Brian Whitaker: "I had never really thought of it as an encyclopaedia, but now you mention it, I suppose it is. There are more than 1,000 pages, and of course several thousand links to other sites.
I'm trying to give a picture of the total culture, not just selected bits. I take the view that everything is potentially worth exploring. I really like the Renaissance idea of universality where, for example, you could have an artist like Leonardo da Vinci who was interested in science and drew wonderful pictures of flying machines. The site lets you switch instantly from politics to poetry, or from economics to art. I also try to mix "high" and "low" culture - so you can also find stuff about rai music and henna, and recipes from Arab countries.
The starting point, for any given topic, is the check what's already on the internet. If I find some useful information I make a link to it - there's no point in trying to duplicate or copy what other people have done.
In some cases I found a lot of detailed information but no coherent overall picture, so I have had to write a basic introduction which provides a framework for the links. I have done introductions to the Arabic language and literature, to calligraphy, science and computing.
I wouldn't claim to be a real expert on any of those things. I did a degree in Arabic a few years ago, and some of the information came from notes that I made at the time (the section on the Abbasids is part of that), while the rest came from additional reading. The important thing is not knowing everything but knowing how to find out.
Providing an explanatory context for these topics was really the most interesting part of building the site. You learn so much that's new, then you have to sort out the essential facts and present them in a way that people with no knowledge of the subject can understand."
Question 3: "Many cultures share the notion of a Renaissance in the way you just described it. In the Arab Muslim culture we know of Ibn Sina or al-Biruni, for example, about whom we can read in al-bab in the List of Scientists.
In today's culture, however, we almost exclusively deal with specialists, and the idea of universality seems to be ridiculed by the fact that mankind has - in the course of time - generated so many fields of knowledge that it seems presumptuous to attempt anything more than to be specialized in a very limited field. Still, I like al-bab exactly for the things you just mentioned. What do you know about your readers and their preferences? How is the feedback, and do you have steady cooperation with other people concerning al-bab?"
Brian Whitaker: "With this sort of website there's no big cost, apart from my own time. It's not aiming to make money. If I think something is worth doing I can do it without having to worry about how many other people will be interested. Today, for example, (24 April, Der Red.) I added a page about Jenin. Maybe people will look at it or maybe not, but it's still important to cover that subject.
I have created a few pages in response to readers. I used to get a lot of emails from people who wanted to know more about the site and its aims, so I created a page which answers all the typical questions in advance. For about a year I have also been getting emails from people wanting "Arabic tattoos". The usual request is to write their name or some other words in Arabic so they can get it tattooed. I think the idea probably started when David Beckham, the English footballer, had his wife's name tattooed in one of the Indian languages. Anyway, it's difficult send that sort of thing in an email and I don't really want to be blamed if I mis-spell someone's name, so I made a page about tattoos which gives some advice.
Most of the emails come from people who are planning a trip to an Arab country or working on student projects. Some of the students genuinely want help with their research, and I'm happy to point to likely sources of information if I can. But others are just lazy - they more or less want me to write the essay for them and tell me to hurry up because it has to be handed in to the teacher on Thursday, or something like that.
Occasionally I get emails asking why the site does not include a page about Israel. I explained to one man that it's because Israel is not an Arab country. He was obviously trying to pick a quarrel and wrote back saying that if that was the reason for Israel's exclusion I should mention it prominently on the site.
On the whole, though, I find the internet a very friendly place. As a result of readers' feedback I have got to know all sorts of interesting people, in many countries."
Question 4: "It is shocking what THE INDEPENDENT wrote today (25 April) about Jenin. What is your opinion about how political a website like al-bab may be, and how political it must be?"
Brian Whitaker: "In ordinary everyday conversations, Arabs talk about politics far more than we do in western Europe. This is reflected in the large amount of political content on al-bab. But I wouldn’t say that the site is political in the sense of promoting any particular ideology.
The site is essentially an information resource, so I want people to feel that they can make use of it without having to worry about whether there is some hidden agenda. Where there are disputes between Arab states or disputes in their internal politics I try to be fair to all sides. That can be sometimes difficult - if, for example, only one side in a dispute has a website explaining its point of view.
Jenin is a different matter. There is clearly a case to answer in respect of war crimes and human rights abuses, which the Israeli public relations machine is trying very hard to suppress. It’s important to counteract that, if only in a small way, by drawing attention to other sources of information about what happened in Jenin.
The site also makes a point of covering issues about human rights and freedom of speech in the Arab world."
Question 5: "I agree. It is important to make information accessible and to counter-act human rights violations. Of course you are talking here also out of your ethos as a journalist. You are the Middle East editor of the British newspaper THE GUARDIAN. As an engaged artist I share this attitude, and also I look for visions and new ideas to give people alternative frames to think about. I hate didacticizm, but can watch parts of myself having developed in such a direction. It must be the times. But maybe this is only, because I am sitting in Northern Germany. Where are you sitting, and what do you think about the times?"
Brian Whitaker: "I'm sitting in London. As for what I think about the times, well - where shall I begin? I think the times are not so much bleak as frustrating. If you take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, it's not difficult to see a workable solution. The problem is demagogues like Sharon and half-wits like Bush who are standing in the way. Perhaps that will bring Europe and the Arab world closer together.
On a more positive note, we're living through a revolution in communications which is breaking down a lot of old barriers. We have seen some effects in the Middle East already with al-Jazeera, the internet, email, etc, but that's only the start."
Anis: "Thank you for the chess interview."