Working together for free software: Meet Ali "Miracle" Abdulghani
In this edition of Working Together for Free Software, Free Software Foundation (FSF) Outreach and Communications Coordinator Devin Ulibarri interviews Ali Abdulghani about his unique inception into programming and free software.
FSF: Thank you for your time. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
AM: My name is Ali Abdulghani. However, people call me alimiracle, which has been my nickname ever since the time I used Solaris. I'm a programmer, sysadmin, free software activist, and poet. I live in Iraq, and I graduated from college at the end of 2015 from the Department of English Literature, and not computer science. This is because I was not allowed to get a certificate of computer science in Iraq. I am blind, and the law here does not allow blind people to obtain a certificate of computer science, nor one from any other scientific field such as mathematics or physics.
As for my blindness, I don't know what was its exact cause. But I do remember that my father once told me I became blind a year after my birth. Later, when I asked the doctors how this happened, they said my blindness was caused by pollution due to wars.
I still remember the beginning of my life with computers. A lot of people told me that the computer industry is not for blind people. They said that I couldn't use a computer, that I shouldn't even try. And, now, a lot of those people probably have no idea what I've been able to do with computers. I still have memories from when I was a child: no one wanted to play with me; they would tell me things like, "You're blind. You're different from me. Go and look for [another] blind person to play with."
FSF: That's fascinating, and your determination and perseverance is encouraging. Please tell us more about how you learned about free software.
AM: I started my life using Solaris, which is a proprietary operating system. I tried Windows for a short time and it was so strange to me -- almost like a different world. It felt a bit like I was in Alice in Wonderland, tumbling down the rabbit hole. Proprietary operating systems, such as Windows, are all the same. All of them are a big black box which you can't copy, distribute, study, improve upon, or change the underlying code of its proprietary operating system. And, if you share the software or the operating system, they call you a "pirate."
I was approximately sixteen years old when I started using free software. One day, back in 2009 when Solaris was my main system, I was using GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) and discovered that I can modify it according to my needs. I was happy with that because this was the first time I was able to read and modify code for such a large program. From there, I started thinking "Why can't I read and modify Solaris code?" I asked this question at an online conference, and a person responded to my query. She was a free software enthusiast, and she told me about free software and GNU. She invited me to join her team as a developer and suggested that I read a book titled Free software, free society: Selected essays of Richard M. Stallman. This book changed my thinking, and, gradually, I became interested in freedom for programs. I eventually moved to GNU/Linux. And to this very day, Stallman remains my hero for giving us the concept of free software.
I also try to promote and convince people to use GNU/Linux and other free software. Many people don't do it, but some give it a try. So far, I have been able to persuade around eighty people to the cause of software freedom. In fact, most of the words that I use to bring people to free software are adopted from articles by Richard M. Stallman.
Finally, in 2017, I managed to make the first free software event in Iraq and publish an article about it on my website: https://alimiracle.codes/.
FSF: In your experience, what are some of the benefits of free software over proprietary software?
AM: I fell in love with programming and computer science when I was approximately twelve years old. I was writing programs for fun and learning. I learned programming from books and programming languages documentation. Some of the programming language libraries I studied didn't have documentation, so I read the code to be able to learn it. To read the text without need for sight, I use a program called "Orca Screen Reader" to control and navigate my computer. I also use GNU Emacs. Using such programs has made my computing life so much simpler. As a blind user, I think LaTeX is something which has the potential to enable blind people to really make professional quality, richly formatted, and well-structured reports and presentations. For me, LaTeX is the one and only reason why I haven't touched a word processor in my life.
FSF: In what sorts of ways have you been advocating for free software in your community?
AM: I show the people I introduce to free software examples of the software, and how the freedoms may be used to their own benefit. For example, I often modify free software to fit certain needs, thus demonstrating to others how they may modify free programs that they use. The people I first introduce are typically using proprietary programs, which cannot be modified. After seeing such modifications on a free system for themselves, they immediately understand the basis behind software freedom. And now, many of those people are using GNU/Linux based on my initial recommendation.
I do face challenges in helping people transition completely to software freedom, though. For example, when it comes to using GNU Boot, a lot of devices don't support it. People here don't typically have good computers that support freedom-respecting drivers such as the X200, and they don't have enough money to purchase such devices. But, despite the odds, we survive with what freedom we can get given our circumstances.
FSF: What are some ways you can suggest people get involved in free software?
AM: Seasoned advocates can get involved by creating introductory get-togethers about free software and contributing to the development of core softwares for the GNU Project such as GCC.
Everyone, whether fully familiar with or completely new to free software, is encouraged to download, use, and share 100% free GNU/Linux distributions.
Have fun and be free!
Working together for free software
This article was submitted as part of the Free Software Foundation's Working Together series. Also, see Ali Miracles's profile at https://www.fsf.org/working-together/profiles/ali-miracle.