|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
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No fear of flying
Some CVs go on forever, others just astound
Profile by Samia Abdennour
When I first visited Nabil Ali at his home 15 years ago I was intrigued by two abstract geometric paintings hanging in the dining room. I was told by Nabila, Ali 's wife, that they had been painted by our host. Following his graduation he had taken evening courses at the Leonardo da Vinci institute, an interest that led eventually to a one-man show at the Cairo Atelier. It was, though, a pursuit that he had abandoned due to the demands of a time-consuming career.
The breadth of his interests astonish: he is both scholar and artist, possessed of an infectious sense of humour. He keeps a low profile and is camera shy, but his achievements are many, and interdisciplinary. The late Dr Osama El-Kholi described him as one of his "most diligent postgraduate students," Dr Yomna Tarif El-Kholi as "a national treasure."
Brought up in Bab Al-Khalq, near Dar Al-Kutub, from an early age he was encouraged by his parents to spend their free time reading there. His father, a building contractor, instilled in his children a sense of seriousness, and of diligence. But it was, Ali thinks, his mother who was the real phenomena. As a child she received no regular schooling beyond religious classes in which she memorised the Qur'an through repetition. When she was old enough to grasp matters, though, she effectively taught herself to read by comparing her rote learning with the written text. It was a case of reverse engineering: she was able to recognise words before ever having learned the alphabet.
After graduating from the Faculty of Engineering in 1960 Ali joined the Air Force, becoming the officer in charge of maintenance and the raining cadets at the Military Academy. Following the 1967 debacle General Mohamed Fawzi had decided to give the young generation its head in the Air Force. Ali was chosen to lead an expedition to the USSR to study the technology and maintenance of the Sokhoy planes. On his return to Egypt he was assigned, along with Dr Ezzat Mohsen, to logistical research on the weapons loading of MIG and Sokhoy planes.
"We worked under severe, stressful and potentially dangerous conditions. For eight months we worked practically in total darkness with mainly acetylene light. The result was my losing a knuckle, and my eyesight was impaired. I was sent to Odessa for treatment."
In 1972 the Air Force delegated Ali to head the computer department at EgyptAir. Few Egyptians at that time had any knowledge of computers and Ali was one of the exceptions, having gained experience with the new technology while studying for his masters and doctorate degrees under Dr Osama El-Kholi. "This was a pivotal change in my career. My work with EgyptAir not only gave me the opportunity to broaden my potential, but also enriched my specialisation. From being an aviation engineer working in computers, I became a computer engineer with an aviation engineering background. Engineering teaches discipline and order, while aviation is a world in itself -- it is hydraulics, mechanics, electronics, electricity, life-saving systems. In the new job I had to branch into even more fields: accounting, budgeting, administration, marketing, technical and other activities, all of which were to be applied to the computer. Apart from designing most of the accounting and technical activities I had to train the personnel to work on these programmes."
Foreign airline companies had already started using computers for bookings and reservations and EgyptAir was necessarily following their lead, though with one serious drawback, a chronic shortage of the foreign currency needed to install the necessary infrastructure here. Ali by-passed the problem by arranging with an Irish company to have reservations processed in Dublin, on their own computers, though even this procedure necessitated laying down new telecommunications strategies at a time when the whole telecommunications sector was in shambles. It lacked basic capacity: even the cables had to be laid, linking all EgyptAir offices to Egypt's umbilicus with the outside world. The success of the strategy was acknowledged when he was elected to the board of Societé Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques (SITA).
The interfaces that mark career shifts may not, at first sight, be all that arresting. And so it was when Ali arrived in Kuwait to market Atari computer games. The problem was that, demanding English, the games were never going to have a mass appeal in the Arab world.
"The best solution was to Arabise this game," Ali says, and with that simple decision came the dream of making not just one game accessible, but the whole realm of the computer. Together with Pakistani Professor Haydar of McGill University, Ali set about devising a programme that would allow for the recognition of variant Arabic letters, a necessary task before the computer could be fully integrated in the Arab market. They succeeded.
"We were the first people to have a bilingual home computer... and within a very short time the sale of computers bearing our programmes soared -- from 25,000 to 600,000 plus millions of software items," says Ali .
Work had been done on the character unit. Now a more advanced system had to be devised capable of upping the unit of recognition from individual characters to words. And thus it was that Ali became enmeshed in the morphological intricacies that would see him embark on yet another career path, that of the computational linguist.
Since 1984, and following the great success of the Qur'an programme, the first of the items of software to be launched, Ali 's goal has been to make the computer obey the needs of the Arabic language on all levels: the character, the word and the sentence.
"Initially I believed that the best way to achieve this goal was to manipulate the language in an engineering form, but soon discovered that language cannot be over engineered. It needs engineering, in the sense of governing complicated systems, but the nature of language is extremely complicated and transcends the boundaries of engineering. Language needs engineering, but refuses absolutely any abuse in dealings with it."
Ali realised he needed a stronger linguistics background and so went to the US for a year. "My time at UCLA afforded the opportunity to get rid of my linguistic naiveté," he says.
Returning to Egypt he began the task of tackling sentence units, i.e. developing programmes to allow the parsing of any given sentence -- verb, noun, complement, before adding the necessary vowel. From computational linguist, then, to computational lexicographer.
Meanwhile, he has produced two important reference works, both published by Aalam Al-Maarifa in Kuwait. The first,"The Arabic Language and the Computer," addresses, in the main, methodological concerns and the relationship between the computer and the language. "The Arabs and Information Technology," on the other hand, draws a far more general picture, stressing the pivotal relationship between culture and information technology. He is a regular contributor, too, to the Arab media, consistently providing insights courtesy of his interdisciplinary studies. He lectures -- most recently on Information Technology, at he Supreme Council of Culture, and on the philosophy of language.
His wife Nabila, one-time journalist, now helps Ali with his new project -- computer translation. He has three children, Sally, a doctor, Ali a computer science engineer now studying art in the US and Nancy, a literature student at AUC. And there you have it, art and science. Essential, Ali believes, to ensure a well-balanced person.
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