How I got my first job repairing computers in Baghdad

When I was eleven, I had an Iraqi assembled computer called Al Warka (الوركاء), named after an ancient Sumerian city. It was very popular in Iraq because it was the first “Iraqi made” PC, and was cheap enough that lower middle class people like us could afford it.

Al Warka 6001

My Warka came with an Arabic keyboard, and an Arabic version of BASIC. Though I didn’t do anything useful with it, I only played games on it. One game really, Dangerous Dave.

One day, I was playing as usual and something amazing happened, a glitch that gave me 99 lives. I was so happy, I started jumping up and down. I thought I can finally beat this game. My excitement was quickly replaced with frustration after I failed on the first try, and the number of lives dropped to 50 something. Then after I failed on the second try it dropped me to a much lower number again, then finally gave game over after I failed a few more times, but not 99. I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, but I was determined to reproduce it. Now, I don’t know what troubleshooting steps kids would take here in America, but back in Iraq we would run our tongue on the visible part of the cartridge board before sticking it back into the console or the computer. I recall us kids thinking that this technique greatly improved the “connection” and performance haha. Obviously that didn’t work, so I quickly moved to plan B, which involved opening the cartridge and short-circuiting the board here and there while the game was running. Needless to say, that didn’t end well for me as I ended up frying my computer. After this, I decided to do what any kid in the world would do, try turning the computer back on at a later time, yeah, that didn’t work either.

Bab Al Sharqi باب الشرقي — Credit: Wikipedia.

The following day I decided to take my Warka PC and go to Bab Al-Sharqi (باب الشرجي), an industrial town (and a huge black market) in Baghdad where they sold and fixed pretty much anything and everything. Computers and gaming consoles? Sure. TVs? Yeah. Books? Why not. Clothes? Fake luxury watches? Car parts? Yes, yes, and yes. I loved going there because for me, it was the only way to see new, cool things and gadgets. I would literally spend hours walking up and down the Main Street just looking and exploring what people were selling. I’d haggle with some, but never buy because I had no money. Anyway, I knew exactly where I was going to take my PC to get it fixed. There was a huge, tall building on the Main Street with many IT shops and hardware vendors inside. If there was anyone that could help me fix it, it was them. I should mention that I didn’t have any money to get the computer fixed, but I was curious, I wanted to see why it stopped working, so I went anyway. At this building, there was this famous guy, Ali Al Jama’i (علي الجامعي). Almost everyone at Bab Al-Sharqi knew him, so his shop was my first stop. Ali did a quick check and determined that it was “no good” (مو زين Mo Zain-Iraqi slang for no good), and offered to buy it from me. I asked him how much he would pay for it, and he basically answered with what was the equivalent of a few sandwiches and an hour or two at the gaming shop. He said he only needed the power supply and the keyboard, and that he would give me back the rest of the “no good” parts if I wanted them. At the time, I didn’t know or understand that Ali was trying to hustle me (يقفص E-qafouss — Iraqi slang for hustle), but I didn’t like the deal anyway, so I just left and went to the next store. Same story, no good, but hey, we’ll buy it from you. At the end of the day, I had talked to a bunch of store owners and IT shops, and none of them were interested in helping me fix it, but they all were interested in buying certain parts. One of them wanted to buy the EPROM, and give me back the rest. Apparently, they were all trying to hustle me, and giving me back the “no good” parts was their way of persuading me that the computer was now worthless.

Bab Al-Sharqi, Video Tour. Click on the video for credit details.

I went back home, and tried turning it back on a few time with no luck. I was convinced at this point that there was nothing I could do, and I should just get rid of it. Then I thought to myself, why don’t I disassemble it and go back and sell all the different parts to these people. I would surely get a lot more money for it. So I did, I took it apart, and went back to the same building to see Ali first. He was amused by what I had done, and started laughing. He asked me “who gave you that idea?” I said no one, but they all wanted to buy different parts, so I brought him the parts that he wanted. He was like, listen, I really don’t need any parts right now, but if you want, I would still buy the whole thing. I declined and left, but he stuck his head out of the office and called me back. He bought the keyboard and the power supply, and told me to swing by his office again before heading back home. I agreed and went on to sell what’s left of my Warka. Everyone at the building seemed to get a kick out of what I had done, but I managed to sell them the rest of the parts and made enough money that I was no longer sad or angry at myself.

On the way back, I stopped by Ali’s office to see what he wanted. He asked if I was able to sell the rest of the parts, I told him that I managed to sell everything. He laughed and said, I want to show you something, follow me. We walked past a few offices on the same floor to his second office, which he used as a storage unit. He opened the door and showed me what was the largest pile of Sakhr Computers I had ever seen. He said they’re all dead, but I might be able to fix a few of them if I swapped the dead parts with working ones from other computers. He then said that I can come and go as I please, and that he would share with me any profit he makes from them. I ended up spending my summer break working for Ali. It was one of the happiest periods of my life.