. "So 20% of Palestinians use Israeli providers," says Maayah – which is great business for the Israelis. But one Palestinian company, QNET, wasn’t about to accept this and created a wireless network across the West Bank. It is this spirit of invention that makes Maayah believe that in the future the Palestinian technology industry will make a name for itself in innovative software development.

Invitation to emigrate

But there is still a long way to go. First, Palestine’s reputation needs to improve. "It’s not easy to get company bosses to agree to outsource to a war zone," Maayah admits. And the many wealthy and well-educated Palestinians in exile aren’t exactly rushing back in droves.

The political situation aside, the reason for this is an Israeli regulation: Anybody who spends over seven years abroad has their right of residence revoked. Without bitterness, Maayah says: "It’s a demographic thing. They make it easy for Palestinians to leave but not to return."

The regulation is the reason why Andre Hawitt has to leave Palestine every three months. He was born on the West Bank, and grew up there – but he can only live here as a tourist. The head of Mixberry Media, a firm dedicated to targeted Internet advertising, says it’s not so bad: He likes to travel. But his wife gets panic attacks every time one of their kids goes abroad. "What if the Israelis don’t let them back in?"

If the boundless optimism of Ramallah’s high tech scene is sometimes dizzying, Hawitt’s is a voice of reason. Two-hundred million dollars worth of investment are what’s needed to get the thing properly up and running, and: "No way that’s going to happen." Without a political solution, growth will only be possible within limits. And then there’s the parallel economy of aid payments that foster “dependency and corruption.” Aid money flows in Palestine and corruption is rampant.

An optimist Hawitt is not. So what’s the answer? "Just get on with it and hope. It’s better than war any day."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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